“Listen up this time round, there’s a revolution in me coming” (The Meaning)
Sometimes, great albums can get made whether or not the musicians involved really wanted to create them. Songs can change the direction of where a band thought their music was headed. New members can join and add a fresh dimension. But it’s rare to find an album as honest and raw as Back To Paradise by Ben Montague. Making an album is something that the heartwrenching singer-songwriter didn’t think he’d be doing at all, until the songs compelled him to do so.
Montague is a songwriter, a touring artist and co-owns an acclaimed custom guitar business, The North American Guitar in Fulham.
Penning what should have been a song for another artist with writing partners Jez Ashurst (Gabrille Aplin, Will Young) and Charlie Grant (Simply Red, Melanie C), Montague found the lyrics for the searingly emotional We Start Over flooding out. “We Start Over is pretty much a moment-by-moment account of what was happening to me at the time,” admits Montague. “It seems I had a lot of music inside me waiting to get out of my system. It was like a dam bursting.”
These 10 songs are about finding a reason to start again and the redemptive power music can offer. Gonna Love Again initially seems a beautiful melody about recovering from heartbreak. But, as Montague smilingly puts it: “It’s about me putting my arm around my only-slightly-younger self and saying it’s all going to work out fine. It’s me falling in love with making music again.”
Key to Montague’s willingness to carry on making his own music as well as writing for others was the support of his fans. He was inundated with social media messages asking when a new album was due, and decided to see how much interest there really was by funding the album via crowdfunding site Pledge Music. Within a few weeks, he’d achieved his funding target. “This album is purely a labour of love,” he enthuses. “I massively wear my heart on my sleeve and every decision was made by me. There’s no record company telling me what to do… OK, I did play the demos to my fiancée, who can be very cut-throat and say ‘I love that song, but why are you doing that there?’”
Montague’s partner in crime on Back Into Paradise is producer Peter-John Vettese, the singer’s “secret hero” for his programming and arrangement work with Paul McCartney, Pet Shop Boys, Simple Minds, Mick Hucknall, Dido and Annie Lennox as well as co-writing with Sia, Tom Odell, James Bay. Vettese produced Montague’s breakthrough single Haunted back in 2010, which made the Top 10 of the Shazam Charts and was Radio 2’s record of the week. However, while the pair remained good friends, busy working schedules meant they hadn’t worked together since.
Then, while out running in Dublin before a gig in March 2014, Montague thought of Vettese as a potential producer again. “I’d begun thinking seriously about making this album and thought ‘If this is my last ever album, could I say I’d done everything I want?’” admits Montague. “There was unfinished business with Peter, no tick next to his name saying we’d gone the distance of making an album together.” When he returned to his hotel room after that run (which was in preparation for running the London Marathon), Montague had a change of address email waiting from Mr Vettese. If that wasn’t a sign…
This time, musician and producer worked in perfect harmony. They spent hours in the studio choosing from the many demos Montague had written to deciding the correct directions they wanted the finished record to head in, both musically and artistically, in order to reflect the growth Montague had experienced over the years as a touring musician.
The album’s defiance is summed up in The Meaning, a blistering rock track that would surely have Dave Grohl pumping his fist in encouragement. Written with Rihanna songwriter Tony Bruno, Montague laughs: “The Meaning is about starting over and living in the moment, but it sounds so different to a lot of the other tracks, it almost shouldn’t be on the album. But everyone who’s heard the album so far says it’s a favourite. There are a few vocal blemishes there, some guitar parts aren’t perfect, but it fits the story of the album perfectly.”
Grohl is an appropriate name to mention in Back To Paradise’s context, as it features a stunning cover of Best Of You, which reworks the original hard rock monster into a wracked ballad. “I am a big big fan of The Foo’s and Dave Grohl. He is a phenomenal song writer and his lyrics are just beautiful”.
As well as working with Vettese, Montague co-wrote the infectious Serendipity with Jake Gosling, Ed Sheeran’s co-writer on Lego House. If you want an example of serendipity, Montague was actually in the studio with Gosling when he heard his previous album Tales Of Flying And Falling had received Radio 2’s album of the week in 2013.
Martin Brammer (James Morrison, Olly Murs) and Jim Duguid (Paolo Nutini, The Waterboys) helped Montague create the soaring gospel of Looking For Love.
Sat in The North American Guitar Studio, whose rows of acoustics on the walls make it frankly guitar porn, Montague is as passionate about his playing as he is about the album’s lyrics. He’s no Metallica-style shredder, but the spare quality of his playing emphasises the gorgeous vocals throughout Back Into Paradise, not least on the title track. “I started writing the title track here and then went to Peters studio in Battersea to finish it. It was the track the defined the direction I wanted to take the album.” he says, gesturing to the office-cum-writing room upstairs. “ It is a ‘wedge’ of a song, It builds and builds, until it is a mountain of sound by the end. But it’s got a weird construction in terms of songwriting. It’s got a sort-of chorus, a sort-of bridge, but it’s such a whopping great song that you don’t realise until the end that it’s not how you naturally expect a song at all. It was a natural choice to open the album because it’s so exciting. And it’s a good name for the album because it says that, yes, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.”
Having seen the light, Montague’s fire for making his own music has been restored – there will definitely be more albums to follow Back Into Paradise. His hopes for the album are modest. “I’m trying not to have any expectations at all,” he insists. “But this album is so real and I’m not hiding behind anything, so I hope people respond to it.”
People will get a chance to respond when Montague tours in October. “I have a lot of fun onstage, I think it’s so easy to take yourself too seriously. People want to have a laugh at gigs and be entertained and maybe hear the stories of why you wrote these songs.”
Don’t necessarily take the man himself too earnestly. But do pay close attention to his music. It’s as real and as raw as it gets – haunting enough to take the listener into paradise along with the man who made it.