Ray LaMontagne played his biggest shows ever supporting 2010's funky, Grammy-winning God Willin' & the Creek Don't Rise, but the singer was so depressed he considered quitting music altogether. "I was in a really bad place," he tells Rolling Stone. "I only knew how to use one form of fuel, which is, 'Nobody likes me,' 'I'm not good enough,' 'People don't like what I'm doing.' Not to be dramatic, but it was killing me. It was making me deeply, deeply unhappy."
LaMontagne had struggled with success since breaking through with 2004's Trouble, which he wrote while working in a Maine shoe factory. During a recent summer vacation, he had a breakthrough. "I realized I was doing this to myself. My friends had been trying to tell me that for a long time."
He began writing songs for his new album Supernova (out May 6th) in the study of his Massachusetts home, often working for 16 hours straight. "Some of them were just gifts," he says. "I've always written with this slave driver's critical mind lashing me, but this time I just let the songs happen."
LaMontagne sent demos to the Black Keys' Dan Auerbach, who he'd been trying to work with for five years. "It takes years to get this shit together, but he had a slot open, so we just did it," says LaMontagne. Last fall, they hit Auerbach's tiny Nashville studio for three weeks with the producer's favorite studio musicians. "For me, it's hard to beat the kind of urgency that comes from that kind of recording," says Auerbach. "Of course, Ray is such a tremendous singer, but he also never sings it the same way twice. Capturing that moment was key."
Auerbach's stamp is on plenty of the expansive, jam-ready arrangements. There are spooky backup choruses, organs and swampy riffs on "Drive in Movies," which features a Sixties Brit-pop melody (the track is about LaMontagne's teenage years in Nebraska). But Supernova's highlight is "Pick Up a Gun," a psychedelic acoustic heartbreak waltz with four key changes.
"The melody just kept shifting and shifting," LaMontagne says. "I hope it stirs something up. There was a playfulness to the songs, they were just really fun to write. That's different for me."