Ray LaMontagne's 2010 album, God Willin' & the Creek Don't Rise, may have won a Grammy award for Best Contemporary Folk Album, but I'd refute that narrow categorization. It's an album of honest songs, real performances, and some real feelings. Ray self-produced the album, but he brought in Ryan Freeland as the recorder and mixer. I had the opportunity to join a group of attendees at a Welcome to 1979 Recording Summit, where we had a listening party (off 180 gram vinyl) and then a live interview with Ryan to discuss the making of this fine album.
So God Willin'... came out in 2011?
Yeah, we recorded it in March of 2010.
Where was it recorded?
It's all one room. Ray bought the former ambassador to Russia's [William C. Bullitt] old farmhouse in Ashfield, Massachusetts. There's a 'great room' the size of a barn, and that's where we did it [The Big Room at Apple Hill]. It was all plaster walls and wood flooring. Ray wanted to be in the middle of the room, where he could look at everybody. I put the drums [Jay Bellerose] right in front of him, Greg Leisz [steel, guitars, etc.] to his right, Eric Heywood [steel, guitars] to his left, and Jennifer Condos, the bass player, sat on the floor. That last track, "Devil's in the Jukebox" was the first track we cut. That's a big track. I was shitting my pants because I'd brought all my gear out, and getting it set up was hard. I was like, "Okay, let's start slow. Maybe we should tent the drums a little bit." They pull out "Devil's in the Jukebox" and it was sink or swim! I thought, "Either this room is going to make a recording that's great, or I've made a really bad decision to agree to do this."
Is that completely live?
There are a lot of edits, but they're all edits between live takes. No click.
[laughter] Yeah right. Pro Tools is the most fabulous random access editing system ever devised. The idea that you'd need a grid, or need somebody to be like, "There's the beat," is ludicrous. You can see it! It's all there, and you can move it wherever you want. Wherever the beat drops and feels right is where the groove is.
What gear did you bring out there?
I had to bring my whole studio, including mic stands and headphones.
You live in Los Angeles?
Yeah. Now it's even more mobile. I've got six big racks: two compressor racks, a pre rack. A Pro Tools rig with all Apogee I/O. It's like a 32-channel console, done in a mobile system. But back then, because I was moving it myself, I had it all on eight-space racks because that was as much as I could carry and load in my car. The records I was doing couldn't afford cartage at that time. I had it all in these racks I was moving around. I'd go to Joe Henry's house, or I'd go to somebody's closet. Wherever somebody needed a studio. Ray called and said he wanted to do it at his house. So the truck showed up, and I watched my life's investments get loaded in. Just the mics alone...
Audience: Do you do a lot of recordings this way, where you go somewhere else to make a record?
I do it, but not as much. This was the biggest, because it was all the way across the country. But I do take it to Joe Henry's house a lot, which is half an hour away. It seems silly. Every time I do it, I ask myself why I'm ripping apart a perfectly good studio to move it 30 minutes down the street and spend a whole day setting it back up again. But I love Joe, and that's what he wants to do. It gets me out of the house. I didn't have nearly all the mics I have now, but I had some pretty good ones, even back then. I invested in mics. I feel microphones are the hardest modern gear to replace. The boutique pres and compressors have a great vibe, but when it comes to reissues of old microphones, the old ones sound better to me, so I've bought a lot of vintage microphones. I've had a few too many really obscure and cool pres and compressors die on me in the middle of a take. If a microphone dies, it dies in a different way than a compressor will. If a compressor craps out in the middle of the take, it's really ruined.
What mics did you bring out for Ray's record, at that point?
I had my [Neumann] M 49. I used that and a...