Jonny Lang says his new album, Signs is an example of just letting an album be what it wanted to be musically.
“I don’t know what will come next,” Lang said in a recent phone interview. “But yeah, this one was just the record that felt right in this season of my life.”
Signs is the kind of album that’s likely to please a lot of longtime fans who first heard Lang when he was in his teens and releasing the albums Lie To Me in 1997 and Wander This World a year later.
With his fiery blues-rock sound, his accomplished guitar playing and a rough and tumble singing voice that sounded decades older than his actual age–15 at the time he recorded Lie To Me–Lang was touted as the next Stevie Ray Vaughan.
“I think there are a lot of people who want us to make our first record over and over again. But it’s obviously not the way of things,” Lang said. “So yeah, I think it made some of those folks kind of happy to hear some just a more raw approach to the music (on Signs).”
The fans Lang mentions probably wondered if they would ever again hear another Lang album made up primarily of hard-hitting blues-rock. That’s because the singer/guitarist’s music took a notable turn with the albums that followed Wander This World.
Beginning with third album, 2003’s Long Time Coming, Lang began to incorporate strong elements of soul, funk, Motown and gospel into his sound, and by the time of 2013’s Fight For My Soul, blues-rock had taken a backseat to a more soul-based sound.
The turn back toward blues and a more guitar-centered sound on Signs will come as a surprise to many fans. But the shift came about naturally.
“I just kind of got re-inspired, I don’t know if re-inspired [is the right word], but I had been listening to a lot of Howlin’ Wolf and Tom Waits, just like that open room sound, like live in the studio, not too producer-refined stuff,” Lang said. “I was like ‘Man, I think that should be the approach on this next one.’ It just felt like the right way to go. But that was pretty much the only thought that I had or guideline that I had going into it. The songs themselves, the style of the songs, wasn’t something I tried to guide in that direction. It was more from a production standpoint, the approach I wanted to take.”
The raw approach is apparent from the first chords of “Make It Move,” the opening track on Signs, as shards of acoustic guitar chords greet a pained vocal from Lang before the gospel-ish song takes on more of a rock edge. The next song, “Snakes,” sets more of the rock tone of the album, with a driving beat and plenty of stinging guitar. The rest of the album delivers burly rock on “Last Man Standing,” a tense mix of rock and soul on the standout title track, percolating funky rock on “What You’re Made Of” (a tune that evokes memories of Bill Withers’ “Use Me Up” or the Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There”) and some slow-burning blues on “Wisdom.” The only songs that dial things down a bit are the impassioned ballad “Bring Me Back Home,” a track recorded in Nashville with producer Josh Kelly, and the acoustic-laced “Singing Songs.”
The way Signs came together supports the idea that Lang and his collaborators weren’t forcing their creativity or any preconceived ideas on the project. Most of the songs were written with Drew Ramsey and Shannon Sanders, Lang’s co-producers for the album, in about a week; the basic tracks were recorded live in the studio in just three days.
“All of the rhythm guitars, bass and drums and keys were pretty much 100 percent, what you hear there is within one to three takes in the studio,” Lang said. “Then we went to Nashville a couple of different times to do vocals and some guitar overdubs. But that was pretty much it.”
Now Lang is getting the chance to see how his new songs, as well as his lyrics, translate to live performance–something that should be fairly effortless considering his touring rhythm section: Barry Alexander (drums) and Jim Anton (bass) both played on the album and most of the tracking was done with the musicians playing together live in the studio.
“We’re doing five or six (new songs) right now at the moment, depending on the night,” Lang said of his set list. “And we want to try to put stuff in from previous records, too, that folks kind of want to hear. So we do about a two-hour show. To fit everything in is a little challenging, to pick the songs. But yeah, we’ve been doing a lot of new stuff.
“It’s going pretty well live,” he said. “It’s working out well.”