Jesse Andrew Photography

Makin Waves with Mike Montrey: The Connections We Make

For a quarter of a century, singer-songwriter-guitarist-producer Mike Montrey has released a steady of stream of albums with the Mike Montrey Band, as well as a few prior to that with the band … water … Both have featured bassist-vocalist Anthony “Duke” Duca, Mike’s childhood friend. Joining them within the core of Mike Montrey Band are vocalist Jen Augustine and pedal steel guitarist Jack Stanton.

Released in September, the latest album, Searching for My Soul, featuring keyboardist John Ginty (Robert Randolph, The Chicks, Duane Betts) and drummer Brian Prokop (Asbury Fever, Bullshark) showcases a stunning Americana sound also heard on Mike’s 2018 masterpiece, John Street, which won him the Makin Waves Male Artist of the Year Award. For his past two albums, Mike has been produced by two Grammy winners. Searching for My Soul was produced by two-time Grammy winner Marc Swersky (Joe Cocker, Marlo Thomas) and John Street was produced by six-time Grammy winner Jim Scott (Tom Petty, Santana, Foo Fighters, The Chicks, Tedesci Trucks Band).

Joining Mike Montrey Band live is Santo Rizzolo (Joe P.) on drums and either Karl Dietel (The Samples, We May Be Right) or Matt Wade (Samantha Fish) on keyboards. MMB will play May 20 at The Wonder Bar in Asbury Park with the Linda Ronstadt tribute band, Heart Like a Wheel. On June 2 they hit Pino’s in Highland Park and follow that up with Summerfest at Point Pleasant Beach on June 3. The duo of Mike Montrey and Jen Augustine will perform May 25 at Stagehouse in Mountainside and July 5, Washington Irving Boat Club, Tarrytown, N.Y. The trio, which also includes Jack on pedal steel, will perform in July at Elaine’s in Cape May and the Readington Brewery in Readington.

When not busy with his music, Mike offers music therapy at Dawn to Dusk Wellbeing Center, a holistic program for folks with developmental disabilities and dementia in Dayton. He teaches around 40 guitar students, including Juliana Frangella, whose debut album, Intrusive Thoughts, he expertly crafted as both producer and performer. 

In the following interview, I chatted with Mike about all that he has going on, including additional music therapy and instruction as a state-registered Division of Developmental Disability vendor. 

Who’s in the Mike Montrey Band these days? 

The core of the band has been myself, Duke, Jen and Jack Stanton for the past five years – even longer for Jen and Duke. On Searching for My Soul, we had John Ginty on keys and Brian Prokop on drums. Santo Rizzolo does some live shows on drums, as well, and my old friend, Karl Dietel will play keys live at times. We also have Matt Wade on a few dates upcoming on keys. 

You often play solo, as a duo with Jen, and as a trio. Who’s in the trio with you & Jen?

The trio features the pedal steel with Jack Stanton. It’s a really cool sound. Jack is just a phenomenal player and he and I connect really easily, and Jen is an incredible singer – both harmony and lead – so the voices in harmony with the acoustic guitar and pedal steel… it opens up a space for more intimate readings of our material, but it has more flavor than just solo guitar. I also integrate some looping into these sets, which is fun. The one we did at Hopewell Theater last November with Michael Glabicki was a great time. 

How long have you been playing music with Anthony Duca and why has that friendship and collaboration been able to last so long? 

Duke and I grew up together. We met probably in third or fourth grade. His cousin was my best friend. We started playing music together seriously around 2000, when we formed …water… Aside from being best friends in life, we can connect fluidly through music. When you work with someone for that long, and you’re close to them otherwise, things can go one of two ways: it can be an intuitive connection or you cannot stand the person in that moment. I think we’ve gravitated towards the former more often than not. He’s a really talented guy and has great feel. I feel very fortunate to continue to make music with him. It’s a blessing to make music that people want to hear or talk about to begin with, but to be able to do it with a best friend is pretty unbelievable. 

When will you be following up Searching for My Soul?

I don’t know. We just put this thing out seven months ago. I’m always writing stuff, but I have also learned to let stuff breathe a little bit. 

Will you eventually be working with Marc Swersky again and why? 

I’m sure Marc and I will work together again at some point. The music that came out of these sessions was extremely satisfying. 

