Interview: Jonny Lang

The heart and soul of the music
By Anthony Moser (and fans)
Photos by Paul Natkin

AM: When you started the process of making your newest album “Fight For My Soul” did you have a clear vision in mind and did everything turn out how you expected from the start?

JL: Pretty much every song turned out different than I had it in my head, but for the most part it turned out better than what I thought it would. The song Seasons, was a song that I didn’t think I’d ever put on an album. It’s been this way for a years, the stuff that I normally write, isn’t something I don’t think people expect to have on an album, so I’ve always kind of held back in that sense, stylistically. On this album the guy I did the record with, Tommy Sims, he kind of talked me into putting that song on the record, and I guess I can say that’s a song that turned out a bit differently than I had imagined it, but it wasn’t, worse or anything…

Everything that happened was very natural and didn’t feel forced.  -Lang on his new album

AM: Sure, a lot of times when things come out differently they come out better or they come out in ways that you might not have thought to ask other people to do, so it turns out more interesting as a result.

JL: Yeah, the truth is that if I was to try and steer it in the way that I thought it was going, it just doesn’t work that way. Musicians don’t respond as well to that as they do just being themselves and playing, so ultimately you get something that is better.

AM: How did you approach recording this? I know the one before this was a live album. Were you talking it one song at a time, were you doing some live cuts and then fill it in with the extra tracks? What approach did you take?

JL: It was kind of a weird process — you’re just talking about the process in general, right? There was some recording done six years ago, couple of the tunes. Some of the stuff was kept from demos that were made five or four years ago, some of it was really recent. I’ve never recorded a record over that span of time before so it was a bit different. It was a little challenging to get it all to sync up.

Lang,-Wood-&-Guy_005AM: I was about to ask a related question there. This album definitely had a lot of diverse sounds on it. Did you find it challenging to make it all come together and still have it sound like one coherent package, or were you trying to emphasis the different parts of it, or did it just come together in a pretty organic way?

JL: Well it’s definitely a naturally occurring thing. Everything that happened was very natural and didn’t feel forced. Although it was separated by a pretty significant amount of time, it still, I feel like it took care of itself, the continuity of it. I feel like that is something I did learn along this record, it’s that if you’re coming from the same place, it kind of doesn’t matter the style of the song or how long ago you recorded something else that you’re trying to match with what you’re doing right now, it kind of has a thread that runs through it. It all just worked out.

AM: Do you have a specific guitar that’s on most of this? Or is there a collection of different instruments that you ended up using?

JL: Yeah for the most part I used my Les Paul and my Telecaster. I have this Supro Dual Tone that got used a lot as well.

James Taylor I think is one of my biggest vocal inspirations, his phrasing and he’s like a perfect singer

AM: Nice, Supro. I’ve got a Supro lap steel, I didn’t realize that had a lot of other stuff out there. That’s great.

JL: Yeah that’s what Jack White normally plays, the Supro. It’s a pretty cool guitar.

AM: So I read that you got a bunch of extra stuff layered in there on [the song] What You’re Looking For – banjo, couple of other things in there – I was wondering, did you play those yourself or did you bring in other folks to do that?

JL: There is another fella who came in and played banjo, although it says that we didn’t actually end up using it on that song. Yeah, if it’s there at all it’s hardly audible. We tried it out and the guy did a great job, played a great part and everything. It ended up taking it in too much of a different direction so we decided to omit it.

AM: I read also that one of your main goals for this was album was to help people experience some hope or make them feel better and that they’re not alone, that sort of musical connection. I was wondering do you remember the first time you had that kind of connection, or that you really realized that music had that sort of power?

JL: Yes, I do. I think I was three years old, maybe four, and I saw Michael Jackson on the 25th anniversary of Motown. They had a big television show and I remember it clear as day, Michael Jackson on there and just… I just, before that I knew I just wanted to be a singer, I loved music, but when I saw that it just solidified it, I just couldn’t believe, it just freaked me out seeing somebody with that much talent and knowing that it was humanly possible to do that was just such an inspiration to me. Seeing MJ was the big kick-starter.

Johnny and Buddy hanging out at Legends

Johnny and Buddy hanging out at Legends

AM: You’ve become pretty famous as a guitar player but you’re also a very accomplished singer, do you have some specific vocal influences?

JL: Yeah, Stevie Wonder. I can’t say that, obviously, I don’t sound anything like Stevie Wonder, nor could I ever. But I think that just guys like him and James Taylor were more inspiration than influences. James Taylor I think is one of my biggest vocal inspirations, his phrasing and he’s like a perfect singer. One of the greatest, but there are tons of singers and musicians in general that I feel like I’ve been inspired by.

