Jonny Lang is back after a 7 year hiatus with a groundbreaking new album ‘Fight For My Soul’, which falls back on his formative influences of R&B and soul.
Judged simply in terms of relentless road work – that is touring under in his own name and with Buddy Guy, as well as being part of the on going ‘Experience Hendrix’ tour – he’s never really been away. But ‘Fight For My Soul’ not only announces a high profile return to recording, but it is also backed by some long overdue European dates.
Jonny signed with A&M records as a 15 year old and cut the multi-platinum ‘Lie To Me’ album. The follow up ‘Wander This World’ was Grammy nominated and ten years after his stunning debut album, the gospel influenced ‘Turn Around’, actually won him his first Grammy Award.
Pete Feenstra talks to Jonny Lang about the new album, his musical influences and his stellar career so far.
Is ‘Fight For My Soul’ an autobiographical kind of statement?
Yeah it is a bit, as it’s named after one of the tracks on the album and that track is autobiographical.
You’ve said that Motown, Michael Jackson and Smokey Robinson were all influences when you were growing up. They certainly seem to have influenced this record?
You know it’s funny thing, as everyone’s been telling me that now after the album has been released for promotion, but I didn’t hear that side of it at all, and I wasn’t aware of that at the time. But it’s a cool thing and maybe it was just a part of me from when I was growing up and it just came out, which is kind of neat.
Would you say it’s part of growing up and maturing as an artist?
Yeah I think so, though I’ve never ever been accused of maturing (laughs), but yes definitely those artists are a big part of my life.
As well as recording this album, you’ve been touring with Buddy Guy and been part of the Experience Hendrix tour. That must very different from recording your own album?
It’s kind of funny. I guess as a guitar player my influences are more in the blues category, but as a songwriter I found that the material that comes out is hardly in that that category, so I don’t know just where the real focus is.
Was your producer Tommy Sims someone you particularly wanted to work with and did he encourage you to explore the more soulful side of music?
Yeah Tommy Sims and I produced the album. Well I mean certainly his influences were in there, but that was by design and I’ve always been a huge Tommy fan ever since I first heard his solo record ‘Peace & Love’. So ever since I was introduced to his music I wanted to make a record with him.
So when you came to recording the album did you have all the songs all written?
I had a lot of the songs either nearly done or sort of had them half complete, so Tommy helped me finish a lot of the songs and he brought in a couple of songs as well, but there all original songs.
There’s a notable gospel influence on there, was that a direction you wanted to go in?
Sure, I mean I really had no preconception of which direction to head in, but the songs themselves dictated the direction.
You’ve pushed your vocals to the max on this album. Did the gospel input inspire you to go a bit further?
Yeah, vocally ever since I was young, people like Michael Jackson and as you mentioned Stevie Wonder were influences and I got into tons of gospel singers over the last 5 to 10 years, so all of that is getting in here somehow.
It’s been 7 years since your last album, was that a luxury you wouldn’t have had if you were still on a major label?
Yes, absolutely, they would have shuffled me off a long before that time came, but fortunately it all worked out OK.
Were you still writing during that time, as you never actually stopped touring?
Yes I was still on the road doing what I could while also trying get back to the family when I could.
You are known for your emotive performances, do you find it difficult to do that night after night?
Uh no, I mean for me that’s the easiest part, just to let go and be emotionally led or spiritually led.
There’s also some commercial and radio friendly tracks on this album, particularly the opening three tracks and especially ‘Blew Up (The House)’?
Great! That awesome; no I’ve not heard anyone say that before, that makes me very happy…I like that very much, I just hope people will play the record.
2003’s ‘Long Time Coming’ was a notable change in direction, did that reflect the fact that you had matured as artist?
Yeah I started writing and having the need to have a bit of that that expressed on the record, but also on the other side, I was a little afraid that some other people might be a bit upset because there wasn’t their quota of blues in there.
Do you think you think you will have to drag your blues fans over to the new direction?
I try not to worry about that, but I can’t honestly say that I don’t sometimes think about it. I hope they like this album. I’d like it if everyone on earth liked this album, but I know not everyone is going to like everything.
This is a strong and focused album. Was it difficult to find a new direction after 7 years away from recording?
Right. It was a logistical nightmare to be honest. Thank goodness for Tommy Sims. We both produced the album, but without him I wouldn’t be sitting here talking about it, as I didn’t have the first clue as to some of the things you have to do make an album yourself.
Yeah, I only wielded the creative portion before, so taking on other things was challenging and new to me.
We’ve mentioned ‘Blew Up’ from the new record, but I also like ‘Breakin’ In’, which almost has a Curtis Mayfield feel to it?
I hadn’t thought about that, but now that you mention it, yeah I can see it.
