Ryan Montbleau is recognized for being a mesmerizing folk singer with an organic, gritty sound.
Now, he has released the first of four upcoming EPs. Entitled Wood, this four-song body of work features striking acoustic tracks layered with gentle grace and bold heart. The reflective offering explores topics such as perfectionism, the expectations placed upon men and women, and finding appreciation in the little things.
Montbleau continuously seeks out knowledge and meaning in his life, and his profound tunes teach us the lessons we could all benefit from. Traveling to beautiful destinations steeped in culture, Peru, Hawaii and Costa Rica, he takes pieces from every place and uses them as inspiration for his music, and that storied, varied sound is felt throughout the EP.
The prolific singer-songwriter’s songs also ooze with intimacy. The singer recently invited his girlfriend and daughter to move in with him in Burlington, and though he feels happy and fulfilled in his life, he still searches for purpose, and Wood is the ultimate expression of his self-discovery. We spoke to him about travel, love, what it means to be human, and so much more.
You possess a stunning folk/Americana sound. How did you develop such a rich sound?
Thank you very much. I think the short answer is that I’ve been at this professionally for about 20 years. It’s been quite a journey to get here and I’ve grown a lot as a musician and performer over that span. I’d like to think I just kept striving for excellence, and I still do. That’ll never stop. I think for most everybody, and certainly for me, some sounds just come with age. The years on the road are in me now; they’re ingrained. They’re a part of me and they need to get out!
Your songs shine with a distinct storied lyricism that allows listeners to get lost in the world you are illustrating. How did you become such a profound storyteller?
Again, thank you very much. I subscribe to the notion that in a song — and I’ve taught this in songwriting workshops — you want to paint a picture, not a sign. A sign instructs you, tells you where to go, what to believe maybe. But a picture lets you walk in and discover those truths for yourself. You always have to tell the truth, that’s a given. But HOW you tell that truth is the crucial part. I hope to avoid beating people over the head with a message. Instead I try to create the conditions in a song that will let people form their own insights. If I do my job right, my truth will resonate with others’ truths. That’s the goal, anyway.
Your new EP Wood explores what it means to be human in these unprecedented times. Can you explain this concept further?
Well, it’s interesting, I wrote all of these songs before the pandemic and starting making what would become Wood, Fire, Water, and Air before all of this. But again, if I’m doing my job right, truth is truth and it should resonate any time. Mostly I think on the Wood EP, I’m reaching a place where I can be more vulnerable than I’ve ever been before. And have more fun with them too. These are unprecedented times. But the human condition has always been the same, really. So I think I’m trying to weave this all together— the big grand themes with the little day-to-day stuff that ties us together.
Your opening track “Perfect” is all about finding beauty within our imperfections. What inspired this deeply vulnerable track?
I was in Peru riding a horse when I wrote that song. That one felt like a gift, although I did have to work on it a bit. But I wanted to have a conversation with a woman who was with our group, and of course I couldn’t because we were all riding horses! I’m from Peabody, Massachusetts so I don’t want you to get the wrong idea — riding a horse is a very foreign experience for me. So I just started making up a song with the words I was going to say to this person and memorizing it so I wouldn’t forget it while I rode. She had said something about feeling pressure to be perfect, and it reminded me of something Brené Brown said in her book Daring Greatly — that women are supposed to be perfect and men are supposed to be strong. And we suffer by trying to live up to those ideals pressed upon us.
I also had had some breakthroughs with my own therapist re: perfectionism. The rest of the song kind of took off from there, I honestly feel like it was a gift. I suppose they all are.
On the topic of imperfections, how do you think others can start to embrace their flaws and work towards more self-love?
That’s a huge and very important question. I wish I had an easy answer. I know for me it took a long, long time before I had a breakthrough re: self-love. Even when I finally knew that self-love was the answer, it still took me years to actualize it, you know? It’s something that will always take work and some inner-maintenance.
