It’s been four years since Jonny Lang’s last studio album, Fight for My Soul tore up both the Billboard Blues and Billboard Christian Album charts, hitting number one and number two respectively. Lang, who launched onto the world stage with great, and deserved, acclaim with his 1997 album Lie to Me when he was all of 16 years old, has transitioned from preternatural child prodigy to veteran of the music scene, respected by his peers – including some of the biggest names to ever sling a guitar strap over their shoulder – and beloved by both hard-core blues and mainstream fans alike.
On his new albums Signs, which comes out in North American on Concord Records on Sept. 8, Lang admits he waited for the muse to hit him, hence the four-year gap, and found that to help encourage said muse, he needed to go back to the source material – old school electric blues.
“Songwriting has always come in waves and in seasons for me. Sometimes the songwriting tap just turns on full blast and songs are coming out left and right. And then it shuts down for a while, and will then suddenly come back on again – I don’t seem to have much control over its timing. When it does come, I try to capture what I can and make as much music from it as I can,” said Lang from a tour stop in northern California.
“I have been listening to a lot of Howlin’ Wolf and older music that I have always loved and was quite re-inspired by some of it. And I wanted, at least in some ways, to kind of offer a tip of the hat to that material. But, honestly, that’s about as much forethought as I put into this record. I guess it’s like a lot of artists, sometimes you need to go back to the source and get fed again.
“And the approach carried over into the studio where it was nice to sort of go in and I think it took us about three days to track all of the songs, in most cases needing only one or two takes. It’s so easy these days with software being so advanced now and the recording process so computerized you have a trillion options of what you can do with each note. So to retain your identity with all those options can be a bit of a challenge. It was nice to just go do it – just play and record and it make music and not think all that much about it. There was nothing too polished and we were letting things just be.”
Lang still believes in the importance of releasing full albums, be they in digital or physical formats.
“It’s like taking a photograph of where you’re at creatively and in life in general. I would say for this record if there was an overarching thought or inspiration to the whole thing, it was that I was just inspired to make a bit more of a raw sounding record. And I actually had thought about the purpose of putting out an album. Lots of people have said to me that I should just do EPs and release them more often,” he said.
“In some ways it’s nice that you have more options these days. Maybe the full-length record will die, unfortunately, once the generations that are used to having that sort of experience are gone. But for me it seems, for whatever reason, to be an incomplete work if it’s not the full album format. There is a narrative and a story and a journey, whatever that might be for the listener. And it’s nice to just sit and listen to a record from end to end and go on that journey.”
The journey on Signs is one that sees Lang exploring the ups and downs of life from the perspective of someone who, while still only 36, has lived quite the life.
A couple of the standout tracks on the album are Bitter End and Last Man Standing, both of which feature Lang’s maturation as a lyricist and overall excellence as a songwriter, one who is able to balance between tastefulness and reckless blues abandonment.
“Bitter End is a song that turned out completely different than I thought it would. I had originally thought of it as this brooding rock song, but it’s a fun part of the creative process to see things take shape and being surprised by where you end up at the end of the songwriting journey. This song has just been inspired by what we’re all seeing around us. It seems like for the last two years every headline and everything you hear is some kind of crazy disaster. The frequency of these things is almost absurd. It kind of turned into a song about remembering history and see what happens to people. Are we going to learn from history or are we going to keep hitting our heads against the wall and stop learning from our mistakes?” he said.
“Last Man Standing was a song that [producer] Drew Ramsey had started and brought in for us to finish together. For me it’s kind of about all these internal battles that each one of us has. If you look at life like a battlefield, which is what it feels like sometimes, it’s about overcoming some of those internal battles and you’re hopefully the last one standing at the end of it, with your head and heart and soul intact – battered but not broken.”
Lang married actress Haylie Johnson in June of 2001 and the couple have five kids. The marriage and family came on the heels of him getting clean and sober after spiralling into a lifestyle of alcohol and drug abuse, and of his becoming a Christian.
He said that becoming a dad had undeniably changed his approach to his music and his career.
“Anyone who is a parent knows it changes everything. There have been lots of adjustments to my recording and performing career and even just how I spend my time and what I do with the kids. They became my priority as my priority shifted way from self because I now have a family and I have responsibilities. It was a crazy experience for me in a lot of ways but once I got used to it and fully embraced it, it has turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me and it made me a better person,” said Lang.
“Basically, I just try to get home a lot more often than I used to. With a new album cycle we understand it’s going to be a lot more touring this year – it’s kind of necessary – but once that sort of dies down a little bit it will go back to a more normal schedule where I get to spend lots of time with my family. I always thought, ‘okay, we will find this magic balance and we will be happy with it.’ But there is no magic and no balance. You just kind of have to take it a day at a time and tack it as it comes.”
Ultimately, Signs is about resilience, perseverance and assurance that even through the trials and tribulations we all endure, life is still good.
And for Lang the father, the husband, and the musician, life is pretty darn good. Although not one for celebrating significant milestones, it must be pointed out that Lang’s breakthrough album Lie To Me was released 20 years ago, when he was just 16, coming a year after his independently-released debut album, Smokin’ when he was working under the moniker Kid Jonny Lang & The Big Bang.
The album catapulted Lang into the mainstream of pop culture as, even though the album was heavily influenced by the blues, the precociousness of the artist and the nods to more radio friendly accessibility on many of the tracks gave it mass appeal. In his peak commercial years, he toured with the likes of The Rolling Stones, Buddy Guy, Aerosmith, B.B. King, Jeff Beck and Sting and performed at the White House for the Clintons. In more recent years, he has been a regular part of the Experience Hendrix tour.
“I didn’t really give [the 20th anniversary] a lot of thought. Somebody told me about it and it is kind of amazing to think about it that 20 years have gone by, but it’s also felt like a blur. It’s a crazy feeling. Since then I have thought about it from time to time, but I still can’t process it. It is pretty amazing to have lasted this long in the business and hopefully I still have a lot of years left,” he said.
“It’s not something I am overly conscious about but it is kind of profound to me that I have been able to make a living doing music for 20 years and still be able to do it on a regular basis and still love it as much as I ever have. I don’t feel burnt out on it and I am still having a great time, so I definitely feel grateful for all those things.”
Lang’s fans in Toronto and Trois Rivieres, Quebec will also feel grateful to have the chance to see he’s musical mastery up close and personal, as those are the only two Canadian dates thus far on his Signs tour. On Aug. 25 he plays the Danforth Music Hall and the next day at the Trois-Rivieres en Blues festival.
For more information on Lang, on Signs and on tour dates, visit www.jonnylang.com.
- Jim Barber is a veteran award-winning journalist and author based in Napanee, ON, who has been writing about music and musicians for a quarter of a century. Besides his journalistic endeavours, he now works as a communications and marketing specialist. Contact him at email@example.com.