Photo by Melanie NissenFor hours now, the denizens of L.A.’s singer-songwriter scene have been staking out spots around the Troubadour stage where the acoustics are known to be best. Just after 10 p.m., the overheads dim and the sellout crowd lists hopefully toward the microphone at stage right. When Ray LaMontagne walks out into the light, he barely glances at his audience. Instead, he swats at his hair like an unhappy toddler while gazing balefully back at his producer, Ethan Johns, who is playing drums. Finally, Johns gives an encouraging nod, LaMontagne hits the guitar strings, and all at once music roars out with blowtorch ferocity, as if the mere act of singing is his last best hope of staying alive. Critics have repeatedly noted that LaMontagne is one of those artists whose normal defenses seem to have been ripped away, and throughout his 90-minute performance he appears to skate the edge of some drastic emotional collapse. Yet, unlike certain legendary rockers who brought their devils (and often their bottles of Jack Daniel’s) with them onstage, LaMontagne never once loses control of his musicianship. Like a prodigiously talented method actor, he has found a way to channel his personal anguish into a musical dialogue with the audience. The effect is dazzling and more than a little frightening. In a purely worldly sense, Ray LaMontagne has plenty of reasons to be upbeat. Ever since his debut album, Trouble, hit the stores last September, the word of mouth on the 31-year-old LaMontagne has had the “You’ve got to hear this guy right now!” urgency that recalls the intensity that once surrounded Jeff Buckley. Still, the night before the sold-out January show, he sits alone in the restaurant of the Grafton Hotel on Sunset Boulevard, looking woeful and hunted — an impression that isn’t helped by his T-shirt, which sports a single word: JERK. When asked about the message, LaMontagne shrugs, “I guess because I think I’m kind of a jerk.” To the contrary, he’s sweet and solicitous, especially once he relaxes. Yet the pain is always in evidence. It functions partly as sand-in-the-oyster muse that fuels his talent, but also as badass demon, born of his past, that still holds his psyche in dangerous thrall. Frankly, it’s hard not to want to somehow cheer him up — like bring him a bunch of helium balloons, or possibly just hug him. Ten years ago, Ray LaMontagne was 21 years old and slogging through a dead-end job at a shoe factory in Lewiston, Maine, while struggling with bouts of depression so vicious that, when not working, he mostly drank and drugged himself with soul-bashing abandon. Then, one morning, a myth-worthy epiphany: LaMontagne’s clock radio snapped on at its usual 4 a.m., and he found himself unaccountably transfixed by the song coming from the tinny speakers: “Tree Top Flyer” by Stephen Stills. On blind impulse, he skipped work and trolled Lewiston’s record stores until he found Stills Alone, then went home and sank trancelike into the music. By day’s end, LaMontagne had grabbed onto a fragile raison d’être: He would learn to write and sing music — never mind that he had zero experience doing either. Within days, he’d sold his VW bus and bought a good Martin acoustic guitar. For the next several years, LaMontagne worked whatever odd jobs he could, immersing himself at night in the works of Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Eric Clapton, Ray Charles, Otis Redding and other songwriter legends. “Before that I was dead to the world,” he says. “A lot of days, I didn’t really want to live. But once I started listening to records, it’s like I discovered it was possible to take all that pain and make it into something beautiful.” After nearly two years of musical self-tutoring, he tried writing songs of his own. “You have to write a thousand crappy songs before you get to a good one,” he says. “But it didn’t matter, because, back then, I was just writing for me.” It took till the summer of 1999 before LaMontagne gathered the courage to play his work for someone else. “I felt the songs wouldn’t be a reality if I was the only person who ever heard them,” he says. He took a homemade demo tape to a local club owner who, in turn, began letting LaMontagne open for a few out-of-town folk acts. “At first, performing was hard for me because I’m such a quiet person,” he says. “There’s a big part of me that’s proud of myself for sticking with it.” LaMontagne’s near-terminal stage shyness was not helped by the fact that, ever since childhood, music was fused with trauma. His father was a musican/biker who vanished