By John Cody
As a teenage guitar prodigy, Jonny Lang’s flashy stage presence, considerable technique, and soulful vocal style – reminiscent of Stevie Wonder and Donnie Hathaway – netted impressive album sales and high-profile tours supporting such acts as U2 and the Rolling Stones.
Hailing from Fargo, North Dakota, Lang received his first guitar on his thirteenth birthday, and was gigging before the year was up. He recorded his major label debut a year later and topped the Billboard New Artists chart in 1997, at fifteen years old.
That same year Newsweek included him in its ‘Century Club’ as one of 100 Americans expected to be influential in the twenty-first century.
More than a decade into his career, he’s released his strongest album yet. Turn Around puts his newfound Christian faith front and center.
I spoke with Lang last month.
Growing up, there had limited involvement with the church. “I really wasn’t raised in the church. I did go with one or both of my parents [they divorced when he was young] but the sorts of things I saw and experienced were things that turned me off from it.”
Lang says he hated the whole idea of being a Christian, and was particularly put off by “pushy Christians.”
“I viewed it as something that was purely like a fellowship thing. You go and you have a community of people that you get along with, then you have this church. I had no idea that there was actually this personal relationship to be had with God himself. I thought that nobody could have that. I didn’t see any power in it at all. That’s why I was just like; ‘you guys need this, because it’s a nice little crutch for you, and that’s fine with me.’ That’s what I thought. I just didn’t understand.”
A few years ago – after what he refers to a time of “spiraling downwards in a lot of ways” – he embraced the Christian faith. He describes life prior to conversion as “addictions, and a life of just satisfying the desires of my flesh. That’s what I did.”
His conversion came out of the blue, on the night his fiancé’s father passed away.
He recalls being aware of God’s presence in a way he had never before experienced. Talking with his fiancé, the name Jesus just ‘blurted out’ of his mouth. He identifies that moment as his conversion; “Absolutely. That was a first step…I understood that Jesus was God at that point…that was the moment when there was no doubt in my mind. I had a choice to either serve him, or not.”
“That night He completely delivered me from every addiction I had in a moment. Smoking cigarettes and drugs; that completely stopped immediately. It was instant. And I knew that the desires had been taken away from me. There were some things – because they were mindsets – it was just such a lifestyle for me. I would have a drink here and there and I would instantly be sick or just drunk. He basically made me not able to tolerate it. So it didn’t take long.”
His outlook changed radically. “It’s like Paul said “not that I have attained yet, but I keep pressing forward.’ So I look at it as I’m still working out – like he said – working out my salvation in fear and trembling. I’m still working it out. I’m striving to be more obedient, and just know Him more.
“I was always searching for something, I just never understood it, and when people tried to approach me about Jesus, or tried to get me to go to church or something…I just had resentment for that. I really had no interest in it at all. Until that night, when He completely revealed himself to me, and then I was like ‘oh, my god.’ Because I think my heart was open, I wanted the truth, but I just really didn’t think that it lied in Jesus. I didn’t think the truth lied in Christ. When He allowed me to find out that it did, then I was all for it.”
Especially today, identifying oneself as a Christian can carry with it all sorts of negative connotations. I wondered if he’s had to explain that – for him – it’s about Jesus, not about supporting a right wing political agenda? “Yeah, definitely. There is quite a stereotype. Sometimes people ask questions like that. I’m so un-political; I don’t care about it, really. I’m pretty uninvolved in it…“ He starts to laugh, and sums up his stance…”I’m not really a fan of many people politically.”
Many musicians find an intangible spiritual dynamic in their playing. I wondered if he experienced anything like this prior to his conversion. “Sure. What I feel when I play music – and when I played music before I knew the Lord – wasn’t something that I felt when I was just carrying out my normal day-to-day life. Playing music was something completely different, and it took me somewhere else. Whether that was spiritual or whatever it was, it was just a different place. And it became this mysterious, sort of supernatural thing to me when I started discovering what it felt like to play music.”
Turn Around is Lang’s second album to move from the blues into R&B material. His previous release, 2003’s Long Time Comin’ came across as labored. This time out, new producers Drew Ramsey and Shannon Sanders (India.Arie, Temptations) have helped create a far more focused, powerful statement.
There’s a few high profile guests, including Buddy Miller, Sam Bush, Nickel Creek’s Sara Watkins and Michael McDonald, but Lang is front and center throughout.
As expected, the guitar playing and soulful vocals are excellent. For the first time, his songwriting reaches the same levels. Lang has come into his own as a songwriter, a relatively new pursuit. “I hope to keep getting better at writing songs. It’s something I really enjoy. It’s a lot more fulfilling and satisfying to record or perform a song that you’ve written. I’ve definitely got more involved in that.” Lang had a hand in writing all of the disc’s material, mostly with Ramsey and Sanders. He wrote ‘Only A Man,’ on his own. A vocal duet with wife Haylie, it’s a poignant ballad, and one of the disc’s highlights.
Reviewers have called Turn Around a gospel album. Lang doesn’t agree. “You know, I really don’t. I guess, stylistically it wouldn’t really be considered a gospel record. Message wise and lyrically it is. I don’t know… I think it’s just another one of my records. The songs are just more about my testimony, my experiences with the Lord and just more about Him.”
In addition to being available in mainstream outlets (through A&M/Universal), Turn Around has been released directly into the Christian market by Provident-Integrity Distribution. Mainstream artists moving to the CCM scene frequently end up frustrated by the alternate business model, but Lang hasn’t had any problems. “Not at all. In fact, when making this record, and actually before it was released, I didn’t know how much involvement we would have with that world, and didn’t really plan on making songs or a record for that world, and so the fact that it’s been embraced the way it has was just shocking to me. And I’m really glad, I’m happy about it, obviously. But no – no pressure at all. It was received pretty well. I was really pleasantly surprised.”
The disc entered Billboard’s Current Contemporary Christian and Christian Rock/Alternative sales charts at number one. It also charted in Billboard’s Top Blues Albums, Top Pop 200, and Top Rock Albums.
Like everything else in his life, Lang’s motivation for playing has changed. “It absolutely has changed. I feel like now I just want the music I do to be a blessing to people, and I hope to be able to relate to as many different people as I can through the music. And I feel like it’s a gift that came from God, and it should be used to give glory to Him and give Him credit. And so I aim to do that more and more as well.”
Both live and on record, there’s less showboating and more soul than in the past.
At his Vancouver appearance last month he opened with the album’s title track. The lyrics are completely concerned with redemption, and the audience ate it up, some giving the heavy metal salute, seemingly oblivious to the intent of the song. The new material was enthusiastically welcomed. “It’s being received really well…a lot of people are singing along to them.”
With so many songs of redemption, I wondered if the audience was aware of the change. “I think they’re picking up on it, and I haven’t really gotten any negative feedback yet. It’s pretty obvious on most of the songs on the new record…there’s a couple of people who say ‘why’d you have to put the name of Jesus in that song?’ and whatever, but for the most part I think it’s good. It’s been really good.”
© John Cody 2006