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Published: 2012/05/19
by Glenn H Roth

Ryan Montbleau Takes It Higher

When it came time to record his latest album, instead of working with his longtime bandmates, Ryan Montbleau opted to take a risk and utilize “musicians for hire.” The Massachusetts native headed down to New Orleans and hooked up with a star-studded lineup – bassist George Porter Jr., keyboardist Ivan Neville, guitarist Anders Osborne and drummer Simon Lott – that was put together by producer Ben Ellman of Galactic. Sounds easy but Montbleau had never met or played with any of the southern fried players. However, it proved to be the perfect combination as a new album – For Higher, spawned in a two-day span, consists of original tunes and funky covers.

“All of my other studio records are with my band,” Montbleau said. “This was a way to do something different. The guys have all been really cool about it and have embraced it.”

The 34-year-old considers himself a late bloomer as he did not sing a lyric of music or take his guitar playing seriously until his senior year at Villanova. He wrote poetry and during his last semester of college, he decided to make music his life.

The Ryan Montbleau Band, which has been together for 9 years, continues to tour. The current RMB lineup consists of guitarist Lyle Brewer, bassist Matt Giannaros., keyboardist Jason Cohen, drummer James Cohen, and percussionist Yahuba Garcia.

“It’s hard to believe it’s been that long,” Montbleau said of his band’s existence. “It has come a long way. We’ve played so much and worked so hard to get better and it’s been great to feel us grow.” spoke by phone Ryan, while he was eating a salad at a Kansas restaurant.

What were the recording sessions in New Orleans like?

It was kind of surreal. Before I knew it I was in a vocal booth looking out at George Porter Jr. asking me what the arrangement of a song was. Those guys just grooved so hard and they really embraced the tunes. Going into the session, I didn’t know them as people, so there was no way of knowing how into the material they would be. But they totally got into it, nailing down the arrangements, listening to every playback and giving each other high-fives when they got it right.

They’re all such good people and really put heart into the whole thing. They just didn’t pick up a paycheck and leave. It didn’t take long before I felt really comfortable around them and the vibe was awesome.

What did you learn from some of these veterans?

I probably learned things from them that I’m not even aware of yet. Definitely the importance of having the arrangements down firm. And on a deeper level, I think it made me more confident in what I’m doing. Like, “OK, I have something to offer here and I can hang with these guys.”

Tell me about Ben Ellman as a producer.

Ben’s such a cool dude and has amazing perspective on music. He put the session together and got all those guys to play on it, so I sort of owe it all to Ben. In the studio, he would give some direction, but with those guys playing the way they can, I would say he mostly just let the magic happen. But then Ben added a bunch of magic of his own in the editing and mixing, after the fact. He also helped narrow down the material heading in. My main concern and worry was what material I would be bringing, but it definitely all worked out.

How did you go about selecting the songs covered on the album?

Me, Ben, and my manager Dave had an email discussion for weeks and we would send each other video clips of songs that we liked. It was cool, those guys dug up a ton of stuff that I had never heard before, including Eddie Hinton tunes and some of the other songs that made the record. There was a Marvin Gaye song and even a Crowded House tune that we didn’t end up doing, but I’m so happy with the covers that we ended up with.

Was there any cover song that you felt a strong connection to?

I felt strongly about “Heartbreak Road.” I’ve been through all that stuff and have written a lot of heartbreak songs. I felt qualified to sing that one.

What can you tell your fans about the original tunes on the record? For instance,“Away We Go”

This one is a little more produced than most of the other songs on the record. Ben working his magic. This was actually recorded in the session as an entirely different song. What the guys played was great, but it didn’t fit with the vibe of what I was originally singing. So we scrapped the vocals and I went back and wrote different lyrics for it. Definitely a different way for me to work but I love the way it came out.

“Head Above Water”

I’ve been playing that song with my own band for a while. It was also one of the first tunes I’ve written where I knew how I wanted the bass line and the other instruments to sound. But of course in the process of putting the song together it came out differently than what I had it in my head. And that’s for the better. Anders is just so swampy and nasty on it.

What’s the song about?

It’s a reflection of what I feel going on all over these days. Seems like everybody you know is working so hard just to stay afloat.

“Burning and Hiding.”

I co-wrote that song with Eric Krasno (Soulive) based off a bass line that our bass player Matty had come up with. I went to Eric’s studio in Brooklyn and he whipped together a great demo track of it before my very eyes. Only thing was, it did sound a lot like a Meters tune. Now I had to bring that track to George, who is in the Meters. But once we recorded it in New Orleans, the song changed around some and I added another change. Those guys just did their thing on it, which is so damn funky. We got out of the control room and George says, ‘That’s some greasy …….’ Probably the coolest thing anyone has ever said to me.

The song is basically about dudes who get too stoned to dance. The guy is at some kind of club or show leaning up against the wall. I see tons of girls at my shows dancing and so often the dudes aren’t dancing with them. Maybe they’re all burning and hiding against the wall.

“Just Perfect” Is this about an ex-girlfriend?

Definitely, I wrote that song years ago, probably wrote it eight years ago. It’s a very personal song and people still ask me to play that one. I never recorded it in the studio before and figured we could do a soulful version of it.

“Dead Set”

To me it’s similar to “Head above Water” as I wrote it around the same time. It’s about how everyone gets lost in their own head. You can observe yourself thinking. How amazing is that? The real you is not your thoughts, it’s the one behind your thoughts.

“Full Grown Man” Is this about you?

It’s little bit of me and some different people that I’ve known.

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