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JONNY on the Spot- A conversation with blues-rock icon JONNY LANG

by on Jun.20, 2010, under interviews

 

The first time I witnessed the phenomona that is Jonny Lang was 13 years ago at an outdoor amphitheatre in Hartford, CT.  Jonny was a mere 16 years old, and already on his way to becoming the world’s next great guitar virtuoso.  The year was 1997… now 5 albums, several tours, and a Grammy later, Jonny helps fill in the blanks of his life since then.  Kid Jonny and I spoke about the Grammy’s, God, and a certain Idol he also worships.

AWAY-TEAM:  First of all, congratulations on your new album ”Live at the Ryman” which came out on April 20thGreat album, I’ve  been listening to it quite a bit.

JONNY LANG:  Aw man, thank you.

AWAY-TEAM:  I really enjoy it.  I’ve been a fan of yours for a while.  But, I know you’ve been wanting to do a live album for a good while…why the Ryman Auditorium?  What made you choose that as the venue for your first ever live album?

JONNY LANG:  Well there’s a few reasons. Probably the main one just being, we had a good show that night, um.  And we had been recording most of our shows leading up to that, and that happened to be the one that, ya know turned out to be the best out of the ones that we had recorded, so.  But also just the fact that it’s the Ryman, it’s a historic venue, and it was such a great place to play, ya know, so I’m glad it turned out to be that particular show just because of that, ya know.

AWAY-TEAM:  So uh, one of the things people really enjoy about your work, aside from your voice, is watching you play guitar, and just kinda watching a craftsman at work.  Is there any chance we may get an accompanying DVD of this performance sometime down the road?

JONNY LANG:  You know, there was no video shot at that show, but we are looking to do a live DVD thing in the near future here so…  I’m not sure exactly when that would come out, but yeah that’s in the works.

AWAY-TEAM:  Cool. I’ll keep my eye out for that… Your current tour, it’s called “Live By Request”, has somewhat of a unique format.  Tell me about that.

JONNY LANG:  Well basically it’s just a um, we kinda had this idea that people could write in to the website, tell us which show they’re going to, and then request the songs they would like to hear for the night.  Then we tally up the number of votes for whatever songs were requested and pick the top three or four or whatever, and then do those.  Sometimes it ends up being some of the same songs we’ve been playing over the past few years, but sometimes people pick older songs, earlier back in the catalog and we’ll throw those in the set.  So it’s just kind of a fun thing to switch it up a little, ya know.

AWAY-TEAM:  Right.  So you said that you kinda tally up the votes on that, so do you get to see all of the songs?  Have you seen any really cool songs that anyone’s requested that may not particularly be your song, but you said “Wow, I’ve never really played that live before, it’d be pretty cool.”?

JONNY LANG:  Yeah, I think people are just trying to be a little funny (laughs).  They’ll put in a Lynyrd Skynyrd song like “Free Bird”

AWAY-TEAM:  (laughs)

JONNY LANG:  But uh, you know nothing really that out of the ordinary or strange.  No Steely Dan requests or anything like that, so.  (laughs)

AWAY-TEAM:  How about, I know you used to play a little Jimi Hendrix when you first started out.  Any of that coming back at all?

JONNY LANG:  Ya know, not really.  Um, yeah we used to do “Spanish Castle Magic”.  No, we haven’t done that in a while, but that’s a good idea, we might do that one.

AWAY-TEAM:  Yeah, I actually remember you playing that.  The first time I ever saw you play, was back in 1997, it was at what was then the Meadows Music Theatre in Hartford, CT.  You were about 16 at the time, and opening up for Aerosmith, and I remember saying to myself “Man, this kid’s only 16, and not only is he opening up for one of the greatest rock bands in the world, he’s actually giving ‘em a run for their money”.  I was just blown away by your performance.  What was it like back then, when you found out your first big tour was gonna be with those guys?  Were you intimidated? Excited?

JONNY LANG:  Man, just excited. And ya know they didn’t really give us a reason to be intimidated, they were all just so nice to us.  Yeah, they were just really great guys, and it was just fun.  It was a blast.

AWAY-TEAM:  Speaking of young talent, your younger sister Jessica (Jesse Langseth) was actually a semi-finalist on Season 8 of American Idol.  Has she been coming to you for advice or help? Or is she more of a “If I’m gonna do this, I’m gonna do it on my own” type of person?

