Ray Lamontagne talks treading your own path

Ray Lamontagne playing Bonnaroo
Ray Lamontagne playing Bonnaroo (Image credit: Michael Hurcomb / Corbis)

ACOUSTIC EXPO 2014: Famed for his mercurial folk rock sound (not to mention a similarly elusive press presence) Ray Lamontagne has forged an irrefutable reputation as one of the decade's most respected singer-songwriters.

Here the US guitarist/vocalist speaks about his early days, going electric, not compromising your songs, and why if you want to make music you should "just do it".

When did you first realise that you had the musical gene?

"I was always drawn to music and instruments, like if we were at someone's house and they had some drums or a guitar or a piano, I was just drawn to them, but it wasn't until my early twenties that I really became passionate about it... I love the acoustic guitar as an instrument and I have a very specific way of playing. It's very right-hand driven. I don't know how it happened but I've been told many times by other guitar players that it's unique."

How did you start writing songs?

"It really started from listening to records. Mostly that was The Band, Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell. Trying to figure out chords on Bob Dylan records, that's a great place to start. A few chords and you're off and running. Listening to those records, you realise there are no rules to writing a song. It could be all verses and never have a chorus. That's what's exciting about it, especially in the beginning. It's just like, 'Man, anything can be a song'."

Ray Lamontagne's latest album, Supernova, sees him take a turn into psychedelic territory. Watch the video here:

What do you look for in an acoustic guitar?

"Something that has a lot of balls when it's tuned down a whole step. I play within standard chord shapes a lot, and I play barre chords and use my thumb. I really like to get a meaty tone even if I'm tuned a full step down. That's really hard to get in a guitar. I also like to get that meaty tone throughout the whole chord and that's not easy to find either. I need a real balanced guitar."

"If you want to make music, just do it. If you want 'fame', then ultimately that means you're afraid of something, I think"

Have you ever considered playing electric guitar?

"Yeah, I'm definitely becoming more interested in it. It's an entirely different beast and I certainly don't have any aspirations to be Jimmy Page or anything, but as a rhythm instrument it's becoming more and more interesting for me."

Is there a knack to transferring from acoustic to electric?

"Electric guitar can sound really good to me, or it can sound really awful. It's a specific sound that I like; very simple, almost like someone who's just learning to play! To me that sounds better than someone who's a real wizard on the electric guitar - one or two notes in the right spot is just right. I always keep it on the simple side and I suggest that to other people too."

What advice would you give to other songwriters?

"If you want to make music, just do it. If you want 'fame', then ultimately that means you're afraid of something, I think. That's going to leave you open to other people telling you what to do. I've never been interested in that. I just want to make a living writing the songs I want to write."