Jonny Lang was a blues prodigy long before kids were showing off insular riffs via YouTube videos. In fact, his chops were learned and honed on stage with the likes of B.B. King. As the Grammy-winning guitarist/singer describes, it was “just in me.” Since his Telecaster met his fingers, it has been a part of him (except for when he switches to a Les Paul). After joining The Big Bang with a voice well beyond his years and a precocious playing style that emanated deep rhythm and blues tones, Lang cut his first album, Smokin’, at the age of 14 in 1995. By 16, Lang had two studio albums under his belt with Lie to Me solidifying his place in blues rock.
After six studio albums, a live album (Live at the Ryman) and a Grammy for “Turn Around”, Lang continues to earn respect as one of the youngest, yet, talented musicians in at least three genres. His new album, Signs, is an expansion of styles and range that he hadn’t yet explored until now. The nuanced Signs gives listeners access to Lang’s uplifting and thought-provoking lyrics alongside a mix of blues, funk, gospel and even pop sounds. An extension, almost, from his last album, Fight For My Soul, released in 2013, Lang seems to be reflective with his songwriting as well as confident in crossing genres or, perhaps, even unintentionally dismissing them altogether. Lang continues to invoke spirit into song.
One would be hard-pressed to find a more grateful player on stage today than Jonny Lang. The family man remains humble for the gifts and opportunities of which music has presented him. Perhaps, gratitude is an integral component of Lang’s success. The “blues man” from North Dakota seems to have a lot to be thankful for with Signs to be released in the U.S. on Sept. 8 and the tour embarking this month following a few gigs with Buddy Guy. For Lang, it seems all signs on his musical path have led him straight to success.
Since the beginning, from Lie to Me to Fight For My Soul, your style has evolved, and on the new track, “Bitter End”, the sound is less bluesy with even a bit of an ’80s feel with the echoes…
Yeah, that song turned out completely different than I thought it would. It’s so funny how it happens, at least with the process I’m used to in the studio. We just write songs, pick whichever songs will probably work on the record, play to the musicians on acoustic guitar and try to let everybody interpret the song the way they want to. Most of the time it ends up being better than I’d imagined when we do it that way. So, it’s kind of like opening a present every time. You don’t know how it’s going to turn out. It was no different with that song. I had it so much different in my head. I didn’t have it as this brooding rock song that it became, but it turned out way better than I thought it could have. I don’t have much of a plan going in the studio. We just kind of let it take shape.
So it’s a democratic system which keeps it loose in there?
Yes. For me, part of what is important about doing what I do is the joy of doing it with people you love, get along with well, and have fun with. And all of us out here, for the most part, are really good friends. Folks who worked on this last record, we’ve all known each other for years, so there’s this level of trust… ‘I know when you guys hear this song, you’ll do your best to honor it.’ I mean there have been very few times when I’ll say, ‘Hey, could you just play a different part there?’ or anything like that. There isn’t usually a need to do that. They always make it a good song. I’m really lucky to have great musicians to play with.
It seems when you allow your musicians the freedom to delve into lengthy solos at shows, you are enjoying it as much as the audience does…
(Laughs) I do. I do, actually. Barry, the drummer, and Jim, the bass player are two of my favorite musicians in the world, and I enjoy listening to them do their thing as much as anybody.
Since your albums are quite diverse from Lie to Me to Long Time Coming and now with Signs…is that because they signify a particular phase of your life?
It is. Maybe not a full chapter but a page or two, you know? Yes, they are definitely a window into my life at that time. It’s all personal.
Was the shift from the more angsty blues on Lie to Me and Wander This World to the later albums attributed to maturity, your faith, or a combination?
You know, looking back at it, it doesn’t seem like there was any monumental time when I said, ‘Okay, I’m going to consciously change the style of my music.’ It all just happens. I love so many different styles of music. So, when I write songs, I tend to not be very focused (laughs)…of the genre that I write in. I should probably know better and do that a little bit more, but I just don’t. I’ll just start writing and say, ‘Oh, that sounds like James Taylor…yeah.’(laughs) and just keep writing and going down that road. So, to me, it’s all just music. I just love music.
Given that you have been labeled a blues musician, mostly, did it surprise you to win a Grammy for your gospel album Turn Around?
Well, I didn’t think of Turn Around as being a gospel record, really. It was just kind of like another snapshot, you know? But, media-wise, marketing, and all that…if you’re going to sell something, it’s, ‘What’s the thing that you’re selling?’…a handle to hold onto. So, it ended up being categorized in that way, which I understood. A lot of the songs have that message, so I get it. I’m not unhappy about that. I know it’s just part of the deal. That’s what happens. But, it was a surprise, yeah. I never would’ve thought I’d win a Grammy and that it would be in the gospel category.
When you first started playing as a young “prodigy” with Larsen’s band, did you expect to one day be successful at this or did you think, ‘Wow, this is a fun time’?