JONNY LANG:  You know, she’s really smart. And uh, she’s very street smart too, and socially very capable.  So…she doesn’t need much help from big brother, but yeah we talk about stuff like that.  But yeah she’s got her head screwed on pretty good, so.

AWAY-TEAM:  Any chance we might see you working together in the future?

JONNY LANG:  Oh yeah.  There’s always a chance of that. Ya know, she’s um, she’s kinda I think taking a little bit of a break from the music thing at the moment.  But, it’s her passion.  It’s what she loves to do, so I’m sure she’ll be doing it for the rest of her life, on and off at least.

AWAY-TEAM:  Hey, that’s great.  She’s got the drive…..Now, back to tour mates, and collaborations.  You’ve toured and collaborated with people from all genres of music.  Ya know, from The Rolling Stones, to Buddy Guy, BB King, Sting, you’ve even played Crossroads with Eric Clapton.  And actually most recently, you played on Cyndi Lauper’s new album.  Is that correct?

JONNY LANG:  Yeah.  Yeah man, she made an incredible album.  I haven’t heard the final, I guess, version of it, but. Yeah she recorded it in Memphis, and it’s basically, ya know older soul and blues tunes, and she recorded it old school, one take-no overdubs kind of thing.  Man, she understands that music incredibly well, and is singing amazingly on it.  So I’m really excited for that record.  We’re actually doing some upcoming television shows for that record. (June 22nd and 24th, on The Howard Stern Show, and Regis and Kelly, respectively)

 AWAY-TEAM:  Yeah, I thought it was a really cool little twist for her music.  That was pretty cool.

JONNY LANG:  Yeah dude, she’s a deep, she’s a real deep person.  A true artist, ya know.

AWAY-TEAM:  Well if you could choose one person, from any genre, that you haven’t worked with, to do a collaboration with, who would it be?

JONNY LANG:  Man… It’s a tie between James Taylor and Stevie Wonder I’d say.  Those two, that would be just a dream come true.

AWAY-TEAM:  Wow, that would make for a great project.

JONNY LANG:  Yeah, they’re my favorites.

AWAY-TEAM:  Now back in 2000, you tragically lost your bassist Doug Nelson, right around that same time you kinda found your faith.  You were drinking heavily, and doing a little bit of drugs, and then thankfully found God.  Was Doug’s death ultimately what set you on that path?  Or when did you sort of hit “rock bottom” and decide it was time to turn things around?

JONNY LANG:  Man, I really didn’t have a like “rock bottom” experience per se, I was loving the partying and stuff like that.  So it was more that God just kinda stopped me in my tracks so to speak.  But, yeah you know what, Doug’s death happened a while after I kinda, I guess started my relationship with God.  It definitely affected my life, ya know he was a close friend, and a great guy, and when you lose somebody close to you it gives you a good healthy check on how important life is, and ya know, makes you realize what things are important, and what things you’re kinda just wasting your time with.  But yeah, he was a great friend, and just a great guy.

AWAY-TEAM:  The album “Turn Around”, which came out in 2006, earned you a Grammy for Best Gospel Album.  That was actually your last studio album, so when can we expect some new JONNY LANG?

JONNY LANG:  I’ve kinda started working on the next studio record, and it’s still in the trying to figure out where it’s going stage, I guess.  Stylistically, I’m trying to figure it out.  I’ve never written so many songs before, so there’s tons of songs to pick from, and uh.  It’s weird, every album cycle is different, it’s a different experience, and this one is just kinda moving slow for some reason.  Sometimes it happens right away, and sometimes it doesn’t, ya know.  I guess the main goal is to come up with something that is, you don’t wanna compromise the quality of it just to get it out there, so I try to make a good record no matter how long it takes. (laughs)

 AWAY-TEAM:  That’s important.  Now, you said that you were searching stylistically for what this new album’s gonna be like.  Should we be looking for something closer to the Gospel on “Turn Around” or closer to your roots on “Lie to Me”?

JONNY LANG:  Um, man, I really don’t know, actually.  I think it’s gonna end up being more of a fusion of like soul music and um, I guess just it’ll be more about the songwriting.  Ya know it might be more about the songs on this one, than the last one…if that makes sense.

