Ray and Otis

Ray Lamontagne              

Ray LaMontagne

Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of Ray LaMontagne. In case you haven’t heard of him, he’s a folk/soul singer from Maine who’s gotten big lately because of his amazing voice.  He’s also got  something I can’t resist – a great story. It has three parts:

I: Young Ray has a hardscrabble childhood, never plays music at all. He gets a dead-end job in a shoe factory.

II: In his early twenties, Ray wakes up one day, hears a song on the radio, and has an epiphany that he should become a singer-songwriter.

III: He goes out and actually does it. With zero experience, in one of the all-time musical Cinderella stories, he trains himself to sing, play guitar, write songs, and becomes a big star.  Leno, Letterman, Rolling Stone, awards, etc.

So here’s what LaMontagne sounds like:

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And here’s the interesting part. Apparently he did most of his practicing by himself, in his apartment. He didn’t have much money, so he just got a bunch of old record and practiced by imitating them. The old records he bought were those of Otis Redding and Ray Charles, among others. He trained this way for several years, then started performing at coffee houses (several more years). LaMontange says he was terrible at the start, then got better. “I’m a really fast learner,” he told Roster magazine.

Now listen to Otis Redding:

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Isn’t that incredibly similar? The same raspy soulfulness, the same rhythms and phrasings and long vowels, the soaring yet earthy voice that, as Rolling Stone put it, “sounds like church.” 

So what does this mean? First of all, I don’t think it means that Ray LaMontagne is ripping off Otis Redding. His voice is his own—he built it, over his 10,000 hours, through deep practice.  (And it sure doesn’t sound like any Mainer that I ever met.)

What it does mean, I think, is that when LaMontagne was building that skill circuit – because that’s what any voice is, a circuit that controls the vocal cords—he used an powerful, underrated method for deep practice. He mimicked. Redding’s voice was his beacon – and LaMontagne used it exactly like a good tennis player uses Roger Federer’s backhand, or a good writer uses a Dickens paragraph. You spend time in it, and you can learn how it works, why it works. It tells you where to go, and you use it as a tool to pull yourself forward, to construct your own circuit.  

This reminds me of what I think of as the Olympics Effect. Whenever I watch the Olympics on TV, then go and do some of those same sports myself, I’m better. Sometimes a lot better – after watching Michael Phelps win all those medals, I think I actually did the crawl stroke properly for the first time in my life. Something powerful happens when we mimic someone, and its mostly unconscious. We’re built to copy.

For the Little League team I coach, I sometimes wonder if it wouldn’t be smarter, instead of spending time fielding grounders, to find a big-screen TV and watch major-league players doing their thing in slow-motion – and the coaches wouldn’t have to say a word. We could call it the LaMontagne Method. 

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