Fans hear it so often it’s almost become cliché, their favorite artists paying lip service to the idea that their music, like life itself, is a journey rather than a specific destination. Singer/songwriter Mike Montrey, whose dynamic fusion of Americana, neo-soul and rock and roll has been lighting up New Jersey, and far beyond for over a decade, didn’t specifically set out to chronicle this experience when he was creating songs for Mike Montrey Band’s latest album. Yet over the course of seven tracks, from the longing, heart-searing first lead single, “I Can’t Wait Any Longer”, through the reflective, acoustic-driven “Searching for the Sun”, he and his veteran crew perfectly embody the reality that, some two decades after starting this journey, Montrey is still in the process of Searching for My Soul.
“Sometimes when I’m in the process of creating music and lyrics at the moment, it’s not readily apparent what the overall intent of the project or its possible theme and aesthetic will be,” says Montrey, who prior to launching a brief solo career, and then MMB, was a touring member of the veteran epic rock band, The Samples from 2007-12. “The title of the album really says a lot about the songs we recorded here. It’s what they and my journey, be it through the lens of past, present or potential future, are about. Never settled in my mind and for a while in my body. It’s a beautiful thing, but it can sometimes be difficult to navigate daily. These tunes are about those physical and emotional journeys, whether it’s my narrative or a narrative told from another’s perspective.”
On the musical and sonic side, the intense, edgy voiced singer/guitarist’s desire to bring a fresh perspective and take MMB’s vibe to a whole new level prompted him to tap two-time Grammy winner Marc Swersky to produce Searching For My Soul. Renowned for “Trust in Me,” his co-write recorded by Joe Cocker, Swersky has long been a champion of developing indie artists. Montrey first worked with him when the singer sang a duet with Helen O’Shea on the well-received Swersky-produced contemporary Americana version of The Pogues’ holiday classic “Fairytale of New York” in 2020. In addition to mainstays Montrey, vocalist Jen Augustine and bassist Anthony Duca, the MMB lineup on the new album include John Ginty (keys), Jack Stanton (pedal steel guitar), and Brian Prokop (drums). The album is mixed by Seth von Paulus (Smashing Pumpkins, Christina Aguilera).
“I was flattered that Marc became a fan of my singing,” says Montrey. “I originally thought of working with him on three songs, but I loved the ideas he had and the unique direction he took those songs in, so it made sense to have him produce the whole project. He’s more hands-on and detail-oriented than most of the producers I’ve worked with, and I was excited in tapping into a whole different creative process with him. The band did a few run-throughs of the songs before Marc rolled in, and a few of them changed significantly because of the amazing ideas he had.
“Working with his fresh ears was a bit of an adjustment for me since, with a few exceptions, I had generally been a self-contained songwriter, producer, and bandleader,” he adds. “As a singer-guitarist, I have a tendency to sometimes overplay the instrument and feel an obligation to fill every space – and then fit the band into that. That can work well sometimes, but Marc wisely created a lot of space in these songs, with ‘Reno’ being a great example of how he opens more space for my singing voice.”
Truly representational of the collection’s soul-searching theme, many of the songs feature specific references to locales Montrey has traveled to and/or performed in, often presented in fictional or impressionistic ways. The adventure starts with the passionate, mid-tempo story song (and second lead single “Reno” (where he sings, “Heading out of Reno/Heading out chasin’ the sun”) and continues on through “So Long City of Angels,” a vibrant, high energy pop/rock duet by Montrey and Augustine (and third lead single) that name-checks some classic L.A. landmarks. Specific geography also plays a prominent role in the fiery, anthem-like “Listen to Me Roar” (which takes us from Colorado and San Francisco to Tuscaloosa) and the acoustic-driven “Searching for the Sun,” which includes travels to Mexico, Louisiana and Syracuse. Along those lines, the passionate, nostalgic ballad “Held on to You” mentions “a beat down old Chevrolet” and in the optimistic “Blue Skies Again,” Montrey sings: “The life we’re living is a one-way ticket on a big jet plane/I wanna let it fly.”
Rather than rest on his indie laurels and bona fides, Montrey’s ongoing commitment to his creative evolution a decade on is all the more impressive, because the Mike Montrey Band has enjoyed quite a bit of success with their albums and live performances. Released three years after the singer/guitarist’s lone solo album A Perfect Reality, MMB’s 2011 debut album Weaving The Basket earned high praise from Aquarian Weekly, which crowed, “(It) rocks, it is spontaneous and dynamic. The songs are true works of art, gems in the rough that have been presented to the listener for their own individual interpretation of value.”
Their 2014 follow-up Song by Song By Song – which reached the Top Ten on the Relix Radio Charts – was produced, incredibly, in six different studios across three states with the help of Grammy-winning engineer Carter William Humphrey (Rod Stewart, Dr. Dre), and Grammy-winning producer Hod David (Maxwell). For John Street (2018), Montrey reached out to another Grammy winner, L.A.-based producer Jim Scott (Wilco, Tom Petty, Tedeschi Trucks Band). In addition to a sea of critical praise from Aquarian Weekly (“The choruses click like magic”), NJ Stage (“A masterpiece”), and Relix (“Introspective, uplifting choruses), the album led to MMB touring the country for two years in the pre-pandemic era, hitting SXSW, L.A., Denver, Nashville and beyond.
Mike Montrey Band’s discography also includes the 2020 EP In the Middle of Hope – “Soaring guitar work, and blissful harmonies take expert songwriting to new heights.” – Indie Band Guru (penned and produced, ironically enough, pre-pandemic, but offering a much-needed hopeful message during an anxious time) and the live album Live Cal Series, Vol. 1, recorded in 2019 at the Highland Brewing Co. in Asheville, NC.
“The last song on the new album ‘Searching for the Sun’ offers the perfect description of the troubadour, never settled, never wants to be settled,” Montrey says. “Looking back on this 20-year journey from my first band ….water… through my years playing with The Samples through this wild ride with MMB, it’s really been an incredible, constantly inspiring ride. I truly was this person, I’ve been to these places, maybe I still am and will always be this person.”