Gravel-voiced journeyman Ray LaMontagne's new album, "Ouroboros" (a dragon or snake that eats its own tail), has a circular structure: two suite-like halves, the first anxious and restless, the second moving toward some semblance of serenity.
Produced by LaMontagne and My Morning Jacket singer Jim James, it's a blissful listening experience — a throwback to '70s concept records by Pink Floyd with elements of gentle, British folk-rock of Nick Drake woven in. It's humble — and also exceedingly ambitious.
LaMontagne performs "Ouroboros," the follow-up to his acclaimed 2013 album "Supernova," in its entirety, at the Toyota Oakdale Theatre in Wallingford on Friday, June 24, backed by members of MMJ (James excluded). He spoke about the origins of the music and the steps needed to bring it to life.
Q: Did "Ouroboros" come to you all at once, as a sort of flash of inspiration?
A: Putting all of the pieces together came to me all at once. The writing process was the same as always. When I feel the current, I can just sort of feel it's time. I spend all day in my study. ... I open myself up to these ideas and these little bits of melodies. I follow them as far as I can and see where they're trying to lead me. It's the same all the time. It's just how it happens. I can go months ... without picking up a guitar, and then I can feel that current, and I think: Maybe it's time to make myself available to receive these ideas.
But it wasn't all coming together the same way. Each little melody wasn't leading to a song, a standard sort of form. I didn't want to force them. ... I just wanted them to sort of tell me what they wanted. They were tricky. Then I had a very restless night's sleep. I couldn't stop thinking about these melodies and things, my subconscious, and it all just sort of came together. I could see myself sitting at my desk, and all these colors — they weren't really puzzle pieces, but they felt like it. They were the melodies. They just kind of floated down onto my desk, and it all just kind of made sense, that one piece would lead into another would lead into another would lead into another, very seamlessly. There was a very circular thing happening, with two very different parts, like pulling away from a feeling of groundedness, and then returning back from a place of discontent to groundedness. That's how it felt, anyway.
Q: You handed Jim James a 40-minute demo of all the song ideas together, with the intention of having him help you flesh them out. He wanted to put the demo out as the album, but you resisted. Why?
A: The demo was really built with just guitars and voices. It had many layers of voices — my own, of course — and acoustic and electric guitars. It felt like a sketch to me. It needed to be three dimensional. It could have lived as a sketch, I'm sure, but it wouldn't have been as emotionally effective. There was no percussion.
But then we got into the studio with all of the guys that Jim brought in, and Kevin, who engineered the record. It takes on a life of its own, and that's a really special thing. That's something I didn't want to give up. I like to see what's going to happen in the studio with players, because they all bring themselves to it, and it takes on another color. Things just get that much richer. It's a surprise to me, and that's so much of the enjoyment of making albums. You have these ideas. You have the forms. You know it's good, you know it's solid, whatever it is, whether it's one batch of songs or one larger idea like this album. You know it's solid, and then there's that mystery of what's going to happen once we get in there. It's playful and it's surprising and sometimes frustrating. Sometimes personalities can grate.
This was a great bunch of guys, and Jim and I get along so well. He's very low-key, and it was just a very easy conversation, these decisions that can sometimes be cantankerous with other personalities.
Q: The call came out of the blue from the My Morning Jacket guys saying they wanted to back you up on the road. Before that happened, how did you conceive touring behind "Ouroboros"?
A: It was tough to get any traction at first, because the record release kept getting pushed. Who knows why that happens. There are all kinds of reasons, whether the venues aren't available or the schedule at RCA is just too hectic and there are other albums they need to get out. It kept getting pushed a little bit. I thought, "OK, I'll call these players and see if they want to tour this record with me," and then the record would get pushed again. Their schedules would need to get filled, so they'd find something else. It was really up in the air for awhile.
Then I heard from Jim and the guys that their schedules were opening up — at least the band's. Jim was going to take some time off. We had wanted to do this for years. We've been trying to do something together. And I have to tell you: I'm so, so glad we didn't do it, that it couldn't happen, because the timing is perfect and the material is perfect. Everything is just right, and everything happens when it's supposed to happen. ... But with the Supernova record under my belt and this one, we had a blast rehearsing. They're really sweet human beings and amazing musicians, and it's just fun, really fun.
Q: Some of the music on "Ouroboros" is pretty introspective. Is there any contradiction in your mind when it comes to playing it live with a boisterous band like MMJ? Is there an adjustment that has to take place?
A: Those guys are incredible musicians. We didn't even give it a second thought. We just played it. They bring their own approach to things, their own musicianship. If anything, it's even more beautiful. We didn't even think about it. We just got in there and played it. We didn't have to make any intentional adjustments. They're all very versatile guys, and they love the material and want to do it justice. They're professionals, buddy. We're professionals. It's all we know how to do.
Q: Does the album best make sense when you play it in order?
A: Oh, yes. To me, it's one piece of music. I love that it has melodic sections that I hope will pull listeners back, or that there will be enough of a melody that it pulls you back to it, and I think it does. I'm convinced that it works in that way, that there's enough to make you want to hear this section again. It really works as a whole, and there's no other way that we could play it.
That's why we're doing this sort of "evening with" format. I'll go out and play some songs by myself, some acoustic stuff, and then I'll take a short intermission. The guys and I will come out and play the record from start to finish, and then we'll jump into some "Supernova" stuff.
RAY LAMONTAGNE performs at the Toyota Oakdale Theatre in Wallingford on Friday, June 24, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $29.50-$225. oakdale.com.