June 24, 2010

An Interview with Jonny Lang

Johnny Lang (photo: Donald Gibson)

On Saturday, Jonny Lang will play the Crossroads Guitar Festival in Chicago, joining the likes of Jeff Beck, B.B. King, Steve Winwood, and Buddy Guy, among dozens of others. Sharing the stage with musicians of such stature is nothing new to Lang. And in fact this will be his second Crossroads appearance — he performed at the inaugural event in 2004 — but this time he’d like to meet one legend to whom he’s been compared but whose path hes yet to cross: Eric Clapton. I’ve never met him, Lang says, sounding anxious at the opportunity. I hope I get to.

The day-long festival comes during an especially productive time for Lang. In addition to working on his own forthcoming studio album, he's contributed to Carlos Santana’s next all-star release as well as to jazzman Lee Ritenour’s 6 String Theory and Cyndi Lauper’s Memphis Blues. “She’s awesome,” Lang says in praise of Lauper, adding that she “understands that style of music so much more deeply than I had assumed. She’s really something else.”

Lang is also well into his Live By Request tour, in which he plays a few selections voted for by fans on his website. More often than not, he says, the top picks are ones from Lie To Me and Wander This World, his major-label debut and its follow-up, respectively. However, he concedes,
I find it a little bit tough to relate to the first couple albums, although that doesnt deter him when it comes time to perform. When you’re playing live you get caught up in the moment, he says, and the moment is enough inspiration in and of itself to make a good performance out of it.

Lang’s more recent efforts have underscored his emergence as a lyricist, so that he most identifies with those isn’t all that alarming. However, listeners who expected him to recycle the same blues-based motifs he made his name on were indeed surprised to discover he'd taken his music in a new direction.

Your songwriting, in particular, has evolved over recent years to reflect more spiritual themes. Has that been liberating for you?

It really is. The first few records I couldn’t really relate to what I was singing [about]. It’s been fun to try to get better at putting my feelings into words and having it work. It’s very therapeutic being able to put your experiences into your art, especially if you can do it in a way that helps other people, where people can relate to it and feel like they’re invested in it as well.

Were you reluctant at first to be that honest in your music, to say, “The are my values. This is what I believe?”

I didn’t really have reservations about it, but I tried to be as careful as I could not to say things that came over heavy-handed or preachy. I wanted it to be from the standpoint of, “This is something great that happened to me,” and at the same time make it vague enough to where [others] could find the joy in it too with the experience they’ve had in their lives… I’ve never been the type of person who enjoys any type of content in any art that is just there to please people. I’ve always appreciated when somebody is direct and honest. That’s where all the good stuff is for me; that’s what I enjoy. I want to be that way too. I want to have my identity.

Was it ever difficult to reconcile playing the kind of music you do with your faith? Several musicians in the past — Little Richard, Al Green; it’s a pretty big list — have left, if only for a while, saying they couldn’t play this and believe that.

I feel like the boundaries that are made by religion — especially in our country, as far as what kind of music you can and can’t play — are purely cultural. There’s a boundary somewhere. I’m not saying there’s not, but I certainly can’t claim to know what that boundary is definitely. I don’t know if anybody can. As far as what I do, I feel good about it.

And on some level you must believe you were gifted with your musical abilities. Not everyone can just pick up a guitar and play like you do.

Sure, we’ve all got our niche that God has put us in. And hopefully we can be good stewards of what He’s given us.

Will spiritual themes continue to be a part of your music going forward?

My relationship with God is the most important thing in my life. So just because of that it’ll be inherently part of me and a part of whatever I do. At this stage it’s more about trying to be honest about the things that I struggle with in my life and more of the difficulties that I’ve been facing the last few years. That’s kind of where I’m at now so it might not come off as happy-happy-joy-joy time on the next one.

Is it challenging for you as a touring musician to keep your values and faith in check?

Absolutely. Absolutely. It’s a constant challenge and sometimes a battle, but God has become even more real to me through even all that. I had a period of time where I didn’t really think about some of the pressures of the peripheral things that go on on the road. As life goes on [though] you get things melded into different pressures, getting married and having kids, more responsibilities. You find out where you’re weak and where you’re strong. I’ve definitely had my battles, but it’s all been good and it always seems to work out… I found that I just really have to stay focused. Because it’s a pretty narrow path especially when you’re away from home and away from your support system. You really have to stay focused and remember why you’re doing what you’re doing. Once you get momentum, though, it’s okay.

Is it difficult to maintain your faith?

Fundamentally, who I believe in — believing in Jesus Christ and that He is my God — that I don’t have any problem with or waver on. Then there’s the side of your actions, trying to just be a blessing to people and trying to make everything in your personal life line up with who you are to people as well and not live a double life. I don’t think anybody’s perfect. I certainly am not or would never even try to think that I could be, but I really want to do my best and try to have some level of credibility.