AWAY-TEAM:  So more stress on the lyrics, as opposed to the actual musical composition?

JONNY LANG:  I think both.  But I think, it may be a little bit more intricate, as far as the musical arrangement and the lyrics go, ya know.  A little bit more of a crafted album, if that makes sense.  So, at least for me, (laughs) take a little bit more time with it.

AWAY-TEAM:  Well I’m certainly looking forward to it.  I know you’ve done a little bit of acting in the past, as well.  You were in “Blues Brothers 2000″, and an episode of “The Drew Carey Show”, that was all back in 1998.  Can we expect to see…

JONNY LANG:  (laughs)  I don’t know if it was acting.  It was more like just standing there trying to not look like an idiot. (laughing) But, yeah man. (laughs)

AWAY-TEAM:  (laughing)  So you might’ve just answered my question.  So, no more acting in your future?  Is that right?

JONNY LANG:  Probably not. Man it terrifies the life out of me.  I am not a natural born actor, for sure.  It scares me.  (laughs)

AWAY-TEAM:  I mean you play in front of 20-30,000, and it’s like second nature, but I guess acting is just a whole different realm, huh?

JONNY LANG:  I guess so man.  I guess when you’re on a stage and you’re kinda far away from people, you feel like you’re kinda isolated in a weird way.  It’s not as nerve-wracking for some reason in my mind.

AWAY-TEAM:  Well, one more question…you now live in California, and your manager Greg Classen, like myself, is from Massachusetts.  Who’s gonna win Game 7 tonight Celtics or Lakers?

JONNY LANG:  (laughing) Oh boy…well, being a guy who’s from Minnesota, as far as sports go anyway, I don’t really have a team, although I do live in L.A.  Ya know, I don’t know man, it’s such a good series, I would love to see Boston win.  Just because, that particular L.A. team has had such a good record, so it’d be nice to see Boston win for a change.

AWAY-TEAM:  I knew I liked you for a reason. (laughs)

JONNY LANG:  (laughs)  Yeah dude, I think I really like Boston a bit, because they’re more of like “street ballers”.  They’re like more rough, ya know, rough around the edges. So I kinda like that, I like their style.  But who knows man, it’s gonna be a good one.  (Sadly, I was hoping for Jonny to get his wish.  And we all know what happened.  Dammit.)

AWAY-TEAM:  Well, hey man, thank you so much for your time.  It’s been a great honor to speak with you…

JONNY LANG:  Aw, thanks man.

AWAY-TEAM:  Unfortunately, this last time you came around, just recently you were here in Ft. Lauderdale, and I was unable to make it out to the show.  but I’ll certainly be there next time you pass through Florida.

JONNY LANG:  Yeah dude, if you come out man, come back and say hey.

AWAY-TEAM:  I sure will…

JONNY LANG:  Call Greg, or the label, or something, and come back  and get hooked up man.

AWAY-TEAM:  Hey, if you wanna beat up on someone on the links (Jonny had just finished up on the golf course when we spoke) too ya know I’m free there.

JONNY LANG:  Oh dude, let’s do it.  I need a golf partner man, nobody here plays golf, so I usually end up playing by myself.  So that’d be cool man.

AWAY-TEAM:  I don’t know if what I do is called golf, but I’ll sure try. (laughs)

JONNY LANG:  (laughs)  Cool man, that sounds good.

AWAY-TEAM:  Well, hey man, thanks again, and like I said, next time you’re around I’ll definitely make it a point to get together with you.  Hopefully we’ll be talking about another Grammy here.

JONNY LANG:  (laughs)  I hope so man.  (laughs)

AWAY-TEAM:  Alright brother, well good luck tonight with the show, and with the rest of your tour, and hopefully we’ll be talking soon.

JONNY LANG:  Thank you man.  Thank you.  Take care.

AWAY-TEAM:  Take it easy.

JONNY LANG:  Bye.

For more information on Jonny Lang, such as tour dates, to request a song for one of those dates,  as well as to pick up his latest album visit http://www.jonnylang.com/

Special thanks go to Jonny Lang for so graciously giving me his time, Jonny’s manager Greg Classen for helping to coordinate things, and to Amanda Cagan at ABC PR for making this all possible.

Photos courtesy of Wayne Crans at Dead Bird Photography.

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