Ryan Montbleau is one of today’s top singer / songwriters who often goes unnoticed since he has never had a record deal with a major label. He has been touring relentlessly since 2003, growing a following in a truly grassroots effort by beating the streets and playing the same venues and towns over and over, while adding a few new ones along the way. The one constant is that the crowds keep growing bigger and bigger. And the reason for this is very simple, yet rare in this day and age. Ryan Montbleau possesses a power to connect with his listeners through words, in a personal and touching way. He is a true poet with a way with words that will leave you feeling like there is this guy named Ryan who tells a hell of a story and really understands you. And he does this song after song.
In April, he rolled through Rochester with his new band in support of his new release, Growing Light. Right after recording Growing Light, Ryan’s band of 10 years decided to disband and go separate ways. Ryan has since been moving forward and finding great players to support him. I had the privilege of a conversation with Ryan, where we talk about his great new album, his time in flux, and how he came out smelling like roses.
George DiFabio: I figured we would start right at the top with your latest and biggest news is your new album, Growing Light that came out April 21st.
Ryan Montbleau: Yep, I’m psyched. I mean, I think it’s the best record that I’ve put out.
GD: As far as the background, you got the news that 2 key band members were going to leave the band so you rushed into the studio to make one last recording with that group of guys. My question for you is how did you choose the songs for that album?
RM: Well we didn’t really rush in to do it with them before they left. We were already scheduled to go in and do it. We were on a tour and all this stuff gets planned ahead of time, so we were already making a record for sure. But, some of the songs were songs we had been doing on the road. Some were ideas that I hadn’t really finished yet that I kind of wanted to get together for. One was a solo tune that I had already done. It was a mix of things. I’m kind of always writing little by little so when it’s time to do a record it kind of lights a fire under me to really finish stuff. I have a ton of ideas brewing all the time and I work on stuff here and there so it’s like, putting a stamp on it and calling it a record sort of forces me to get it done.
GD: A lot of the songs on your album are in regular rotation from your live shows but there is a few that are pretty new to fans, songs like “Inevitable”, “Throw Me Away”, “Those Things”, and “Together”. Those are the more unfamiliar songs. Can you tell me a story about where these come from? Were these the unfinished gems that you finished up and polished for this?
RM: Some of them were. “Together” is a song that I have been playing on solo shows here and there so that one was done, that was a really, really personal song that’s pretty straight forward, very truthful and sad. And then “Inevitable”, like “Inevitable” and “Those Things” . . . yea, they were actually the hardest to finish in a lot of ways. They took me the longest to kind of nail down the lyrics the way I wanted them. Those songs . . . I did a lot of work on those. Hopefully it comes across. I don’t know if it comes across or not but they took a while to really just finish lyrically. But those ones we had as a band, we would just groove those things as a band. Sometimes we’ll do that and they’re not quite finished yet. There is actually another acoustic version of “Inevitable” that I’ve done that I’m gonna put out a video for soon. Some of these started as acoustic songs, and then the band turned them into something else. Like, that’s what happened to “Inevitable.” The band turned it into kind of a funkier thing. I wrote lyrics to reflect that and then “Those Things” was a song I came up with and brought to the band and, we would rehearse it. When we did this record we weren’t really . . . we didn’t plan on doing like a final record with us. We were still a band. We were still on the road. We did Bonnaroo that summer. We were on tour, you know. We were just . . . kind of putting things together like we always did, you know.
GD: Ahh, I was under the impression that you guys knew it was the end of something really good and you wanted to button down things, like it was break-up sex – like you were going in there to ring it out and leave a good impression.
RM: I mean, we knew when we went into the studio that things were gonna change. We didn’t know what that meant. We knew two guys were definitely leaving the band and we were like, “All right, this whole thing is about to change.” So we just knew. But when we were in there we didn’t look at it like, “Alright, this is our final thing,” because it had been at least spoken. People were leaving and we knew it. There wasn’t ambiguity about it. We knew something was gonna change so it sort of put our focus on, “Alright, you know, let’s just make the best record that we can,” which we always did but I just think at that point the band was really just kind of firing on all cylinders. We were really at the top of our game, you know, but in other ways guys couldn’t maintain. You know, it had been ten years. We hadn’t had a break and it was kind of crazy. But in terms of playing and writing and that stuff, we were pretty much at the top of our game. And then some of the stuff I wrote after the fact. You know, some of the lyrics.
RM: Um, I don’t really know. I honestly don’t recall. That might have been one of the ones that was definitely on the bubble. But I don’t know. I think when we went into it, and with Ben producing and doing it down in New Orleans the things we were really going for were just some of the deeper things, you know. “Growing Light” and “Never Gonna Be” and “Those Things” and “Our Own Place” – those to me have a depth and that was the focal point of what we were going for down there. We weren’t trying to make – and I think it comes across –we weren’t trying to make a party record or something. You know, there is a depth to it. And then there is also some fun stuff and some fun, kind of bouncy, kind of hopeful stuff. That’s in there too. That’s where we were as a band. But I think the focal points . . . I think “Hot Coffee” for that reason just kind of ended up on the bubble.