early from LaMontagne’s life, leaving a wake of emotional wreckage. His single mom tried occasionally for stability with other men, but mostly ricocheted from state to state with her six children, finding shelter in a series of bizarre settings: cars and backyard tents, a New Hampshire chicken coop, a cinder-block shell on a Tennessee ranch. Once, when the family stayed put long enough, the young LaMontagne took up the drums. But when his mother repeatedly shrieked, “. . . just like your father!,” the boy suppressed his musical urges. The adult LaMontagne discovered his singular songwriting voice gradually. “I used to try to sit down and write every day,” he says. “But I learned that the songs come on their own terms. I’ll be grocery shopping or wherever, and it’s like that Paul Simon song, ‘Train in the Distance,’ I’ll know that a wave of songs are coming. During that time, it’s hard for me to do anything else. I can’t stop thinking about crafting lyrics and melodies.” It was in between “waves” that a local fan asked LaMontagne to play for a company cookout in Portland, Maine, where the state’s governor heard the music and asked if he could e-mail a song in MP3 form to a friend in California. The friend turned out to be Jamie Ceretta, an A&R guy newly hired by Chrysalis Music Publishing. After hearing the MP3, Ceretta hopped a plane, wondering if this Maine nonentity could possibly be the real thing. At his first meeting with LaMontagne, Ceretta was convinced he’d struck musical gold. “Ray wasn’t at all part of the current formula,” says Ceretta. “He was outside the grid. His voice was amazing. And the stuff he was writing was timeless.” Chrysalis signed LaMontagne immediately. But rather than following the conventional route of making a demo to attract a record label, Chrysalis took the unusual step of producing the album itself, and talked star producer Ethan Johns (Ryan Adams, Counting Crows, the Jayhawks and the Kings of Leon) into overseeing the project. Johns says the decision to work with LaMontagne was a no-brainer. “Ray’s ability to communicate core emotion is almost unprecedented,” he says. “There’s only a handful of people performing today who can do that — and most of them are names that everybody knows, like Bob Dylan and Van Morrison.” The album was recorded in a brief two weeks, with LaMontagne playing guitar and singing, occasional backup vocals provided by Nickel Creek’s Sara Watkins, and Jennifer Stills (Stephen Stills’ daughter). Ceretta figured they’d quietly offer the completed project to a couple of record companies. Instead, a major-label bidding war erupted — with RCA emerging the winner. From the album’s first track, it’s clear what the furor is about. Delivered in a gorgeously ragged tenor that falls somewhere between a primal howl and a sob, the music’s emotional authority — part heartbreak, part healing — is such that it seems always to have existed. Although the title ballad, “Trouble,” is regularly grabbing airplay on alt-rock stations, there are many other standouts, most notably “Shelter,” “Burn,” “Hannah,” and “All the Wild Horses,” an elegant hymn of redemption at the CD’s close. Yet of the 10 tracks, “Jolene” is the most perfectly constructed and the most haunting: “. . . Jolene/I ain’t about to go straight/it’s too late/I found myself face down in a ditch/booze on my hair/blood on my lips/a picture of you holding a picture of me/in the pocket of my blue jeans . . .” That LaMontagne is a man actively trailed by hellhounds is clear from the album, yet the impression grows more pronounced when he performs. During his Troubadour show, when he sings the first lines of one new song, a simple, kick-ass rocker, LaMontagne’s expression conveys such distress that many in the crowd shift nervously, wondering if they’re hearing some kind of subconscious suicide note. “All my heroes have gone to heaven,” he sings, “the liars, the gamblers and the fools.” But by tune’s end, the premonitory spookiness is gone, and LaMontagne has turned the song into an unruly affirmation, howling, “So momma don’t you cry/when I’m dead and gone/’cause Jesus loves his sinners/and heaven is a honky tonk.” When the lights come up, both audience and performer are wrung out by tension and catharsis. It was, after all, just a performance. Yet, as the crowd disperses, the singer’s tour manager, a large, taciturn man who’s worked with scores of acts, confesses that he too worries about LaMontagne. “Ray’s stuff is pure to the point that sometimes it’s . . . it’s kinda scary.” Ray LaMontagne plays April 7 at Avalon in Hollywood.