Jonny Lang Picks On 'Signs,' Buddy Guy, '90s Slow Jams & Golf
At age 36, it's amazing to think that blues guitarist Jonny Lang already has more than 20 years of experience as a performer and recording artist. His career highlights include notching his first platinum album at 15 (1997's Lie To Me) and a Best Rock Or Rap Gospel Album GRAMMY at age 26 for 2006's Turn Around.
On his latest release, Signs, Lang returns to his guitar-based roots and channels the spirit of early blues heroes such as Robert Johnson and Howlin' Wolf. Currently on tour in support of the LP, Lang took some time before a Boston concert to discuss his approach on Signs, his favorite blues recordings, his non-music addiction, and where his GRAMMY is on display.
You've talked about Signs being more of a "guitar" record from you, but it sounds very song-oriented rather than serving as a launch pad for screaming leads.
That's right. When I've mentioned that I wanted it to be a guitar-centered record that's what I was referring to — that there would be a lot of guitar riffs that would serve as the foundation of the songs, not necessarily solos everywhere.
On songs like "Signs," "Make It Move" and "Into The Light" there's a down-and-dirty blues sound that almost has the feel of a live recording.
We kind of treated it like a live album. I got the band together in the studio and played the songs for the guys one by one on acoustic guitar and then they worked out their own parts. They're such good players that things usually ended up even better than I expected. I like that live-in-the-studio approach because you leave room for happy accidents and beautiful moments of discovery.
What blues albums would you recommend for someone who needs a blues introduction?
The first one I would think of would be Albert King's Live Wire/Blues Power. That's him live at the Fillmore in 1968 — playing with arguably the greatest guitar tone of all time. He's really easy for a first-time blues listener to get. Very palatable. Then I'd say Albert Collins' Ice Pickin', which is probably my favorite guitar record. I've never met anyone else who thinks of that as their favorite guitar record but it's probably the one that influenced my playing the most. And then the B.B. King King Of The Blues box set, which has all the really good old recordings. Some of that really early B.B. stuff is just insane.
Is there a musician you’ve jammed with who left you starstruck?
I got to play with Buddy Guy pretty early on and really jam with him and that just simultaneously scared me to death and made me better.
Your guitar work gets a lot of attention but the vocals on Signs are equally expressive. Who do you listen to for vocal inspiration?
You know, if I had to pick one or the other I'd probably pick singing over guitar — that's my first love and I'm most inspired by other singers. Stevie Wonder comes to mind as a master vocalist, and I'd put James Taylor up there too. James is interesting because he's so understated it's easy to miss the incredible musicality of his vocal work.
Is there a song by someone else that you wish you'd written?
There are millions. I'd be happy to have written any James Taylor song but there's one of his called "Enough To Be On Your Way" from the Hourglass album. Every time I hear that one it's as powerful as the first time I heard it.
Do you have some favorite guitar solos by other players?
Off that Albert King record I mentioned — on the song "Blues Power" he takes a solo that might be the greatest guitar solo ever. There are several in the song, but the one toward the end is unbelievable.
How about a favorite of your own solos?
I’m not a fan of listening to myself. Usually by the time I'm done in the studio I've listened to the songs a thousand times and I'm sick of everything I've played. But on [Signs] I'm pretty proud of some of the solos. We captured a few more magic moments than we have in the past. The one solo I'm most proud of is on the song "Bring Me Back Home."
What's Jonny Lang’s musical guilty pleasure?
I used to have "guilty pleasures" but now they're just pleasures. It's all just music to me now. I'm really a sucker for voices and I'll listen to anything if I like the singer — doesn't matter how cheesy the production. There are a lot of '90s R&B songs that I love just because of the vocals. People might not expect to find me listening to '90s slow jams but I could listen to that stuff all day.
What’s your favorite non-musical pursuit?
I love to golf — besides music that's the other thing I'm kind of addicted to in life. Blues and country clubs don't fit together very well, so golf doesn't really feel like something a blues guitarist should be doing, but I love it.
Do you have a favorite movie to watch on the tour bus?
No particular favorite but I'm a big fan of The Avengers movies and all that kind of stuff. I'm a huge nerd when it comes to comics, so I love all those Marvel movies. I'm a little kid when it comes to taste in movies.
And, most importantly, where do you keep your GRAMMY?
It's not out in the middle of the house. My wife homeschools our kids and it's in their home-school room sitting in the cabinet where their textbooks go. I'm not sure what the kids think of it but I consider that a place of honor.
(Chuck Crisafulli is an L.A.-based journalist and author whose most recent works include Go To Hell: A Heated History Of The Underworld, Me And A Guy Named Elvis, Elvis: My Best Man, and Running With The Champ: My Forty-Year Friendship With Muhammad Ali.)