For the past few weeks, The Knickerbocker Music Center on 35 Railroad Avenue in Westerly has been a hub for virtual shows. Every Friday at 8 p.m., performances from their legendary stage have been posted on YouTube, featuring the likes of Hamilton Leithauser from the New York City indie rock act The Walkmen, MorganEve Swain from Brown Bird & The Huntress and Holder Of Hands, Ian O’Neil and Chris Ryan from Deer Tick, and Tyler-James Kelly and Jess Powers as the duo Cowboy and Lady, among others. This series is called “Knick Live” in partnership with The United Theatre on 5 Canal Street, and its final installment is happening tonight. Singer-songwriter Ryan Montbleau from Peabody, Massachusetts, will bring his folky repertoire in solo fashion while enjoying one of his favorite venues.
Rob Duguay: What would you say is the biggest thing you’ve had to adapt to as a musician during the COVID-19 pandemic?
Ryan Montbleau: For me, it’s been staying home and being in one place for longer than I’ve been in one place for the past 20 years. It’s honestly been wonderful, and right away doing the live streams from home has been such a fun thing to do and such a blessing. I do them every Friday night, so there has been a little trial and error, but I’ve been doing them since last March. A lot of it has been about getting the sound right from a really simple setup, so there’s been some adjusting to that. I’m also just adjusting to life at home, which has also been fun.
RD: I can totally see that with a guy like yourself, who has toured as much as you have in your career. Speaking of live streams, you’ve done a series of them over the past few months while raising money for a ton of charities all over the country. For example, you recently raised $1,320 for the New Orleans Musicians’ Clinic. How do you seek these organizations out? Do you just Google them and find a donation link on their website? Do they reach out to you?
RM: It all comes from me. I feel like somehow the pandemic has made people realize how small things really are and it’s made me trust my gut more, even when it came to these live streams. It doesn’t sound like a big deal for others, but sometimes I would feel uneasy about a certain topic I would cover or certain things that I would do, but it made me open up. Raising money for charities is something I felt would be the right thing to do, and I’m following what my gut is telling me right now. I’ve done them in weird ways, where one week I would do all covers, I would play a full record in its entirety another week and when I have the inkling of another idea I just go for it.
For some reason before all of this I would have really over-thought all of that and I would think about playing another album instead or raising money for another charity instead, but at the end of the day, who cares? I get an idea every week and a lot of them focus on food banks because people need to eat and a lot of folks are facing food scarcity. A lot of them at first were to support my local food bank, then I did one for the Massachusetts food bank and then I did one for New York, I did one for Connecticut and I’ve gotten around to the different states. I’m pretty sure I’ve done Rhode Island; I hope I did. I have no official connection to any of these charities, some of them have reached out to me afterwards, but I just think of something to go for and post the donation link online. Anybody can do it.
RD: I think it’s an awesome thing you’re doing to help out so many organizations that help out so many people, especially during these times. Last year you released a cover of Crosby, Stills & Nash’s “Helplessly Hoping” with Boston folk rock act Tall Heights, which is an extension of you collaborating with the band on your most recent album Woodstock Sessions, that came out in 2018. How were you able to link up with them to start collaborating in the first place, and what do you like the most about making music with Paul Wright and Tim Harrington?
RM: We originally connected years ago. They were doing the open mic challenge at The Lizard Lounge in Cambridge. There’s a winner of that every week, and every six months they have a big throw-down of all the winners and they pick the winner of the winners and I was a judge for that contest. This was a long time ago and they were still busking at Faneuil Hall while putting records out and stuff. They’re just great. And somehow they didn’t end up winning that night, but they’re clearly so good, so we connected and I had them on shows with me because I’m older and a little ahead of the game.
We started doing stuff together and it was their idea to do a cover of Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car,” which has now been streamed 70 million times; it’s my most-played song ever. That was all their idea.
RD: That’s wicked cool.
RM: It just started out as a beautiful collaboration and now they’ve gone on to tour the world and play in Ben Folds’ band. “Helplessly Hoping” was from us not having done anything in a while and we recorded it before the pandemic hit. Then before that I got them on the Woodstock Sessions record which was done live in the studio. They’re just great, and it’s been a beautiful friendship. I saw them when I was already years into this and they were kind of starting out but then they got sort of huge and it’s been mutually beneficial because they’ve put me on some of their shows. I love those guys.
RD: For the upcoming virtual show at the Knickerbocker Music Center, did you plan on preparing yourself any differently for it or did you plan on approaching it just like any other gig? Was it awkward performing in front of a camera without an audience?
RM: It took some getting used to. I’ve been doing it for the last 11 months or so, but it’s still weird. It’s totally weird to finish a song and hear no applause at first, kind of like saying a joke or something and not know if it’s landing without hearing any laughter in the room. It’s weird, but I’ve gotten used to it, and there are still ways to stay in the moment. Every show and every live stream I do is different so I still gotta stay in the moment of where I am and what I think people want to hear even though I can’t see them in front of me. Being at The Knickerbocker, I kind of had to picture what I would normally do in the room and that’s why I did what I did during my performance.
Beyond that, people aren’t in the room other than this awesome crew of four or five dudes shooting and stuff. It was about being in the moment and honoring the room that’s having me, because I love that place. It’s helped with having done it a bunch of times with a packed crowd in there to know what it’s like. I would say that it was nice with it being so quiet — for a solo acoustic guy, it’s really nice when it’s like that.
RD: For the acoustics alone, it must have been cool to play there in silence so you could really hear yourself play.
RM: Yeah, it’s just easier for a solo thing because I only have so much firepower.
RD: You just released a new EP called Wood, so how did you go about the process of making it? Can we expect anything to follow it up?
RM: The Wood EP is the first of four EPs that I’m putting out this year as a collection. I started working on it at the end of 2019 when I was laying down tracks for my next record, but it’s taken a long time and a lot of work. I was getting my hands dirty while trying to make better recorded music to be a better recording artist. I’ve put out a lot of records but most of my time has been spent performing, so I put a lot of time into this project last year while getting these tracks to get them to sound the way I want to hear them. The other EPs will be coming out every five weeks so within the next few months they’ll all be out.