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By Jon Wiederhorn
If it seems like Jonny Lang has been off the radar for a while, it's because his last studio album, the Grammy Award-winning Turn Around, came out back in 2006. Since then, the acclaimed blues and rock guitarist/singer has made the rounds on the tour circuit, but hasn't had the time or inspiration to finish a new record.
He tried six years ago in Nashville, but the sessions didn't yield enough material and he put the project on hold. In part, fatherhood was responsible for Lang's lapse in creative output. Whenever he was home he helped his wife Haylie Johnson raise their four kids – their 5-year-old fraternal twins, daughter Raimy Lee and son Saylor Monroe, 3-year-old daughter Rennix Belle, and 5-month-old daughter Lilou Jaymes.
"We had twins to start with, so we just jumped in the fire and kept going," Lang told Yahoo Music. "It was very challenging for me, physically and mentally as well. The change in lifestyle was dramatic. I was on the road so much and going out so often that if I had come home from tour and just made a record, I would never be home to see my family. I wouldn't want to do that."
Although Lang wasn't in the studio, he was still coming up with song ideas, and over the last year he finally got the opportunity to finish recording the album that had been swimming around in his head for six years. On September 17, the follow-up to Turn Around, Fight For My Soul, came out and Lang's fans were there to receive it like wafers at communion.
In its first week of release, it topped the Billboard Blues Album Chart, hit No. 2 on the Billboard Christian Album chart, and reached #50 on the Billboard Hot 200. "I feel like most of the songs on this record are pretty autobiographical, whether they're literal or not," Lang said. "They're about things I've been through over the last 10 years, and at times I felt like I was hanging on for dear life. A lot of that is in this record and I think my fans can sense that honesty in the songs."
The intensely honest subject matter of Fight For My Soul was part of what delayed the record's completion. On songs like the title track and "Blew Up (The House)," which features the lines "Now they check your pulse just to see if you can still breathe/I was barely alive apparently for no good reason," Lang addresses the battle with alcohol and substance abuse that nearly derailed his career. It was a tough subject to come to revisit, but he felt it was important to address that aspect of his career to show how far he's grown since he was a little kid jamming out in Fargo, North Dakota.
"I definitely grew up too quickly," Lang admitted. "I was 14 years old when I started, and almost from the get-go, I started drinking. And then when I was 17 or 18, I started getting into drugs. The thing is, I was having a great time and I didn't have any intention of stopping."
Although he wasn't legally old enough to drink, Lang handled his liquor like a pro and remained a functional alcoholic and drug abuser for a half-decade. His second solo disc, 1998’s Wander This World, was nominated for a Grammy and hit #28 on Billboard. The 17-year-old played like a veteran, summoning the modern electric blues burn of Stevie Ray Vaughan and the heart-aching string bends of Eric Clapton one minute; and whipping up a blend of upbeat southern soul, funk, and mainstream rock the next. And all the while, Lang kept the partying rolling.
"There were a few rock-bottom moments with drugs and alcohol, where you kind of recover after however many days you've been binging, but then a couple days later you’re at it again," he said. "And I was doing pretty much every substance you can name. I never did heroin and I'm grateful for that. A lot of my friends did, and some are still struggling with it. But I pretty much did everything but that. I think I overdosed a couple times. I probably wasn't smart. I should have gone to the hospital, but that never happened so I got very lucky not to have died."
In late 1999, it became clear that Lang's extracurricular activities were impairing his songwriting. He even had to cancel a recording session for an album because he was too wasted to play. That might have been enough to scare him straight, but Lang was too wasted to care. He insists if it wasn't for divine intervention, he might still be getting high.
"I have no question that God rescued me out of that and have God to thank for that and for my continued ability to steer clear of it," Lang said. "It’s still tempting from time to time."
Lang didn't check into AA and learn to pray to a higher power for forgiveness. It all happened in an instant. "It’s crazy because I had no interest in God or spirituality or religion before that," Lang said. "I had a bad taste in my mouth about religion from a young age. And then I suddenly had an experience where it was like God was right there with me. In a moment, I knew that God was real and I knew that I wanted to live for Him for the rest of my life. I felt myself actually being delivered from addiction and alcoholism in a moment and towards a greater purpose. It's still amazing when I think back on it. It was an undeniable experience."
In 2006, Lang recorded his first proper gospel album, Turn Around, in which he addressed his religious transformation. Then, he started raising a family, which caused some frustration when he wasn't touring. "You're in this position of being able to come and go as you please, and then you suddenly have this immense responsibility for these little lives," he said. "That was crazy at first. But once I got through that and got used to it, it’s been the greatest thing that' s ever happened to me."
A couple years ago, when his twins were out of diapers, Lang started working with veteran songwriter and producer Tommy Sims (Bruce Springsteen, Toni Braxton, Kelly Clarkson), on some new songs. Sims helped Lang tap into a new artistic voice that incorporated more authentic Motown and Staxx-era R&B, as a well as a new take on classic rock.
"This is the first time I've put songs on a record without steering them away from or towards something," Lang said. "I feel like I've always edited myself to make the record more on par with blues rock out of fear that I would veer a little bit outside of what people may have expected. This time I've let what’s inside of me come out without messing with it too much. That accounts for a lot of the difference in style."
Longtime Lang fans have noted that there aren't as many flashy guitar leads on Fight For My Soul as there were on Lang's earlier efforts. The shift was intentional and aimed drawing the focus to the songs, not the player.
"In the past, there were tons of times where we wrote a song and then looked back at it after it was recorded and said, 'There’s not enough guitar on there.'" Lang explained. "So we felt we needed to force a guitar solo or something. This time, I just didn't do that. I wanted to try to honor the songs and arrangements for what they were instead of covering them up in all this extra guitar. And I think that's allowed me to be more honest as a musician."