You sound like you pushed your vocals to the limit and you sing in falsetto, was that a reflection of the material or your interaction with the band?
In most of those songs it’s just because of necessity as I can’t sing that high. I can’t really do them unless I sing them in falsetto so that’s what I did. I never attack a song separately like that, I tend to do them in the moment and with the band I’m working with.
‘We Are The Same’, is big production number with a stuttering rhythm and strings reminiscent of The Temptations ‘Ball of Confusion’ and the hook is very Stevie Wonder?
Oh wow, that’s great. It’s fun to hear what people think about it and to hear you talk about the song in those terms, as I’d never thought about that, but it’s cool.
You also have a great solo on there with nice distorted tone at the beginning of the guitar solo?
Well it’s the tone mixed with and played with these two notes that are dissonant and just don’t agree, and so that gives it the distortion.
‘What You’re Looking For’, is the strongest track on the album, and has the line: ‘If your looking for Love, hope or faith? Your gonna find what your looking for? Is that statement of faith?
Sure a bit, I mean I think it’s a song about uh – well, obviously the chorus says what the song is ultimately all about – but its just about perspective. You can choose to look at things negatively or positively, or whichever way you like to look at situations.
‘Not Right’ is closer to Prince?
Sure yeah, he’s another influence big time, I love him.
Do you think there’s still a significant market in The States for contemporary soul, gospel & R&B?
I’m really the wrong person to ask about whether this stuff is worthy of radio in the USA, but we had hoped that there are a couple of tracks that would be OK for radio, so we’ll see.
‘The Truth’ is an emotive ballad with the metaphoric line: ‘You are the drug I need’. Is it based on personal experience?
Taken literally it’s a fiction, but it’s kind a metaphor for just uh…. I think we’ve all been through something that we’ve all wished we‘d never have known, so that’s basically it.
‘The River’ also has a nice Motown feel to the production?
Thank you, very much man, it’s great and I’m happy to hear all these positive things about the songs.
‘All Of A Sudden’ is a moving falsetto duet with the line: ‘My home is on the highway and my family on the stage’. Was that a true reflection on things?
Yeah it’s true, I was just trying to explain in that moment just how much meeting her really meant.
There’s a big difference between playing Hendrix on tour and the material on this album. Was it difficult to refocus as a solo artist?
Man, it really wasn’t, I’ve grown used to being a guitar player and singer, and also a guitar player, singer and songwriters separately, so these song were easy to come by in term of writing and laying them down.
You’ve described Hendrix as ‘refined recklessness’ and you also often appear ‘lost in the moment’ yourself when soloing, but that seems very far removed from the material on this album?
It’s kind of funny as a guitar player my influences are more in the blues category, but as a song writer the song that come out are hardly in that that category, so it’s just where it is.
Do You feel a different person from the young Jonny Lang who toured with Aerosmith and the Stones?
I do, and I feel different and I look at the work differently. I guess after having children things are a bit more prioritised and maybe a bit more serious. I think it shows in the music and I definitely think it affected the tone of this album.
How much of the album can we expect in the live show?
Quite a bit. I would think most if not all the material, but we like to do a lot of different things on the live show, so we’ll see.
Do you still play Stevie Wonder’s ‘Living In The City’?
Yeah, it’s a song we still do fairly frequently and we did a show with him a few months ago, because of the record and everything.
How did you come across Edgar Winter’s ‘Dying to Live’
That song came about because at that at the time I was on A&M Interscope and Jimmy Lovine who was the head of the label said, you’ve go to hear this song, I think you should do it. So we recorded it and actually Edgar Winter came to the studio when we were mixing it as he heard we were doing it and wanted to hear it. It was really cool and he was very polite and said he liked it
Who will be on this tour with you?
The same band as on the record, the guys I’ve been with for some years now. Some members have been with us longer than others. I get along with these guys musically in a way that is almost miraculous. They couldn’t be better musicians. I couldn’t hope for better musicians and people to be with. We all get on so well, it’s a real honour to play and meet these people.
In your early career you were one of the first blues rockers to be exposed on video?
Well you brought a niche music into the mainstream?
Sure absolutely, I think so, ell, at least before the digital thing really just scooped up the entertainment industry. Any form of content really just bleeds into the next form of content I think these days.
What was it like appearing in The Blues Brothers film?
It was really fun, though I can’t stomach to watch my part in it!
Well you try it (laughs). I got to be on there with a lot of other greats too. I was scared to be on the movie and with all these people like Wilson Pickett etc. It was pretty intimidating.
And how about touring with the Stones?
It was one of the most memorable times of my life, going on the road with those guys and playing music with them and hanging out with them from time to time. They treated us so well and were so kind, it was thrilling for me.
Interview © June 2013 Pete Feenstra
Photos by Mark Hughes (MHP Studios 01883 344852), except CD cover.
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