A former guitar prodigy shows he’s all grown up with a sharp new set

By Jeff Tamarkin

At 33, Jonny Lang has been recognized as a master guitarist and vocalist for nearly two decades. A teen prodigy with a 40-year-old voice when he cut his debut album Smokin’ in 1995, he’s grown up in the public eye—and so has his music.

In his early years Lang made his mark playing and singing blues-rock. He was so gifted he was taken under the wing of giants like Buddy Guy, Eric Clapton and Ronnie Wood. In recent years he’s brought a new level of sophistication and depth to his music. Never has that been more apparent than on Fight for My Soul, Lang’s latest release. Musically, the Grammy winner incorporates more mainstream R&B and pop polish, but his maturity is displayed in his lyrics.

“In some cases they’re metaphorical but in others they’re literal,” says Lang of the album’s 11 songs, most co-written with co-producer Tommy Sims. “It’s probably my most personal record. Each one is different, but that’s not on purpose. I don’t do a whole lot of steering in any one direction. And if something isn’t happening right away I just scrap it. There’s nothing I hate more than laboring over something that’s supposed to be fun.”

Fight for My Soul is the seventh album for the Fargo, N.D., native, and his first studio release since 2006’s Turn Around. His sabbatical from recording was a carefully planned decision, with reasons close to home. “I didn’t want to miss the first years of my four kids’ lives and be that dad that they have no memory of,” he says.

Once he was ready to return to the studio, Lang says, he and Sims looked at “about 50 songs that were lying around. A lot of the lyrics were written toward the end, or they took a different form than I had originally planned on. Tommy helped me write the lyrics on a lot of the songs, and some were ones that he brought that were almost finished.” From his home in L.A., Lang discussed his new album, his early years, and his admiration for Justin Bieber.

Was it hard getting back into the writing groove after a seven-year break?

When I’m writing by myself, I have to wait for it to happen. I’m not somebody who can sit down and say, “I’m going to write now.” But when I’m writing with somebody we can bounce off each other. I’ve known Tommy for maybe 15 years and we’ve always written together. I always wanted to do a record with him.


What’s behind the title?

It refers in an abstract way to things I’ve felt in my life. “Fight for my soul” is a thread that runs through the songs. It’s a good descriptor of the record. I always try to come up with an album title that’s not the title of one of the songs, although it always ends up being titled after one of the songs.


What is the title track about?

The idea came to me about a little girl whose mom is a prostitute and her mom’s mom was a prostitute—that’s her life and all she’s ever known. But one day something hits her and she says, “I don’t have to do this. There’s something inside of me that wants to be what I am, and I’ve got to fight for that.” We all go through a point when we decide what to take with us from our childhood and what to leave behind so we can become our own person.


Do you write songs ready to record?

The songs exist in our heads. There isn’t much preproduction. There’s no, “Here’s the template, guys.” We just play a song for the band on acoustic guitar or piano and let the musicians do what they want.


Are you hands-on in the studio?

I don’t know enough about it. Even though I’ve been around it all these years, there’s no reason for me to get all up in there. That would just slow things down. But I am busy barking at people.


Are you trying to make hits?

I would like for there to be one or two songs on an album that get played on the radio. But I have gotten caught in the trap of trying to create music for that purpose. I just let it be what it is, and if it ends up being a radio hit then that’s a bonus.


What drew you to a musical career?

I remember watching the Motown 25 TV special and all those amazing artists—Michael Jackson doing his moonwalk. That was the defining moment for me: I want to do that. Later I started taking lessons from a fellow my dad knew who was in a blues band in Fargo. When I was 13 they wanted me to audition to be their singer. I also played a little bit of rhythm guitar, but I got better at guitar as time went on. Being in a good band right off the bat was important. If I had been sitting in my room listening to records and trying to play like other people, I wouldn’t have progressed as quickly as I did playing live.


What was it like being noticed by Eric Clapton and Buddy Guy at such a young age?

I can’t even explain. I never get over that. It freaks me out, and not because they’re celebrities, but because others who are so good at what they do would consider me someone they want to hang with musically. It’s such a huge compliment. To be this little white kid and have someone like Buddy Guy wanting to play with me. I’m thinking, “Do I even have a right to play this music?” But Buddy said, “Don’t ever let anybody tell you that. It’s not about that.” He never treated me like a little kid. From that moment on, if Buddy Guy said it was OK, nobody would ever be able to tell me anything else.


What’s the future of the blues?

There weren’t singers who were trying to be like Billie Holiday for 40 years, and suddenly in the ’80s all these female jazz singers started claiming Billie Holiday as their main influence. She was always there waiting to be found, and I think that’s the same with blues. It will always be there, and someone will always come around to pick it up. That said, once Buddy Guy and

B.B. King and a few other guys are no longer with us, it’s gone, man. Not that nobody’s going to do the blues justice but it’s unique because it’s as much of a cultural thing as it is a musical thing. There aren’t going to be any more guys that grew up in that era, who went through what they went through culturally—and the music was birthed out of their experience. When they’re gone, we lose that part of history. We’re all standing on their shoulders.

Have a favorite singer?

I have two—Stevie Wonder and James Taylor. They sound different, but there is something about them that is so identical to me. There’s music you listen to in the background and then there’s medicinal music. These are more medicinal—if I’m going through something I can put one of those guys on.


Recall a favorite gig?

I got to sing a Stevie Wonder song when he was being inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. He asked us to do “Living for the City,” and I was so nervous. I couldn’t even think straight. I got up there and I’m looking at Stevie, Aretha Franklin, Smokey Robinson, Gladys Knight, Roberta Flack and Sam Moore—all of my heroes. I don’t even remember what happened next. I was so afraid—but I got it done! That was one of the greatest honors ever.


You’re a Justin Bieber fan.

I’ve gotten so much flak for that. (laughs) My kids had me watch a documentary on him when he first started, and he’s literally a genius. He’s not some cute kid who’s been picked up and processed by the machine. There are elements of that pop machine at work, but he is a legit singer. I watched that and it turned me into a fan. I’m not crazy about some of the tunes. But there’s going to come a day when he makes his artist record, and it’s going to blow everybody’s mind. Now he’s just a kid with money, and he’s made questionable decisions. But one day he’s going to find his center and slay the dragon.


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