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 with the albums that followed “Wander This World,” the singer/guitarist’s music took a notable turn.
When his third album, “Long Time Coming,” arrived in 2003, it reshaped Lang’s image as a blues-rock hotshot. The blues-rock was still there, but several songs, including “Second Guessing” and “I Am,” showed that Lang had a talent for soul, Motown and funk.
Lang’s next release, 2006’s “Turn Around,” built on the soul/funk elements of its predecessor, adding a good bit of gospel to the mix, which helps explain why the album won Lang a Grammy the Best Rock or Rap Gospel Album category and not for blues.
Then his previous album, 2013’s “Fight For Your Soul,” took a step beyond the blues style originally associated with Lang, with a strong collection of songs that spanned pop, rock, Motown and contemporary R&B.
So 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 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 (album).’ It just felt like the right way to go.”
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 is 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.
The project began when Lang joined his songwriting collaborators and co-producers for the album, Drew Ramsey and Shannon Sanders, for a writing session in Los Angeles.
“I had a bunch of songs kind of laying around for years that were just incomplete,” Lang said. “They helped me finish some of those. And there were a few that we came up with from scratch together.”
After a week, the trio had a dozen songs – in other words, most of the album written or at least mapped out to where the songs could be completed in the studio.
Recording was just as quick and seamless.
“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.”
Lang credits his familiarity with the people he brought in for the “Signs” album with allowing the music to come together so easily, beginning with his songwriting collaborators and co-producers Ramsey and Sanders.
Lang collaborated with Ramsey and Sanders on “Turn Around,” and the pair also played on “Fight For Your Soul,” although Lang brought in Tommy Sims to co-produce that album.
“They’re like family, kind of, to me, in a way,” Lang said. “So it’s just a very familiar, man, it’s like there’s zero effort usually. We just fall into stuff. Music is, or art, I guess, 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. That’s one of the most amazing feelings that I can say I’ve ever had is when those things happen. With Drew and Shannon, it’s like that every time we get together.”
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 of Barry Alexander on drums and Jim Anton on bass 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.”
When:7 p.m., March 16
Where: Jackson Rancheria Casino Resort, 12222 New York Ranch Road, Jackson
Info: 800-822-9466; http://www.jacksoncasino.com/concerts-and-events/full-schedule