Ryan Montbleau lets the music take him higher
ASPEN – Ryan Montbleau generally doesn’t put tight boundaries on his music, as he touches on reggae, folk, R&B and blues. But he has put one self-imposed restriction on his writing.”I’ve had to stop using the word ‘sunshine’ because I’ve used it so much in my songs,” the 34-year-old said from Cambridge, Mass., some 25 miles from his home in Lawrence. The prohibition against the word only sort of applies to Montbleau’s last album: The live recording, released last year, included the song “75 and Sunny.” And the album was titled “Live From Life Is Good,” which might not have any variations of the S-word but is about as sunny a title as can be imagined. Montbleau has had intimate experience with the connection between music and lighter emotions. In his early years as a student at Villanova, Montbleau wasn’t seeing the bright side of life. “I was really depressed a couple of years,” he said. “I was sad and really quiet – almost mute to everybody but my closest friends. Taking a brooding walk and writing poetry made more sense than having a conversation.”Music to the rescue. From the age of 9, Montbleau had fooled around with a guitar given to him by his father, who was something of a singer. But at college, he had his eye on his roommate’s guitar, a much finer instrument. Montbleau got hooked.”All I wanted to do was play and play and play. And that made me feel better,” he said. “I listened to blues, wrote a lot of poetry. It was such an emotional time, and certain songs (he names Lenny Kravitz’s ‘Heaven Help’) would resonate so much. Music just made sense. I felt music so deeply.”Montbleau was, in those early years, shy about playing guitar in front of anyone and way too shy to actually sing for an audience. But eventually he got in a college band and, while listening to the band Sublime, commented to his bandmates that he thought he could sing like that. His colleagues encouraged him to go for it. “I started to sing, and everything was perfect,” he recalled. Montbleau switched majors from chemical engineering to English.”I was writing poems in back of chemistry class,” he said. “Something had to give.”After graduation, in 1999, he headed straight to the House of Blues. It was the original House of Blues, in Cambridge – a 230-seat club on Harvard Square – and Montbleau was hardly the headlining act. In fact, he was a club employee, working in the ticket office and as a barback. But it was another step on his road to happiness, and on his road to being a musician.”I needed that to kind of learn, see what went on, the reality of touring bands,” he said.By 2003, Montbleau was doing nothing but music – which meant taking any gig that came his way.”Sports bars, in the street, TGI Friday’s,” he said. But his soul-drenched voice started taking him places. He put together a six-piece group and in 2006 released “One Fine Color,” the first album credited to the Ryan Montbleau Band. The band has grown steadily in popularity, with two more albums and appearances at such major festivals as Connecticut’s Gathering of the Vibes – where they have played on their own and as the backing band for singer Martin Sexton, who produced their 2010 album, “Heavy on the Vine” – and Florida’s Suwanee Springfest, where they play next week.Montbleau made his first visit to the music mecca of New Orleans during his less stable years, and it was too much to handle. “It was just 18 hours, on a road trip with my girlfriend,” he said. “I said, ‘Man, I’ve got to get the hell out of here.’ It was just too much.”Montbleau hasn’t spent a huge amount of time in New Orleans since. He’s made a few club appearances during Jazzfest and once appeared on the main stage, backing Sexton. But he has developed a songwriting partnership with rising New Orleans star Trombone Shorty, and Ben Ellman, the saxophonist from Galactic and producer of Trombone Shorty’s “Backatown” album, arranged for Montbleau to spend some quality time in Louisiana.”He saw my lyrics and said, ‘Why don’t you go down and write some more songs?'” Montbleau said. “It wasn’t like, ‘I need to make a record in New Orleans.’ The stars just kind of aligned.”Montbleau had an all-star band waiting for him by the bayou. Ellman had gathered bassist George Porter Jr., guitarist Anders Osborne and keyboardist Ivan Neville to back Montbleau. “I’ve had basically the same band for years. This was totally different – a session band, go down to New Orleans, bang out a record in two days,” he said.Like the process, the results are different. “For Higher,” due for release in mid-May, is a shot of old-school soul. “This is more straightforward R&B, funky. It’s all about the groove,” Montbleau said. “Most of what you hear is five guys in a room playing music. It’s what happened in that room.”There was a touch of uneasiness for Montbleau in the project. He had never met any of the musicians before and was nervous about how they’d respond to the songs. Apart from that, though, the music did what it has always done for Montbleau. It eased his email@example.com
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