Let's get this out the way immediately: Yes, this is a profile on a musician named Montrose. Yes, that's his real name. Yes, he's aware he shares the moniker with a culturally rich area of Houston, home to much of the city's gay community. "I've been to Houston a few times, and people have told me about that place, but I've never seen it," the happily married man says, on the phone from his Dallas home base. "When I get down there, I'll find time to head out around there and check it out."
And yes, he's also aware, for all you rock historians out there, that he shares the name with '70s hard-rock figure Ronnie Montrose, who fronted his own eponymous combo. It's something he's heard about as often as the Montrose-area thing.
So if he has no connections to the aforementioned Montroses, just who the hell is this guy?
"He's Dallas's answer to a cross between Seal and Prince," says Anthony Frazier, owner of High Volume Music in Houston and self-proclaimed musicologist. Frazier has been tight with the artist ever since a mutual friend hipped him to Montrose's music a couple of years back. Frazier fell in love with Montrose's eclectic soul sound. "You can't pigeonhole him as an R&B artist, and you can't pigeonhole him as a rock artist," says Frazier.
The music proprietor immediately began pushing Montrose's debut, Invisible Milk, at his store. Frazier has had Montrose perform late-night shows in his shop whenever the artist is in town. The businessman is such a supporter that he set up several shows in Houston this month when Montrose hinted that his next album would be ready for release around this time. (Montrose says he's now pushing the release back to June or July.) Frazier feels it's time for his boy to blow up. "We have Erykah Badu and Destiny's Child," says Frazier, "but there hasn't been a guy to come out of Texas and break out like that."
Montrose is a very different breed of performer. Wrapped in a frilly paisley shirt with an electric guitar strapped to his side, Montrose jumps on stage and becomes his own kind of rock star: a flamboyantly charismatic one with low-toned vocals, one who can turn out a guitar-drenched jam with as much pulsating passion as he shows on the occasional stirring soul ballad. Whether backed by a band or just performing to some prerecorded tracks, Montrose plays with the same spry eagerness, regardless if the crowd numbers a thousand or just ten.
Montrose Cunningham was born in Chicago, but when young, he moved to the Lone Star State with his family and settled into Big D. The future musician embarked on his path by taking piano lessons and eventually becoming adept in the ways of the guitar. A person whose tastes run from Jimi Hendrix to the Psychedelic Furs to Echo & the Bunnymen (his stint as a radio DJ in the '80s at Southern Illinois University is apparent), Montrose is determined not to be categorized. "That's how it was with Hendrix," he says. "People said that he was a rock guitarist, but he wasn't. Then they said he was a soul guitarist, but he wasn't that either."
Montrose decided to turn pro five years ago. He launched Candlehouse, his own indie label, in 1998. In May of that year, he self-released Milk. The album features songs about some woman. His wife?
"No," he chuckles, half embarrassed. "When I wrote these, I wasn't married."
A literally homemade production, Milk is a complex configuration of New Age soul (reminiscent of Seal), aggressive guitar rock, lyrical affirmations and just plain ol' romantic longing. From the synthesizer daydreaming of "Nothing" to the gimme-gimme drum-machine funk of "I Feel You" to the introspective piano tinkling and street-noise sounds of the instrumental track "Unanswered Prayer," Milk (which borrows its title from an Erica Jong poem) strives to be all things to all people.
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The upcoming Inertia, on the other hand, is a little more focused. The album could even prove to be the breakout that Frazier predicts, if the first single, "Never Be Mine," is any indication. The song is Montrose's most engaging and polished yet. Bereft of the hippy-trippy mojo found on Milk, "Never Be Mine" is a self-explanatory ode to impossible love. The reflective melody is heightened by lush piano work, and the tune comes complete with one of Montrose's signature fuzzy guitar solos. The artist says that for the single, as well as the other songs on Inertia, he moved up a step or two creatively from his previous album. "You gotta keep in mind I recorded Invisible Milk at my house," says Montrose. "With this album, I have more resources than I had with the last one."
Inertia displays Montrose's evolution not only as a producer but also as an artist. While Milk was about one man's quest for true love, the second album is about his search for purpose. "That's just where I am right now as a performer," he declares. (The album isn't called Inertia for nothing.)
The melancholy R&B of "Never Be Mine" may have listeners drawing comparisons to Lenny Kravitz and Prince, just like most of Milk had folks comparing Montrose to Seal. "I expect the comparisons," he says. "That's what all artists go through, because for every artist that was influenced by other performers, those performers were influenced by others." Now Montrose is looking to hype up not only himself but also other artists on his label. What's more, he's looking to snap up a couple more artists and work with them. But until then, Montrose will be gliding from venue to venue, inviting virgin ears to sample his sound. And he's glad to do it, too.
So come to think of it, Montrose may be gay after all -- but in the old sense, the exuberantly happy sense, not in the, you know, weekend-afternoons-antiquing-with-your-partner kind of way. Not that there's anything wrong with that