By Ray Chelstowski
No contemporary artist has expanded the territory of blues as broadly as Jonny Lang. Since his platinum record debut 20 years ago at the age of 15, Lang has explored the periphery of what is commonly understood as “blues” and pushed its boundaries to at times include rock, pop and funk. This has been a well-executed balancing act, where he has been able to sample new sounds without losing any of his own authenticity. In fact, his efforts in musical pioneering have been celebrated by scores of blues greats like Buddy Guy, who continue to share stages with him around the world.
In September he releases his sixth major label album, “Signs.” The record finds him leaning a bit more toward his blues origins with a sound that has grit and quite a bit of muscle. The first single “Bitter End” is a bold, bright rocker that surges and soars and sets the table for what fans can come to expect from the balance of the record. Now married and a father, Lang shows no signs of softening his sound. Instead, “Signs” finds him with a rock edge sharper than anything to be found on his previous releases.
Goldmine’s conversation with Lang explores his own personal creative process, the bold-faced name collaborations he has pursued, and the career course that this record sets. We even found time to talk a bit of golf and explore his admiration for James Taylor.
GM: I really enjoyed spinning the new record, and I’ve been a fan since “Lie To Me.” When I move through your catalog I’m really taken by how your sound has evolved. Your earliest work with The Big Bang has almost a Jimmie Vaughan quality to it. And your first two records with A&M brought a bunch of polish and sophistication to the material that made people even more surprised that it was coming from such a young player. Then after “Wander This World” you seemed to take this decidedly different turn to where I’d liken your music much more to a modern day Lenny Kravitz. How do you think your music has shifted and what has prompted you to take it in those directions?
JL: Well, there’s so many variables that I have longed to be in control of but I haven’t gotten there yet. And so, pretty much, man, over the years I really haven’t made much of a plan going into the studio other than just writing the songs and the just sort of letting them become what they become in the studio. There’s not a whole lot of like trying to spirit any certain direction, or make it fit an idea, you know, production-wise. It just kinda happens. Working with different kinds of producers over the years; they put their spin of creativity on it. It’s a joint effort between all of the musicians and everybody adds their own ingredients and it just becomes what it becomes. In my case as an artist, yeah, it’s been nice to have the freedom to make the records that I wanna make. But when I look back sometimes I say “Man, I wish I had known more about this then. We could have made it sound more like I should sound like.” So there are always those little regrets but for the most part it just kinda happens.
GM: So what is your writing process like? Is there a daily discipline? Do you do all of your writing at once or do you have that habit where you try to sit down every day and knock something out? How does it work for you?
JL: I’m the most disorganized person (laughs) and the sad part is that I have no desire to be organized. I don’t know, songs will just kinda hit me and hopefully there’s a guitar around and I have my little voice recorder so that I can take a record of those kind of inspired moments. This is about as organized as I get at it. Then I just try to hold onto the ideas that I like the most and see them through to the end. It can take quite a while with the lyrics. Music and arrangements usually come first in the process. Lyrics I have to work with for a while.
GM: So on this record you collaborated with Josh Kelley. Given his musical background I thought that the choice was kind of interesting. What did he bring to the songwriting process and ultimately to the production of “Signs” that you thought was going to be really ideal this time around?
JL: Well, so we did one song together on “Signs.” We actually recorded like six songs that we had written together and we recorded them at his studio. But only one song made it to “Signs.” Who knows if we will use the others later. Working with him, I’ve just known him for a while; I think we met like 15 years ago at a golf tournament. We both love to play golf and he’s just a really cool guy — a really nice, easy-going, not to mention really talented musician. We get along really well and have a good time writing which is like 99 percent of the whole thing for me.
GM: Jeff Beck has talked about how he has guitars all over his house. He does this intentionally to force himself to practice throughout the day. What is your practice regimen like? Do you practice daily or just gear up for tours? Now that you’re a Dad and have kids what is practice like for you?
JL: Well, I find that I’m most inspired after taking a break from guitar. When I come off the road I just don’t really touch it unless I get a song idea or something. Then I’ll try to work the song a bit but, yeah, I never really play when I’m home unless I’m home for a long time and get the bug again. Usually when I hit the road I play five nights a week so it feels nice to get away from it. Then you come back next time and it’s like you’re all recharged. A couple of the guys in our band practice a lot. Jimmy (Anton) our bass player will just sit there for hours in front of the metronome practicing which is probably why he is the most amazing musician I have ever met.
GM: The one song that really stood out to me on “Signs” is the album closer because it’s really different for you. I don’t think it could have done anything but wrap up the record. “Singing Songs” is kind of a march that has this haunting sound that builds to what I think is a violin solo. This seems like different ground for you, but it also seems like a really cool way to close this album. Even though it’s a slower track it does seem to neatly snap into the rest of the music. Did you always know that this was going to be the closer?
JL: Yeah, it started feeling that way. When we started recording it we said “Yeah, if there is such a thing, anything as a secret track on a record, this is it.” It’s a totally different road to go down than most of the songs on the record. I started writing this with a buddy years and years ago on the porch and we finished it right before we went into the studio. And then we said “Man, this thing could use some strings.” We added them and it became this really cool and very different thing.
GM: So you’re known for these scorching solos live. Your recent studio work however doesn’t showcase your guitar chops in the same manner. But when you go live you step forward and let the guitar really own these songs. Do you ever find yourself on stage in the middle of a riff and say “Man, I wish I had added that to the studio cut!”
JL: Live just ends up being inherently different. Almost every song requires some kind of adaptation to be pulled off live. Some songs are too slow or some songs don’t have enough going on production-wise and can feel a little naked live. So we add a few things here and there.
GM: You have collaborated with so many people, and the range of those efforts is pretty broad. Few folks can say that they have worked with Anders Osborne and Herbie Hancock. The Jonas Brothers and Lee Ritenour. When you look to do a side project is there anything you look to get out of them and is there one that you either passed up that you wish you hadn’t? Any that you’re dying to do?
JL: I rarely pass up an opportunity to collaborate with another musician. It’s one of my favorite things about this. Sharing music together is really amazing to me. But I think that James Taylor is just my ultimate. I mean, he’s been kinda the biggest inspiration musically. When I listen to his music I feel probably more inspired than I am with any other artist. James is my guy, man.
GM: The James Taylor reference is interesting because this record is decidedly raw and at times is more stripped back. There’s a tip of the hat to the blues but when I hear songs like “Bitter End” and “Last Man Standing,” I almost hear an early ‘90s Van Halen sound at work. This seems like a different step forward. Is this where you see yourself moving creatively?
JL: Well, like I’ve said, with the song “Bitter End,” I had no concept that that song would turn out like it did. I thought it was going to be completely different and it ended up being this rock song, which was great because it was a happy surprise. I just never thought it would turn out that way. Like I said before, I don’t really have a plan, but sometimes it’s also hard to have one because stuff like that just happens. Now we have two rockers on the record. If there is a theme that I’d like to stick with its kinda like a stripped down, raw sound for a while. I’m really enjoying that.
GM: Who are you listening to now that we all should know about? Who’s the next Jonny Lang?
JL: Man, have you heard Quinn Sullivan? I don’t know how old he is but he is badder than Buddy Guy. Just an amazing guitarist from the Northeast. Check him out!