GD: For your bigger fans, I’d say it’s been as strange a year and a half for them as it has been for you. Obviously stranger for you, but I must say you bounce back far better than anybody would think that you would, given the hand you were dealt at the time.
RM: Yeah it’s hard. It’s been hard for me. It’s been hard for those guys. But it’s . . . it’s what had to happen and I’m thankful that it didn’t happen because we hated each other or some shit like that. You know, it happened for good reasons. It happened for love. People wanted to be with the people they love, you know, and then we just kind of couldn’t hold that center anymore. And it’s all good. We’re good with each other. That was a long road, man. That was ten years of us going crazy together on the road in a band doing two hundred shows a year. It’s a lot. So I think for that reason, it just kind of made sense for everybody to figure out something else. And that being said, it’s been hard for me to figure out, “Ok where do I go from here? Oh my God all of a sudden I don’t have this band.” But it sort of forced me to become a better musician on my own.
GD: You just embarked on a year of solitude, just you and your guitar and a whole bunch of songs. How did you keep from going crazy during that time?
RM: Well, I kind of am going crazy. But I’ve always played solo. That’s the thing – I always played solo and then I had the band and I still played solo. I was solo before the band. I was solo during the band. You know, the band kind of took over and we did a lot of that. We spent so much time on that but I would still play solo shows whenever I could throughout the year. I always do have my guitar and notebook with me. It definitely did provide some space instead of having the machine of the band to run at the time. I wasn’t forced to keep this whole big machine running because we were all making a living off of it. So it did allow me more space and I needed it. Honestly, I kind of live on the edge a little bit sometimes, just emotionally and all that. I pour so much of myself into this that I don’t leave a lot left for myself sometimes. It’s been an adventure you know. Playing with other people forced me to get better at communicating musically. It’s made me re-evaluate what I am trying to do musically and who I want to play with and all that. Change is always hard when you go through it but then in retrospect you always realize, “Wow, that really needed to happen.”
RM: (Laughs) Yeah I guess. I mean for me I’m always pouring it into songs. The main lesson is always change. You know what I mean? I’m not gonna force change but I think we would have been forcing it to try to keep everything the same. And that was the thing I didn’t want to do is replace guys and call it the same thing. I just sort of knew we had to at least call it some sort of end of an era for us. It opens up new doors. I’m psyched for where things are. People have been so supportive it’s great. Crowds are still coming out. Now it’s like, “Alright, I just gotta keep putting on good shows and writing songs.” I still feel like the sky is the limit.
GD: Every time I’ve seen you in the last year you have had a different backup band with you. Are you starting to settle into a lineup that feels right or is the Ryan Montbleau Band always going to be a rotating cast?
RM: It’s moving toward some more consistency. At some point . . . I can’t just play with different people all the time but I’ve had to experiment with different people and I’m getting amazing players but I’m starting to reign that in a little bit and it is getting more consistent. That being said, I think the days of the same one band being in the van all the time – I don’t know if it will be like it was before but it will be more consistent. But what I’m planning on is having some more consistency at a core and then maybe revolving some people in and out here and there. It’s so fun to get different flavors in there and just react and create, there on the spot.
GD: Left field question for you- you’ve got Toledo, you’ve got Chicago or Ohio, a lot of places that end in “O” but you chose Oswego as a destination in your song, “Grain of Sand.” Why Oswego?
RM: Honestly, when I wrote it I remember wrestling with that word and not knowing what I was going to say there. I think I was going to say “Winslow” but Winslow wasn’t even a real place and didn’t mean anything to me. That’s what I wanted to say. Sometimes I’ll do that. I’ll have a word at first or I’ll sing some gibberish just to have it sound the way I want it to sound so I think I was saying, “By the time we get to Winslow.” Then I actually looked at the calendar and I remember, we were playing at Sterling in 87 days and so Oswego fit because it was kind of in the area and I had played Oswego. With the songs, I want them to be truthful but it doesn’t have to exactly fit the exact truth of the moment so you have to find the truth in the song. So to find the truth in the song there, I was basically saying 87 days till we get to Sterling but I had played in Oswego and Oswego sounded better so, pretty much that’s what I meant. I remember literally looking at the calendar and counting out the 87 days.
RM: I’m always doing stuff. There will be stuff. There will be festivals. There will be things. I’m always working on stuff. I’m excited to get this record out and I’m excited to record some of the new stuff. I’m already looking at putting the next one out. I don’t know. There’s a lot of strength here. There is still a ton of people that are really excited and supporting me. I feel great about the music that’s being made and I feel better than ever just about being a musician and being a songwriter. I don’t know. There’s a lot of juice here still. For me, everything changed in 2013. I’m still trying to figure out what that means. In the meantime, I’ve been going full steam ahead and getting just amazing people to play with me. You know, I’m just going and throwing it out there and doing it the best I can. We’ll see. I can feel it coming together, and really do still feel like the sky’s the limit. I just wanna keep going. So, we’ll see.
Keep up with Ryan Montbleau at: www.ryanmontbleau.com