Ryan Montbleau initially created a name for himself as a singer/songwriter, winning admirers with a batch of heartfelt songs and a real troubadour spirit. Over the past four years since forming the band that bears his name, the band has continually gathered up steam while becoming a fixture on the Northeast music scene. Fans and critics alike have embraced their sound, which has one foot planted in folk and Americana and the other planted in soul, which combine to create an original hybrid of music that feels fresh and retro at the same time. This is one of many balances achieved by Montbleau and company. His lyrics retain the vibe of a singer/songwriter, as they can have a philosophical bent to them or can be quite metaphorical, yet they always remain accessible and catchy. Their latest album, Patience on Friday, is a testament to this sound. The songs contained here have the ability to keep your mind turning and your toes tapping. I sat down with Montbleau to discuss his progression, the band's sound, the opportunity to play with one of his heroes, what it means to be a "political artist," and remaining true to your art. Montbleau also dissects some of his most popular songs, in this honest and in-depth conversation.
Matthew Shapiro: I wanted to start by talking about your progression, which I think is really interesting, going from a solo singer-songwriter to putting together a band and then forming a sound distinctly your own. I think everyone who hears you for the first time, the first thing that grabs them is the distinctiveness of your sound. Can you talk about that progression and how you guys formulated your sound?
Ryan Montbleau: Well, it started off in college playing kind of with the band, and then once I got out, I started getting my own thing together. Once I got out, then I really started playing on my own. It was always my own songs, and I've never been a sideman. I've always kind of been doing my own thing.
So then I had a band together with James [Cohen], our current drummer, and some other players back in the day, and then that kind of dissolved. And then I really went solo for a couple years so I could really get my act together. And I just felt really comfortable that way, and it was kind of a convenient way to leave a band situation at the time. I had a pretty good head of steam going for the solo thing, you know, getting gigs, and I had just gotten an agent and stuff. Then the band thing slowly evolved into that and around that, you know? James was running the open jam up in Gloucester every week, and he had to put together a house band in one week. It was me and his brother who played with us back in the day, Jay [Cohen], the keyboard player, and a couple other players. That was the beginning of this form of the band.
So, it's kind of like an unassuming beginning. It was like, Hey, let's kind of set up a band, and then it was like, Well, it just sounds good to play with everybody again, and so I slowly started working the band gigs into my own solo schedule. It was still mostly solo acoustic, but then we'd have a band gig here and there, and then just little by little the band just took over. We never forced anything. It was tough when we lost players or got new ones or whatever; we just kind of let it grow on its own, and we just got more and more into playing with each other. The guys just really embraced the tunes and embraced what I was doing. So really we just let it evolve on its own till it kind of took over the solo acoustic thing. And now it's all there, and now I do solo every once in a while. So it almost feels changed like that.
MS: Is it strange when you go back? I know you did that benefit show for Common Ground Relief's Hurricane Katerina efforts last week, where it was you solo. Is it weird to be up by yourself now?
RM: Sometimes. I mean, like that particular night I was freaking out, man, 'cause I had to go on after Sam Kinniger Band. I was like, Are you fucking kidding me? That's hard. Those guys are ridiculous, man. They're so good. They opened the show, not to mention Peter Prince and the Johnny Trama Unit. I was freaking out that night. For the most part, I still… I love getting up there solo. I guess I don't feel quite as confident as I used to, because I used to do it all the time, you know? I used to really have those chops together. I can still do it, and I still love it. I'll always love to play solo, but it does feel a little strange not to have the band sometimes. Then again, we're opening up for Keller Williams this weekend so...
MS: [laughs] Yeah, talk about solo chops. It's funny - just as he has found a real sound as a solo artist, it's interesting how you as a band have established your own voice. I kind of call your sound "soul folk," 'cause it's got really those two core elements up front and center. It's fascinating because they're not elements normally combined. Then your instrumentation is unique, with the standup bass and the viola. Was that something you were seeking out to do, or how did Matty [Gianarros] and Larry [Scudder] come onboard? How did that all come together?
RM: I think everything really honestly developed kind of organically. We just didn't force anything. But I've always loved the upright bass, so I knew I wanted upright. Even in our old band back in the day we had the upright. So I always sought that out. My favorite instruments are the upright bass and the bass in the organ. I don't think it's any surprise that they ended up in the band; we knew we wanted that element. Then the viola - Larry just kind of came along randomly through a mutual friend. He just fit in more and more, you know? So it's been just a process of surrounding myself with the best people over time. It's like these are the players we ended up with. And I can't say it would've been like that if I had to pick a band in the beginning, that I would have gone after these players. But these are the guys. This is the right combo.
MS: Obviously, the band is kind of a testament to the Boston music scene. Can you discuss what it's like for people who aren't familiar with the rich music scene there with the all-star open jams and the other stuff going on there and how it has developed into a nice organic scene?
RM: There's so much going on in Boston. There's so many bands, so many players. There's a lot of young people and a lot of musicians. I feel like this is a good place to get it together, to learn about music, a place to kind of put it all together. So, yeah, I wouldn't consider myself an expert on the Boston music scene, 'cause I never had to look all that far. I mean, the guys were just kind of around. A lot of us are from the same area, but I didn't know them growing up per se. I tried other players around. It's a really fertile ground for any different kind of bands forming, any different kind of players. It's all here; you've just gotta go out there and find it.
MS: Yeah, and what I think it's cool, too, is that you recorded Patience on Friday in Woodstock [N.Y.], which is also kind of this nice little magical musical town. Can you talk about that experience and all the guests that you brought in? Were they from Boston or were they Woodstock musicians? Because you do have a lot of guests on the new album.
RM: Yeah. There was a lot more than I think we realized until we listed them all out for the liner notes. We had, like, 23 guest musicians or something crazy. We didn't really seek out to do that; it just kind of happened little by little. But, yeah, the studio we went to in Woodstock is called Applehead, and it's a beautiful little farm with this beautiful, amazing studio, amazing engineer, and we felt really comfortable there. We did the last record there, so we just didn't want to go anywhere else. I think it really is a magical kind of place. It's amazing how many studios are around there, how many old musicians. Like, you know, we're in the studio one day and John Medeski just popped in, just all of a sudden came into the studio. I turned around and didn't know… It was almost like someone else was walking in. I turned around and it's John Medeski. It's like, "Whoa, hey, how you doing buddy?" There's people around, like Karl Berger, the guy who arranged the strings, who also did Jeff Buckley's Grace.
MS: That's one of my favorite albums.
RM: He lives right next door. The guys from the studio knew him. They were like, "If you need strings, just get Karl. He's the best." And he was the best. He's amazing. So, you know, there's a guy like that who's just around. Otherwise, we had a lot of the horns on the record, guys we knew from Boston, plus Bob Reynolds, a guy we know from playing with Jonah Smith. He's a great sax player known for playing with John Mayer and people. And Buddy Cage we knew from playing with New Riders, so we got him and he was right in New York City, so he was able to come up. Woodstock is kind of a big central place for people to come. The string players who came up came from New York City, Buddy came from New York City, and it was easy enough for people from Boston to come, so I guess it's kind of a perfect little place.