Yeah, since I was little I knew I was going to be a singer. I wanted that. It was just in me. From my first memories to today, I’ve never seen another road other than music. The level of success…you always dream, when you’re a kid, when you see your favorite musicians on stage and say, ‘Oh, I wish I could do that.’ Other than that, I just wanted to do it because I loved it and to be able to do it for a living and, hopefully, be a blessing to people through it is amazing to me. It’ll never get old, and I’ll never take that for granted. It’s pretty cool.
The first two releases off Signs, seem a bit less guitar-driven. For instance, the up-tempo “Bitter End” really showcases the range of your voice…
Thank you. There’s quite a bit guitar on the rest of the record. I’d say there’s plenty of guitar (laughs). I just show up and start singing and playing. I don’t know what I’m doing (laughs).
“Make it Move” is such a motivating song, although, “Bitter End” has some apocalyptic imagery. What were you trying to convey with that song?
I don’t know if I was trying to make any sort of point. It was just kind of like—not that I’m a huge history buff—some of the things that have happened in the past couple of years, we’ve seen so many social things coming to a head. You look back in history, and you see that there were a lot of the same types of issues that happened in other great societies, kingdoms. Humans have a cycle with how long things last (laughs)—no matter what they are. It seems to me that we’re the same as we’ve ever been from thousands of years ago. We just have different tools to do what we do with…So are we going to keep repeating the same mistakes or learn from history? So, I guess, yeah, if there is a theme to song it’s that. I’m not trying to say what should happen. I am not a political person. I avoid it at all costs (laughs).
You’ve collaborated with so many great musicians on the Hendrix tour and your own tours…Is there anyone you haven’t collaborated with who you wish to?
I always say the same thing whenever I get asked this question—James Taylor and/or Stevie Wonder. That’s my dream…dream come true.
As opposed to East Coast or West Coast, is there more pressure playing the blues in, say, Louisiana, Nashville, or other places down south?
There are cities that consider themselves more musically astute than others (laughs). Yeah, it’s different everywhere you go. Some people are there to be entertained. They like the entertainment aspect of it. Some people just hang on the lyrics and listen intently to that or just like the music or want to sing along. Everybody’s got a different aspect that they’re weighted toward enjoying, but that’s what makes it fun. That’s what makes art such a ubiquitous and valuable commodity.
After your successful Live at the Ryman album, are there anymore live albums in the future?
I haven’t given it any thought, actually. But, I think I’d like to do a more broken-down acoustic live record if I did one again.
What can audiences expect in terms of old tunes versus new tunes on this Signs tour?
I’m at the rehearsal place right now. We’re working on all the new tunes. We’ll be adding new songs in the set, and there will be some of the older stuff, too, as well.
Your large and beautiful family must be so supportive. How do you balance being a touring musician?
If only there were a balance, you know? (laughs) There is no getting around that I’ve got to leave and spend time away from them. That’s the only downside to this whole thing. Not to complain (laughs). In general, I get to do what I love and support my family doing it, so that’s unbelievable. It’s been amazing just by itself, but being away from them is not fun. It is what it is though…it’s what life is. Everybody has those aspects to their life. You do the best you can.
But you are able to devote all of your time to them when you are home…
That is the very argument I make to my children all the time, ‘You don’t know how lucky you are. I could be gone all day, every day, and you’d never see me.’ (laughs) It is true. To somebody who is more pragmatic, to an adult, it makes total sense. But to them, it doesn’t matter, you’re gone…if it’s 10 minutes, three days, a week or two weeks, you’re gone, you know? And it’s the ‘goodbye’ that hurts the most when you’re little. But, you’re right, the time I do get when I’m home, I’m home. I don’t go anywhere else, so it’s good quality time.
Are any of the Lang kids future musicians?
They all are really…they love music. They’re always singing and banging on something. Always, always singing around the house. We’ll see what happens. They’re all so different. So, we don’t know yet. Everything turns into a drum (laughs) even the guitar. They just like to bang on stuff. I could see any one of them or all of them deciding to do music. But if they don’t, it’s okay. It’s a good thing they have their mom to teach them about the other stuff (laughs). Actually, music is mom’s thing, too, but she’s way smarter than me. She can handle the other stuff (laughs). She holds the whole thing together. She really does.
Are you already thinking about another album or do you put writing on hold while on tour?
I am the most disorganized human being on earth, so what goes on in the future is rarely because I planned it (laughs)…consciously anyway. There are people that I know and friends that I have who have this amazing work ethic and they’re talented, they can do it all. I get overwhelmed really easy, so I’m kind of like, ‘Okay, it’s album time’ or, ‘It’s touring time.’ Not much else will get in, if that makes sense?…when I’m doing one thing. So everything kind of just comes in seasons, I guess. I’m pretty happy just being able to play music for a living. It’s awesome.
Jonny Lang’s newest studio album, Signs, is set for release in the U.S. on Sept. 8 by Concord Records. The tour hits the area on the following dates: Highline Ballroom in New York, NY on Aug. 22, World Café Live in Philadelphia, PA on Aug. 23, Infinity Hall in Hartford, CT on Sept. 30, and Warehouse in Fairfield, CT on Oct. 1. For more details, visit jonnylang.com.