Blues-rock guitarist and singer Jonny Lang talks songwriting process and gratitude
Jonny Lang was a boy wonder. And there is still a lot of wonder left today. Currently on tour promoting his eighth studio album Signs, the American blues-guitar wiz is an old pro on the road, on the stage and in the studio. Gaining massive attention as a guitar prodigy at 15 put him on a trajectory that had him sharing the stage with icons like B.B. King, Eric Clapton and Buddy Guy, touring with the Rolling Stones and winning a Grammy.
Now 36, Lang is fine-tuned with no shortage of songs to sing. Vancouver Weekly caught up with him during the European leg of his current tour and discussed Signs, process and looking back on old times.
Vancouver Weekly: How did you feel back then sharing the stage with all those legends, and how do you feel now doing the same thing?
Jonny Lang: Just grateful, you know? To share the stage with any musician, just to play music with people at all is an incredible gift for me. Let alone someone like Buddy Guy or B.B. King.
VW: Can you tell me a little bit about the dynamic between you and your band right now?
JL: What makes music fulfilling for me is that in the studio when I’m developing a song, if I’m going to just try and completely control and manage what everyone is doing I think I’d be doing a disservice to the music. It’s everyone’s gifts, abilities and perspectives of the songs that really enhance them. Makes them all they can be. At least for me, it always turns out better than I imagined it could. I like everybody to be a part of the vision of it.
VW: Does anyone in your band surprise you and go off-script on stage?
JL: Oh yes. There’s a basic construct, but there are places within that where everyone can find their own voice on any given night. And it’s crazy to be able to trust people with that—my band are just incredibly gifted musicians.
VW: This album is very guitar-centred, as your albums often are. I know you’ve mention Robert Johnson being an inspiration for some of the work on it, and you have got a lot of your usual blues roots elements in it. Can you tell me about the writing process for this one?
JL: I had no concepts for the album other than production-wise I wanted it to be a bit more raw. Not so produced—a little more live-in-the-studio sounding. Hearing the sound of the room more so than hearing the direct sound of the instruments. I was inspired by Howlin’ Wolf tunes at that time. But song writing-wise, there were a bunch of songs from years ago and songs written at the last minute, and some written for the record. A bit all over the place. The last song on the record, “Singing Songs,” was written eight or nine years ago. We came up with the basic arrangement and chorus for the song, but it just sat until this record.
VW: I’m really interested in if you notice a difference in yourself and in your writing style since ten years ago.
JL: Every now and then you stumble on something that just doesn’t really have an expiration date. It’s still as inspiring now as it was then. All of those things like style and the continuity of your style in one era as opposed to another…I’ve never really given much thought to that. It never seems to be something to navigate, for me anyway.
VW: I know that “Signs” was kind of inspired by what we’re seeing happen in the news right now. Do you feel like any other songs are coming out of any anxiety current events might be causing?
JL: Yeah. I’ve pretty much switched off my television. For me, if I leave the news on it gets in my head a little too much.
VW: You’re in Europe right now. Does it feel different over there?
JL: It’s very different. I think in a lot of ways Europeans are more mature as a whole, how they function corporately as people. Because they’ve been around so long—it’s a little calmer over here, at least these days.
VW: What is it like to intertwine old blues styles with contemporary song writing? You seem to have a really great method for creating songs that have these innate blues elements but seem uniquely you.
JL: I really don’t think about it. I wish there was some process to speak of. It’s just me. It’s pretty much just where I’m at in life that dictates what comes together on the record.
VW: I know you have a hard time listening to your old records like ‘Wander This World’ and ‘Lie to Me.’ What have you decidedly made a point of changing in your life and music since then?
JL: I’ve never really taken a course of action to change stylistically with song writing. It’s kind of like photographs. I think that when most people see a photograph of themselves like a high school photo they’re like…oh man what was I thinking? The hair…it’s kind of like that. It’s not that I don’t like the older stuff, it’s just like…I don’t like looking at older pictures of myself (laughs).
VW: Especially ones where you weren’t wearing shoes…?
JL: (laughs) Oh man…I thought I was so cool!
VW: I thought you were cool!
JL: Oh well thanks! As long as someone else thinks you’re cool then I guess it’s fine.
Jonny Lang will be playing the Commodore Ballroom on Wednesday, November 29 in Vancouver.