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Ray LaMontagne focuses on the music

By Denise Quan, CNN
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Ray LaMontagne, musician and vagabond
  • Ray LaMontagne has a fourth studio album, "God Willin' & the Creek Don't Rise"
  • He has been nominated for three Grammy Awards
  • LaMontagne can often be found sleeping backstage or on his tour bus
  • Shy singer-songwriter says he's gotten more comfortable with interviews

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Los Angeles (CNN) -- At "The Grammy Nominations Concert Live" a gasp went up in the press room when nominees for Song of the Year were revealed.

Alongside expected nods for the Eminem-Rihanna duet "Love the Way You Lie" and Lady Antebellum's "Need You Now" was a surprise shout-out for "Beg Steal or Borrow" -- the folksy single off Ray LaMontagne's fourth studio album, "God Willin' & the Creek Don't Rise." The disc picked up three nominations that night, including Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical and Best Contemporary Folk Album.

"I didn't even know there was such a thing as a folk chart," LaMontagne told CNN shortly after the record debuted at No. 1 on that Billboard chart. "I don't really think of myself as a folk singer."

In reality, "God Willin' & the Creek Don't Rise" is a CD that transports the listener far beyond city streets and the hustle-and-bustle of modern life. It takes you to a barn in the woods of western Massachussetts, where the 37-year-old shoemaker-turned-troubadour crafted his latest masterpiece.

LaMontagne says the house was once owned by William Bullitt, the first U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union. "This was his summer place, which in essence, is just a farmhouse built in 1811," explained the soft-spoken singer. "They turned all of the connecting barn structure into this big, beautiful room with all these windows looking out over the field. It didn't feel like a studio. It just felt like making music in the living room."

Despite the distinctive rasp that's front and center on his albums, LaMontagne's speaking voice is gentle, almost shy. When he laughs, he covers his entire face with his hand.

"Social situations, for me -- it's very natural for me to be an observer. That's where I'm most comfortable. I observe things. If I have something to say, I'll say it, but I don't seek out those situations to interject myself into. That's just my personality," he said with a sly smile.

LaMontagne recently spoke with CNN about his inspiration, why you probably won't catch him stretching out at a luxury hotel while on tour and his music.

CNN: Where do you find inspiration for your songs?

Ray LaMontagne: Oh, just life, you know. I had a really interesting childhood, and I think it made me a very wise person very early on in my life. But it also was just crazy, you know. We traveled so much, and it was always one household to another, to living in a school bus, to living in someone's backyard in a car here -- just really crazy, crazy stuff. So there's a lot of stories that come from that. It was really hard growing up, but looking back on it now, I wouldn't change any of it, because it really did make me wiser earlier.

CNN: You also lived in a cabin with no electricity.

LaMontagne: I think I built the cabin when I was 24. I bought a small piece of land in Maine, and I built two small cabins on it -- one to live in, and one to write in. It was a six-year period.

CNN: Do you still have the cabins you built?

LaMontagne: Oh, they're still there. (Laughs) Yeah, still sitting there all alone in the woods.

CNN: Do you ever go visit?

LaMontagne: No. There comes a time when you just have to say goodbye to things, you know. It was an interesting, difficult, but ultimately rewarding time of life. It's time to say goodbye to certain chapters of your life and move on.

CNN: The second track on the album is "New York City's Killing Me."

LaMontagne: Yeah, any hotel room makes you want to kill yourself. (Laughs) If you've been there long enough.

CNN: Then how do you like being on the road, since there are a lot of hotel rooms you must find yourself in?

LaMontagne: Well, I skip the hotel part and I just come right to the venue with the crew, as a matter of fact. I get up early with the crew, and I load in with those guys, and I get into my dressing room, and I just hang out at the venue and skip the hotel, unless there's a day off. Then I'll go to the hotel.

CNN: So you do all your sleeping on the bus, and that becomes your home?

LaMontagne: Yeah. I sleep on the bus or backstage somewhere.

CNN: You mean if I stumbled about backstage, I might run into you?

LaMontagne: You might find me here on that couch over there, probably.

CNN: What do you do when you have down time?

LaMontagne: I do a lot of pacing, you know. I chat with the guys. We talk about day-to-day stuff, and what's going on with the show, and how we can make things a little better, a little more comfortable here, there -- or tweak something, talk about how catering is.

CNN: How is catering on the road?

LaMontagne: It all depends. Sometimes it's really wonderful. Hit and miss.

CNN: There comes a point where you could roll out your own chef.

LaMontagne: I probably could do that, but I don't want to be too flamboyant with the cash.

CNN: I read something where they said, "To say that Ray LaMontagne is understated would be an understatement."

LaMontagne: Oh, that's not nice. I wonder what they mean by that, exactly?

I just approach playing a show the way I would like to see a show. I remember seeing Willie Nelson years ago. It was just a bunch of guys making music. There's no rock 'n' roll baloney, there's no pointing to the crowd, there's no slinging the guitar over your back, you know. All that stuff to me is just so campy.

CNN: How are you feeling about interviews now?

LaMontagne: Oh, I'm much better. After the second record came out, I was having a really tough time with my life, and I was trying to work through all this stuff, but the interviews just became really tedious somehow after that. There was a lot of re-introducing me all the time. It still happens now sometimes where I have to stop an interview cold because they want to just keep re-introducing you, and re-introducing you, and to me, that just gets tedious.

CNN: Doesn't it interest you that people may be fascinated by the stories behind the music that you write?

LaMontagne: I've always thought of it like a magician, or a juggler or something. You watch a magician, or you watch a juggler doing all this amazing, crazy stuff. You don't know where it's coming from, or how they're doing it, but it wouldn't be any fun if after every trick, they told you how they did it -- if they say, "Watch: I didn't really just cut her in half. She's actually right here, these are mannequin legs and this is ketchup. Fooled you, right?" You don't want them to break it down for you, or deconstruct it. It wouldn't be magical anymore.

CNN: Some people would.

LaMontagne: I don't know. I just think it's more fun to go on the journey, you know. Hopefully, in writing songs, I can just give the songs to people, and they can take them, and they can do whatever they want, you know.