When blues prodigy Jonny Lang broke through onto radio and MTV in 1997 with "Lie to Me," you'd swear from the 16-year-old's raspy voice that he'd weathered decades more than his age. Talking to Play a few weeks ago from his home in Los Angeles, the now 32-year-old Lang sounded a lot younger on the phone than he did on that record 16 years ago.
That doesn't just apply to his speaking voice. Lang released "Fight for My Soul," his first studio album in seven years, in September. On it, Lang jumps from a funky falsetto to a soulful croon and back, in addition to the more recognizable hoarse-bluesman bellow.
"I don't know how to explain it. I didn't necessarily try to sound like that; it's just what came out," Lang said.
"I've learned how to sing -- I don't know, better? -- or closer to what I would like to do in my mind," he said. "Some of that rasp was just me simply destroying my voice. I used to lose my voice all the time. My voice has gotten more powerful, but less distorted, maybe.
"I can still do that, but it comes with a cost," he added with a laugh.
Instead, he's constructed a new album using a lot more tools from the shed. The walls are built from gospel, R&B and pop, while the blues licks are more like little accents. At times, it doesn't much resemble the teenager we heard in the '90s. Lang admitted he sometimes has a hard time taking that kid seriously.
"It's not necessarily the songs themselves as much as it is my performances on them," he said. "It's hard for me to listen to myself on any recording ever. It's like looking at an old picture of yourself and saying, 'What was I thinking?'"
While Lang liked the grunge music that ruled the airwaves when he was first learning guitar, he said that among his peers in Fargo, N.D., he was alone in his love for the blues. That meant spending many of his early years playing with musicians a lot older than himself. And being an impressionable teen, Lang said, in those years he fell into a fog of alcohol and drug use.
"It probably had more to do with being young and just being in an adult world," he said. "In any form of entertainment -- drugs, alcohol, all that stuff is right at your fingertips. It's free and it's everywhere, so it takes a pretty strong-willed person to resist that stuff at any age, let alone when you're young. It was definitely crazy for a while there for me, but I made it out."
When Lang talks about making music these days, fatherhood looms large. His two oldest are twins, a 6-year-old boy and girl, and he's the father of 3-year-old and 6-month-old daughters. His young family is the reason there's been a seven-year gap between studio albums.
"I didn't want to be the absentee dad, the music dad," he said. "Since I'm already on the road so much playing concerts, to come home and be gone all the time working on a record -- I couldn't justify that."
He also said fatherhood forced him to reconsider some of his more selfish tendencies, which in turn translates to his new approach to music.
"I think maybe before music was just something that was fun and sort of a rush, something that was really self-gratifying and fun for me to do. I think as time has gone on, it's become a lot more about what it can be for other people and not just me," said Lang. "Whether it be music or whatever, the things we do can be a blessing to other people and really help other people if we want to gear them in that way. Just seeing the few times our music has impacted people like that is really inspiring and makes you want to keep doing that."