“I don’t know what will come next,” Lang says. “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 albums like 1997’s Lie To Me and 1998’s Wander This World.
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, the Fargo, N.D. native was touted as the next Stevie Ray Vaughan. Lang was 15 when he recorded Lie To Me, just two years after his father gave him his first guitar. Released a day before his 16th birthday on major label A&M Records, the guitar prodigy’s first official album (following an independently released debut credited to “Kid Jonny Lang and the Big Band”) went platinum and he instantly became one of the most commercially successful artists in the Blues genre.
“I think there are a lot of people who want us to make (the) first record over and over again, but it’s obviously not the way of things,” Lang says. “I think it made some of those folks kind of happy to hear just a more raw approach to the music (on Signs).”
The fans Lang mentions probably wondered if they would ever again hear the hard-hitting Blues Rock version of Lang. On 2003’s Long Time Coming, he began to explore Soul and Funk, and its follow-up — the faith-inspired Turn Around, which included a song co-written with Christian music superstar Steven Curtis Chapman and musical contributions from the likes of Michael McDonald, Sam Bush and Buddy Miller — won Lang his first Grammy, not for anything in the Blues categories but for Best Rock or Rap Gospel Album. In 2013, Lang’s album Fight for My Soul took another step beyond the Blues style originally associated with Lang, showcasing a strong collection of songs that spanned Pop, Rock, Motown-inspired Soul and contemporary R&B.
While the more guitar-centered sound of Signs might have surprised his many fans, he says the shift wasn’t carefully formulated and came about very organically.
“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 says. “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 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 opening chords of “Make It Move,” the first track on Signs, as shards of acoustic guitar chords greet Lang’s pained vocals before the Gospel-ish song takes on more of a Rock edge, setting the stage for the album’s tone. The rest of Signs is infused with elements of Funk and Soul, but the lively production and performances give the Blues and Rock feel more dominance, something heard in the percolating funkiness of “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 the bluesy slow-burner “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-based “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, which began when Lang joined his collaborators and co-producers Drew Ramsey and Shannon Sanders for a writing session in Los Angeles. Some of the songs were incomplete ideas Lang had been working on for years, and they also created a few from scratch. After a week, the trio had most of the album written or at least mapped out. Recording was just as quick and seamless.
“All of the rhythm guitars, bass and drums and keys were pretty much 100 percent (done in) one to three takes in the studio,” Lang says. “Then we went to Nashville a couple of different times to do vocals and some guitar overdubs, but that was pretty much it.”
Lang credits the brisk creative pace to the familiarity and comfort he feels working with Ramsey and Sanders, who also worked on Lang’s previous two albums (Lang also brought in Tommy Sims to co-produce Fight for My Soul).
“They’re like family to me in a way,” Lang says. “We just fall into stuff. Music is such an awesome thing when you get a bunch of people together who aren’t concerned with being the star of the moment, and everybody is just kind of there to create because they love it and have love for each other. The most amazing feelings that I can say I’ve ever had (are) when those things happen. With Drew and Shannon, it’s like that every time we get together.”
Since touring behind the new album, Lang has had the chance to see how his new songs — as well as his lyrics — translate to live performances, something that should be fairly effortless considering his touring rhythm section of Barry Alexander on drums and Jim Anton on bass played on Signs 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 says of his set list. “And we want to try to put stuff in from previous records 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.”
Jonny Lang plays Taft Theatre Sunday, Jan. 14. Tickets/more info: tafttheatre.org.