Did Marc or any other producers teach you production techniques that you applied to Intrusive Thoughts, the debut LP by Juliana Frangella you produced? 

I think that it would be impossible for them not to. My own experiences, either self-producing my own stuff or working with Marc and Jim Scott, has informed me in many ways. Each situation requires a certain approach, at least I think so. I am a more malleable producer/person in that I like to be informed by the artist, and who they are, and navigate accordingly to get them to be what they want to be, and create the thing that they want to create. In that way, I feel I’m a little closer to the Jim Scott approach. Marc is a bit more hands on and motivated by his directive. Both of these approaches work; it just depends on the project. 

Why did you want to produce Juliana? 

First and foremost, I love the songs. You gotta have good songs, Bob, you know that. Also, we had worked on them in our own sessions together, so I felt connected to the music in that way, too, and she’s just so talented, really. She’s got all the tools: great songwriter, lyricist, singer, guitarist. 

What did you enjoy most about producing Intrusive Thoughts and why? 

The thing I always enjoy is seeing the songs come to life, but I also love Juliana’s creative spirit, which is mixed with a significant amount of organization. People often overlook or forget about the role that the organizational mind plays in creativity and getting your idea out there.

Organizational creativity sounds like an oxymoron, but it’s the thing that realizes the idea. It’s inspiring to see someone facilitate that. Plus, I love how Brian Prokop plays drums, so hearing him lay down his tracks is a pleasure. 

Will you record a follow up with Juliana? 

I’d love to, but this thing too needs to breath a while. 

Had you ever produced another artist before? If so, who, what and when? 

Not to the extent that I did this, no. I have helped write songs for some people and form the ideas, find the musicians, explain the process, but I’d say this was my first complete role as producer. 

Any plans for Jen to make a solo album? Would you produce it? 

I think that Jen could absolutely bring some songs to life on her own that would be amazing. She is an incredible singer and artist. It needs to start with the writing of songs, and then build it from there. It’s a project I would be interested in. Of course, she would have to listen to me. 

Any plans to produce anyone else? 

Currently no, but I am involved with many people musically where that could evolve at any time. 

Will you be touring with Juliana this summer either with her band on the bill and/or you in her band? 

We had a tentative date to have her open for MMB in Asbury Park, but the logistics fell through. There will definitely be some dates this summer. I love playing the songs, so I would love to play them again live. 

Juliana is one of your guitar students. How many students do you have? 

I usually have an active roster of 30 to 40 students that I teach and work with both online and in person. I have my own studio. I like the experience of working with people of all ages and levels. Each person is different. 

Do you teach any other instruments besides guitar? 

Yes, I can do basic piano, drums, bass, but also songwriting is a big thing that I work on with students that are interested, as well as music theory and improvisation. Many of my guitar roots come from the jazz and jam band world. 

What do you enjoy most about teaching and why? 

I love the connections that we make as people through music. Anyone can learn music, but if you can connect with someone, it takes on a new life, and those connections can exist with a seven-year-old or a 70-year-old. It’s a beautiful thing, and giving someone the tools to have a lifetime of music is an honor for me. 

You also provide music therapy at Dawn to Dusk Wellbeing Center, a holistic program for folks with developmental disabilities and dementia. What do you like most about doing that? What impact does it have? 

My music therapy work with Dawn to Dusk has changed my life. The connections that I have made with these individuals have been more than I could have imagined, and the individuals that make that place work – specifically the founder, Sesh Subramanian, who I met through teaching music to his daughters – are nothing short of miraculous. The energy that the participants give to me and I reciprocate is palpable, and I know it makes a difference in all of our lives. They love it and you can tell, and that matters. 

Do you do music therapy anywhere else? 

Yes, I am a registered NJ Division of Developmental Disability vendor of services myself through my company, which houses all of my music endeavors, Water Productions (Mike Montrey Music). Through this, I offer live group music sessions online and one-on-one music lessons both online and in person that can be facilitated through a state DDD Goods and Services budget, so individual families aren’t paying out-of-pocket for this enrichment. It’s a great program that I am excited to be a part of. 

Is there anything I didn’t ask on which you would like to comment? 

After close to a quarter century of being in the ‘music world,’ be it in performance, songwriting, guitar playing, teaching, production, music therapy, I have truly realized that the connection we make with people through music is at the center of it all. It is the driving force. It is part of what makes us human, and I love it more than any other part of it.