AM: On The Truth, it has a really interesting introduction, with the minor there and then it goes major there and then it goes back to minor, it’s cool, it’s really interesting, and I was wondering – are you a music theory guy at all, do you get into the theory part of things or do you just play it out and go with what you are hearing and feeling?

JL: (Laughing) Man I don’t know the first thing about all that. I wish I did, but no, I just sit down and write. However it ends up coming out, I’m not necessarily thinking about what are my options here quarterly, it just sort of pops in your head. If there’s a melody or whatever that I hear, I just try to play chords that compliment that melody. So on that song for whatever reason I started writing that, I just kind of had that minor guitar thing in mind and it ended up being that major and minor kind of thing naturally.

I wouldn’t call it practicing just ‘cause I feel like when I’m on the road—which is most of the time five nights a week playing a couple of hours a night—really, it’s more beneficial for getting better at guitar to take a break.

AM: You are releasing this album yourself, it’s self-produced, you’re going through your own label while partnering with some other labels to distribute it. I imagine that means you spent a pretty good amount of time being involved in the business end of creating the album.

JL: I don’t necessarily know a whole lot about that world but yeah, I’m more involved in that process than I ever have been.

AM: Specifically speaking in regard to that, what are your thoughts on the whole digital thing that has just sort of exploded out there and has become huge but has a lot of really unclear implications, applications like Spotify. Your albums are on Spotify but typically I know you only get fractions of a cent per stream, every time someone listens you get literally one fraction of a penny. So on the one hand it’s this great way to reach all these people but on the other hand as a business it’s a lot more ambiguous as to if it’s a good thing or what the implications will be.

JL: Yeah man, I think I just accept it in general that the world is the way it is. I feel like every fundamental part of my pragmatic existence in the country that I live in has changed since I was a little kid and it’s going to keep changing, you know, and the music business is just one of those things that has been effected. I stressed out a little bit about it, when the record business started tankin’ a little bit but I just figured, you know, that this is actually going to be good for music in the long run. I feel like music is one of those things like the housing market, it’s like over-valued. Not that any one’s art could have a value on it, per se, but I feel like it was a big bubble. Then all it took was a little technology to sort of bring it to earth. You know a lot of people’s livelihoods have been negatively affected and all that but I feel like a lot of musicians are getting a chance to be heard that never would have if the other model was still in place. I’m cool with it, if somebody steals my record and listens to it, that’s on them. If they’re cool with that and they can sleep at night and do that I’m not going to hate that person or anything, it’s just the way it is now.

Jonny Lang at Crossroads

Jonny Lang at Crossroads

AM: You have a lot of stuff going on, you’re busy touring playing all these shows, recording the album, you have a very active family life. I was wondering, do you practice, or do you more of less get out there and play?

JL: Man I don’t, I can’t say that I ever set aside time to practice. If I play when I’m at home at all, it’s usually just to write, pick up an acoustic guitar and hang out and mess around on that. I wouldn’t call it practicing just ‘cause I feel like when I’m on the road—which is most of the time five nights a week playing a couple of hours a night—really, it’s more beneficial for getting better at guitar to take a break. For me anyway. You know what, our bass player Jim, he’s one of the most unbelievable bass players, he knows theories, he’s an amazing musician and he practices all the time, and he just keeps getting better and better and better, so I don’t really have a very good excuse.

AM: I hear ya, man it’s not easy to find time to practice and find time for everything else. Do you play music with your family? Do you have sing-along time or have you taught your kids anything?

JL: Oh yeah, we’re always singing stuff in the car. Music is pretty easy to come by day-to-day for us. My kids all love to sing, they have all their favorite songs. It’s so cute, kids always want to put things on repeat and listen to it over and over. They love music.

AM: Do you find yourself getting exposed to music you might not listen to otherwise?

JL: Yeah actually, they turned me into a Justin Beiber fan.

AM: Oh yeah?

JL: Yeah, I didn’t really realize until I saw his documentary on him, that aside from who he is as a pop artist, at a sort of grass roots level he’s one of the best singers I’ve ever heard, he’s unbelievable. To hear that guy on a lot of his songs, I feel like one day he’s going to make his artist record and it’s going to be amazing. Not to take away from anything he’s done so far.

AM: I know what you’re saying. From what I understand you feel like you’ve gotten to express yourself more fully on this record than most of the stuff you’ve put out so far, that this is a pretty complete realization of the kind of stuff you wanted to put out, in maybe a way you hadn’t been able to before, and that is something he would have to look forward to.

