Songwriter and performer Ryan Montbleau enters a new chapter of his career with the release of Growing Light on April 21st. The 10-song set is bold and barrier breaking, organically blending rock, funk, soul, folk and psychedelia to create a sonic kaleidoscope where tunes like the percolating first single “Pacing Like Prince” and the cinematic title track co-exist in refracted bliss.
Growing Light is a “perfect storm” recording. The album pairs Montbleau’s most artfully crafted and sincere lyrics with vocal performances of exceptional grace and heart. The songs also benefit from the near-telepathic rapport of Montbleau and his band, which developed over a decade of touring. And those qualities are enhanced by the adventurous production of Galactic’s Ben Ellman and inventive mixing by Mikael “Count” Eldridge, who has worked with DJ Shadow, Radiohead and No Doubt.
Growing Light is also poignant and personal. Montbleau’s new songs trace the bloom-and-fade cycle of finding and losing love through the arc of a relationship. They also come at the end of a decade-long era with his band – a group who came of age together while touring the jam band circuit, where the Massachusetts-born Montbleau built his initial following.
“We knew this would be our last recording together as full-on road warriors when we entered the studio in May 2013,” Montbleau, who recently relocated to Brooklyn, explains. “That made the whole experience much more real and emotional and gave it a certain focus. We were about to split up, but not because of animosity or rifts in the band; it was all for good reasons. After 10 years on the road it was time for some people to stay at home with their families, or to try other things, or just to move on.”
For Montbleau, Growing Light is part of a creative leap that began with 2012’s For Higher, his first collaboration with Ellman and Count. Ellman — who has produced albums for Galactic, Trombone Shorty and many others — assembled a crack band of New Orleans all-stars including bassist George Porter, Jr., keyboardist Ivan Neville, guitarist Anders Osborne and drummer Simon Lott to support Montbleau. The results were a muscular and spontaneous blend of cover tunes and originals.
This time, Montbleau wrote nine of the ten songs on Growing Light. Some, like the title number, which celebrates the transcendence of falling in love over a swelling ambient-folk backdrop, are plucked from his own life. Others were developed on the road. The funky celebration “Glad” grew out of jams at concert sound checks and shines like a lost gem from ’70s psychedelic soul kingpin Shuggie Otis. And “Pacing Like Prince” flat-out rocks, with electric guitar riffs stomping over an R&B power-beat while Montbleau cants lyrics inspired by a scene in the movie Purple Rain.
The album ends with the bittersweet “Together,” a guitar and vocal performance that returns Montbleau to his beginnings as a solo artist. The song’s arrangement is a reminder that regardless of the degree of sweetness, illumination or spaced- out aural wallop that Ellman and Count bring to the album’s individual tunes, the warm butterscotch sound and multi-faceted emotional texture of Montbleau’s voice are always the focus.
It took Montbleau his first 21 years to begin to find that voice. “I was a late bloomer,” he allows. “I didn’t really start writing songs until I was in college. I’d be sitting in the back of a class in my chemical engineering program and writing poetry in my notebook. At that point, I knew something had to change.” Until then Montbleau hadn’t really been bitten by music. His father was a rock bassist who drifted from playing as he raised a family. And although Montbleau was given a guitar as a kid, and he’d peck away at popular songs like Ozzy Osbourne’s "Crazy Train” occasionally, things didn’t really catch fire. But as he attended college, he found that poetry — and by extension great songs and timeless songwriters like Bob Dylan, Robert Johnson and Bob Marley – captured the complexities of the adult life that he was beginning to experience, and Montbleau started chasing his muse. By the time he graduated from Villanova University with an English degree, the hook was set. And he became an omnivorous devotee of all kinds of styles and artists.
Montbleau began as a solo performer, appearing often on stage at the first House of Blues club in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and made his initial two recordings primarily with just his guitar. By 2006’s One Fine Color he'd
formed the Ryan Montbleau Band and was branching out of the coffeehouse and folk scene into the jam world, spending much of each year on the road.
His next album, 2007’s Patience On Friday, brought his breakthrough song “75 and Sunny,” a reflective, brightly melodic celebration of maturity. Previous to For Higher, Montbleau also recoded two live albums, one solo and one with his group, as well as the Martin Sexton-produced studio disc Heavy On the Vine – a title that reflected the musical depth, versatility and skill Montbleau and his bandmates – bassist Matt Giannaros, drummer James Cohen, keyboardist Jason Cohen, percussionist Yahuba, violist Laurence Scudder (and eventually guitarist Lyle Brewer) – had developed together on the road.
Today Montbleau continues to maintain a busy touring schedule, dividing gigs between solo shows and concerts with various line-ups of the Ryan Montbleau Band. “I loved playing with my original band and still do, whenever we may get the chance. But touring with different musicians has taught me to be a better bandleader and forced me to be a better musician,” Montbleau reflects. “Another thing I’ve learned is that as you continue your life as a songwriter and performer, you learn your limitations and grow into them,” he continues. “You learn how to push yourself to write lyrics that get as close to what you want to say as possible, or to find the right music to say it with, or to sing in a way that really carries the message in your heart. That’s where I feel like I’ve arrived today, and I’m excited to find out where I’m going next.”
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