Interviews & Features
Jonny Lang’s Signs Are Right
Still-youthful gunslinger talks about his new album, acceptance from his elders
By Gary Graff
August 18, 2017
At the age of 36, Jonny Lang has the reputation and track record of an established and even grizzled veteran. That’s what happens when you get an early start — at 12 years old on the guitar, in Lang’s case, and at 15 as a recording artist, when his debut album Lie To Me hit No. 1 on on the Billboard New Artist Chart. Lang won a Grammy Award for its follow-up, Wander This World and hasn’t looked back since, with five more studio albums, guest appearances with Buddy Guy, the Blues Brothers, Willie Nelson, Hanson and more and sharing stages with the likes of Guy, the Rolling Stones, Aerosmith, B.B. King, Jeff Beck, Sting and as part of the Experience Hendrix Tour. He also appeared in the film Blues Brothers 2000 and played the inaugural ball for Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura. Lang’s latest album, Signs, is his first in four years and has him back on the road in high-gear after another summer outing with Guy.
FGPO: Does it feel like a minute since you’ve had a new album out?
Lang: I think it happens to everybody, but, man, time just slips away from you. It feels like two weeks ago we did our last record, to me. There’s no particular reason for it. It’s just how life has worked out for me, between being with my kids and the family and stuff and trying to make a record and be on the road at the same time. It can be a little bit tricky to do everything at once.
FGPO: Were you accumulating songs the whole time?
Lang: Yeah, a lot of the songs were written from ideas that have been around for years, and some of them we just kind of came up with right on the spot. I would say “Snakes,” that sound, has been around the longest, probably; we actually cut that a long time ago, probably 10 years ago or something and that particular version didn’t really pan out. But we liked the song so much we wanted to re-cut it and we nailed it this time. You just never know what’s laying around that you can pick up and use.
FGPO: You come out of the blues, really. Do you think that’s a genre that gives its artists more latitude to make albums when the rest of the music world has reverted to singles or individual songs, and so much streaming?
Lang: I’ll tell you, it is exciting to release a record still, the record business being what it is. For me it’s kind of always been about the satisfaction on the career side of it, just the satisfaction of doing something you love and getting to make a living at it and making records other people listen to and actually like. To still be doing it is pretty incredible, man.
FGPO: Signs is a very diverse album. Is that something you set out to do or just how it came out?
Lang: I gave no thought to that, and never really have. I just sort of write songs, and if they make sense with the rest of the stuff in some kind of way then we’ll put them on the same record. There’s definitely some substantial ground covered with different styles and stuff. I hope it’s not too herky-jerky for the listener, but it made sense to me.
FGPO: Is that reflective of your own taste and orientation to music?
Lang: I guess so, yeah. I like so many different things. I definitely listen to some of the folks that I work with and kind of defer to them — like Drew [Ramsay] and Shannon [Sanders], the guys I did this record with. They kind of keep me focused, say: “Let’s stay on track here. Let’s not get too out there.” If I didn’t have folks like that, I think I’d definitely run the risk of spreading myself even further, and maybe too thin.
FGPO: The blues still seems like your main emphasis, though.
Lang: For sure. A lot of the record is some of the more raw, older-sounding stuff and guitar tones inspired by Howlin’ Wolf and Robert Johnson, that era of blues music. If I had anything I wanted to accomplish, it was to reflect that style on this record. It just felt right. I’ve been doing this Muddy Waters song [“Forty Days and Forty Nights”] live, by myself, the last few years; maybe that created an itch to want to record more stuff like that this time.
FGPO: Anything on here that felt particularly surprising to be playing for you?
Lang: I really like the song “Bitter End.” I didn’t imagine it coming out like that at all; I had it totally different in my head, so it’s just one of those happy surprises. You give the song to the fellas in the studio to make of it what they want and let them make of it what they want and let them take it where it wants to go. They definitely get at least half the credit for it, and then I go back and put my guitar stuff on there. And like so many other recordings it turned back better than I expected, just the arc of it. That’s, like, the second time the band played that song.
FGPO: Any guitar stuff on Signs that was different for you?
Lang: One guy we had in particular who made a difference behind the scenes was Matt Hyde. He’s an awesome producer and engineer, and he had an incredible guitar amp collection and effects collection. I was just rummaging through his stuff. I would pick out this tiny five-watt National amplifier from the ‘60s and it instantly became my favorite amp I ever played. I used it on most of this record, and playing through that amp inspired me to play in a lot of different ways I hadn’t before. That amp is the secret champ of the whole thing.
FGPO: What do you feel is the difference between “Kid” Jonny Lang, who made that first album, and the musician you are now at 36?
Lang: Good question — I don’t know. [laughs] I can’t think of a huge difference other than if I look at video of myself way back then, I think I had more energy [laughs], but that’s about it. When I watch myself on stage now, I’m a little more reserved, but I guess that just comes with age. But technically and stuff, I don’t know if I’ve progressed an incredible amount since then. I’ve definitely learned a lot about music; that has influenced my playing for sure.
FGPO: You did another tour with Buddy Guy this summer. That’s a long-standing relationship, since you were a teenager. What does it mean to you?
Lang: It’s just such an honor for me, still. Words can’t say what he means musically to me, just watching him over the years and feeling accepted by him and having him make me feel welcome every time I come around. I was playing with him and B.B. [King] and those other guys so early, it just happened before I even could formulate in my mind what that might feel or look like. It’s taught me so much along the way, and it’s just so cool, man, so I really love that guy.
FGPO: Buddy is one of the many forebears who accepted you right off the bat, back when you were a teenager. That must feel special, too.
Lang: Man, it just happened before I even formed that thought in my head. I didn’t even consider that might happen one day. We got that song on the right, “Lie To Me,” and that just kind of catapulted everything so quickly and all of a sudden I was playing with B.B. and Buddy and folks like that, and I didn’t even have time to even formulate what that might feel like or look like.
FGPO: Is there a specific lesson or two you got from any of those guys that’s still key to your musical life now?
Lang: I’ve been asked that, and I’ve not been able to remember any: “Hey, he pulled me aside and said: ‘Lemme teach you something, son,’” that kind of thing. I think mostly that the guys have been really nice to me, and gals, along the way. They all seemed like once they all had somebody in their lives who had treated them well and they know how important that was, so they wanted to take the time to do that with me or something. That’s an incredible thing to do with a young person; it can completely change the course of their lives to get that kind of support from people they look up to. I’ve been really lucky.