I don’t know what it is that makes us so down on ourselves. I don’t know what causes us to feel so unworthy of love, but it happens to just about everyone I know. Part of it I think is ingrained from the way we need to be when we’re younger. It’s good to improve, to keep striving, to not settle, to go out there and make yourself into who you want to be. But I think along with that comes self-criticism that inevitably goes overboard.
For me, self-acceptance has been the primary joy of growing older. At a certain point maybe you just get tired of hating on yourself! For me personally, my faith and my work with plant medicines has been crucial to the embodiment of self-love, and self-compassion. Would you talk to a child the way you talk to yourself inside your head? No? Knock that off then! Be nice to you. You deserve it. You do.
“Ankles” is a track all about appreciation and gratitude. How do you remind yourself to remain grateful in your daily life?
I remember reading many, many years ago that gratitude should be a daily practice. And I was so surprised to read that. It seemed like such an odd concept at the time, something that had never come close to occurring to me. But the idea was so intriguing.
There’s a lot of advice to make daily lists of what you’re grateful for, and all kinds of practices similar to that. I think that’s a wonderful thing to do, even if just at first. Through that practice and that repetition, eventually gratitude can become ingrained in you. At some point, maybe you live that truth to the point where you realize that EVERYTHING is a blessing. But you shouldn’t put pressure on yourself to be grateful. Just think about what you’re actually grateful for and keep paying attention to that.
Your final track “Outside Looking in” is an honest tune with stunning imagery. Can you explain the song’s message?
That song started as a poem. It has some things that are very personal to my life, and also some grand themes that are more poetic and universal. I think that male/female archetypes are an overarching theme in there. Women give life itself. As a man, there’s this aspect of always being on the outside of that, in some way. And so we build and we destroy and we fight and the whole rest of it. Mother Earth makes a tree, man cuts it down and builds a table out of it— that sort of thing.
It’s not all “woman good, man bad,” that’s not what I’m trying to say. And again these are archetypal generalizations. But I think I’m the end I was trying to drive at looking at things from the inside as opposed to always just looking out and not paying attention to the central truth within all of us.
In addition to Wood there is Water, Fire and Air. What is the significance behind choosing nature’s elements for each release?
I worked on these tracks for a long time without really knowing what they were. I had vague notions of using some kind of alchemical elements to sun them up, but for the life of me I couldn’t figure it out. Finally one night I was driving home to Vermont from playing a small and beautiful wedding in Connecticut, and I put on the unfinished tracks for the millionth time to see what was what.
And for whatever reason it all just lined up in that moment and became completely clear. Wood has tracks that are grounded more in the vein of what I’ve done before. Singer-songwriter, acoustic guitar, sort of folky and grounded. Fire brings the energy; those are higher-energy tracks than I’ve put out in years. The bangers, if you will. But lest you think I’m going to continue in that direction and turn this into a dance record, here comes Water to kind of throw water on the whole thing. The tracks on Water get grounded again; they go back deep and into love and spirituality, for lack of a better word. And then Air is three songs that are a nice simple release of the whole thing, back to the ether, back to the flesh maybe.
Your musical style is so captivating. Who are some artists that influenced you?
Martin Sexton, first and foremost. Paul Simon’s a big one. Deb Talan of the Weepies is on my Mount Rushmore.
Finally, what’s next for Ryan Montbleau?
These EPs have been a long time coming and we’ve put a ton of work into them over the last two years, essentially, and beyond. I sort of feel like I need to give birth to them before I do anything else. I haven’t written a single song during the pandemic, but I’ve been taking piano lessons and practicing every day. So we’ll see where that goes, but for now it’s just for me. And I know the writing will come. Once I get Wood, Fire, Water, and Air into the world I’ll start shifting back into writing in earnest.
And I’d like to get a special band together to celebrate the EPs with a special run of shows. I also have been thinking about making a solo-acoustic record of all covers. Cover tunes have been some of the greatest discoveries for me during this time, and I think I have a collection brewing. Beyond that, writing and writing!