JL: Yeah, sure. Yeah man. I don’t know if you’ve seen the documentary, if you’ve seen his whole starting and beginning, like him auditioning for Usher and he’s sitting on the street playing guitar and singing songs, I mean the kid is a genius. He’s legitimately an amazing musician. It’s going to happen one day, he going to have that record where he’s writing all the songs and you know, I hope anyway.

I think if I have a goal, it’s just that my being here on earth can play some sort of positive roll in someone else’s life.

AM: That kind of makes me wonder—you’ve done some shows touring with Buddy and he gets out there and brings Quinn out to jam, and Quinn Sullivan is obviously kind of going through or starting to go through some of the same roads you went down to become known as a young guitar prodigy. Do you have any suggestions or anything that you can offer these guys who are coming up on that path? It seems like it presents some unique challenges to take that path, to become know for that but not be limited by it and to be able to move on to develop and express yourself.

JL: Yeah, you know it’s probably true whatever path you originally take that you’re known initially for that whatever it is. I think the first impression is what always sticks in people’s minds. That’s the nature of people. In a way it is a challenge for people who are expecting a certain style out of you to come along with you somewhere else, but on the other hand maybe some new people are listening to your music as well.

AM: Have you found that to be the case for you as you’ve changed the way you’ve played over the years, has your audience also changed or has there been a lot of folks that have followed you on that journey?

Ron Wood, Buddy Guy, Rick Hall and Jonny Lang

Ron Wood, Buddy Guy, Rick Hall and Jonny Lang

JL: Yeah, I think my fans still continue to listen to the music as the style has changed, because it definitely has changed from the beginning, and some people have totally departed, and then I’ve gotten some new listeners as well. Just to be able to play music at all is awesome. I’m just glad that I even have the option to pursue the type of music that I want to and still make a living at it, I mean, what an awesome thing.

AM: You’ve got that tune What You’re Looking For and your saying basically to people they’re basically going to find what they’re looking for, that they’re going to get what they’re after one way or another. It seems in a lot of ways you’ve achieved many of the things you wanted, you’ve got this great new album coming out, you managed all the stuff with it and were able to realize your ideas in a very full way, you’re touring a lot, you’ve got your family, you’ve got a lot of things going great for you—so what are you looking for now?

JL: I think if I have a goal, it’s just that my being here on earth can play some sort of positive roll in someone else’s life. It’s kind of cheesy to say that but it’s how I feel I guess. I guess the longer you live, the saying, “the longer I live the less I know” and having had some of those experiences helps you to boil things down and helps you see your priorities, and I don’t honestly know where I’ll be or where I want to be in ten years or twenty years other than I’d like to be playing music for a living still. Hopefully I can, it’s the only thing I know I can do (laughing) I really honestly just want to be for someone else what Stevie Wonder was for me. For me to make someone’s day better, I guess you can say is my goal.

I’m like an armchair science guy, slash computer guy, slash… the biggest thing I’m into is Sci-fi.

AM: I read in one of your other interviews that someone asked you, “If you could come up a with a title for your life, what would it be?” And you said, “Jonny Lang: Chronicles of a Nerd.” And I’m a nerd myself, so I was just curious like, what kind of nerd would you say you are? Are we talking Star Wars, Star Trek, computer geek? What kind of nerd is Jonny Lang?

JL: I’m like an armchair science guy, slash computer guy, slash… the biggest thing I’m into is Sci-fi.

AM: Oh yeah? What’s your favorite?

JL: Like the worst the better (laughing) I think Star Trek is my favorite thing.

AM: Oh yeah Next Generation or original series?

JL: I’m a Next Generation guy. Honestly it’s so horrible but I feel like they’re my extended family, the cast of Star Trek. Jean-Luc is like the dad I never had or something. So yeah man, I love Star Trek, and I love Star Wars.

AM: The thing I love about Star Trek Next Generation is that unlike a lot of shows and movies, they do a good job of showing if you work really hard you can use peaceful communication to solve problems. You know they don’t make it easy but they show you that, yeah, people working together can help each other and its very optimistic in that way.

JL: Dude their moral fundamentals on that show are like, top notch, you can’t find better. It’s like Tolkien and those kind of guys are amazing with that but Star Trek is amazing with that too, so yeah, I agree with you I love that aspect of it.

AM: Right on man, it’s been great talking to you and congratulations on the record, and I’m sure we’ll be seeing you at a theater near us soon.

JL: Right on man, it was great talking to you bro, and if we’re near by and you want to come by the show feel free to stop back and say hi, it’d be cool to meet you man. Take care.

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BG is a free magazine bringing you stories about Buddy Guy's Legends, blues music, and music generally. Please direct submissions to buddyguyslegends@gmail.com for consideration.

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