If you love the guitar, there’s nothing quite as sweet as hearing the words “Sonny Landreth has a new record coming out.” And hey, would you look at that — Sonny Landreth does have a new record out, in the form of his new all-instrumental disc Elemental Journey. With a little help from his famous friends Eric Johnson and Joe Satriani, each of whom guests on a track, Landreth has returned with another example of why he’s one of the most talented guitarists performing today.

Landreth isn’t above throwing a few sparks as a player, but his style is more expressive than speedy; his leads can make you swoon or they can sting, but it’s always in the service of the song — and it’s as a songwriter that he truly excels. By placing the focus squarely on the music, Elemental Journey highlights what makes Sonny Landreth special: Whether he’s singing at the mic or working his magic with the slide, he’s a storyteller first.

I spoke with Steve Conn a few months ago, and I’ll tell him the same thing I told you: One of the first things I really heard you on was the Kenny Loggins live record Outside: From the Redwoods.

Oh, really? [Laughs] Well, that was a great experience, challenges and all — for me, anyway. It’s always good to get the experience from behind the scenes of what it’s like to put something like that together. I think it turned out really well, considering. I mean, in my case — and a few others — we flew out for this intense rehearsal process that lasted maybe one or two days. And to have it outside like that, it took a little bit of doing. They actually flew in the audience, too — all these people wrote in to Kenny Loggins with all their innermost thoughts or something, and he chose the winners. It was on a little stage that was used for Shakespearean plays — just beautiful, out there in the woods, and they had to convert it for the performance.

You and Steve have both had to walk this tricky line between being session guys and recording artists. It seems like it probably isn’t quite as glamorous as some people think.

Well, it isn’t. But on the other hand, it affords the opportunity to meet great artists, and get to know them personally. In some cases, I’ve gotten to be friends with some of the guests I’ve had on my projects over the years, and you meet one person who introduces you to another person…that’s a really cool thing. I always take something away from those sessions. Learning experiences.

Do you feel comfortable in your career at this point? There are a number of session players who have name value, but when you talk to them, you realize they’re actually really hustling for gigs.

Yeah, I’m below the radar, which has its own challenges. I am, though. I count my blessings. Still getting the calls is an affirmation in and of itself. At 61 years old, I feel the bumps in the road a little more — I’ll admit that — but I really love playing live for people. There’s still something about that that charges my batteries. You get to know people, you build a fanbase, and there’s a community vibe about it that’s hard to explain. It all comes back to creativity; as long as that’s moving forward, everything else falls into place.

Here’s the thing, and take it for what it’s worth — my humble two cents: I’ve never had a hit record, I’ve never had an album sell a million copies, or whatever. Whatever the platform, whatever the medium. My first manager told me a long time ago that it’s great to get hits, but the main thing is that you want to be able to run at that medium gear — you want to be able to sustain yourself and not have to get a day job. If you’re able to express yourself creatively and do everything you want to do as an artist, you have to look at it in the long run. That crystallized the concept to get that kind of feedback, you know?

I’m not missing the private jet. At the same time, I’m not knocking any of that. I do get a taste of it every now and then with my friend Jimmy Buffett, when I sit in on our five or 10 dates a year. He’s had the same people working for him forever — it’s all in-house. Everything. Film, radio, everything. It gives me a taste of the way he operates. I can’t play too many of those gigs, or I’ll lose my edge. [Laughs] I have to be able to drive the van to the gigs. It’s important to be able to keep that perspective in the long run.

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It seems like the Internet would be a boon for an artist in your position — you have enough of a fan base to sustain yourself, but you don’t have to depend on the whims of a label like Zoo, where you recorded in the early ’90s.

Yeah, it’s interesting. The fact that I’m such an old-school analog dog — I still don’t have a computer. I do own an iPhone, which was my big concession for the 21st century. You’re absolutely right, though — the timing of it all was perfect for me. When everything crashed in the major label world, I was left with ownership — thanks to the guidance of my current manager — of the three albums I recorded for Sugar Hill. I tell people it’s really important to keep your catalog, because if you have control over it, that goes hand in hand with the very thing you mentioned. It functions as a medium to help me get the word out, and function as my own “label” — which isn’t as grand as it might sound — to put out my own music and have control over it. You hope to always have new fans, and they always want to hear the older stuff, and if you can’t get your hands on it, that just goes away, which is a really bad feeling. We’re still trying to get our hands on the stuff from Zoo and BMG. They’re kind of like your kids, you know?

How do you strike a balance between your solo career and life as a session musician?

It is a bit of a balancing act. I don’t get to do as many of those sessions — or playing with people live — anymore. I always push myself, probably to a fault, but it comes down to priorities. It comes down to the music, because the songs are the most important thing. It’s all about the songs. You’ve got to hone your chops; I’m as much of a guitar geek as anyone, but the song is what you’ve got to focus on as a player. You’ve got to get all that together. It frequently happens that I’ll be in the middle of a project and offers will come up, but I just can’t take them. It’s kind of hard sometimes — from the outside looking in, maybe it seems like I could have just gotten on a plane and flown down the road, but at that point, anything other than what you’re working on in the recording process, especially if you’re the producer as I am, has to go by the wayside.

You call yourself an analog dog, and I don’t know what kind of gear you’re using, but it’s funny that your last couple of albums — both independently recorded — contain some of the best-sounding stuff you’ve ever released.

Absolutely. I appreciate that, no doubt. The game-changer was digital, but in the beginning it didn’t sound that good — in fact, it was pretty horrible. I was frightened about the whole thing, because we were still cutting analog and then we’d have to go master at that godawful…what was that, the Sony PCM? It was just horrendous. It came close to ruining the sound. Fast-forward on that, and it’s much better. And you’re right, it’s enabled us to do things we couldn’t have in the past, especially when it comes to guests — I can send files to people who live in other parts of the world. And they’re all busy making their own albums. My last album, From the Reach, included a ton of special guests, and there’s no way we could have done that before, especially in the amount of time we finished it. It’s pretty mind-boggling.

And you know what? There’s even something about it that makes the process more personal. You wouldn’t think that, but it does. If you send someone a track and they’ve got their own home studio, they literally can go downstairs, sit down and knock out the track, and ship it back to you. Before, you had to set up things in the studio, call an engineer, get some guys together — it could be two or three months before you heard the results. It’s interesting to me how all that can play into the better interests for all involved.

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You’ve been talking about balance, and I want to talk about how that principle is applied to your songwriting approach, because you go back and forth between vocal and instrumental numbers. Does that change the way you write?

There is a vibe about it. It’s on an emotional level — it affects me a certain way. There are times when the music can come quickly and inspire a lyric, and there are times when it’s the other way around. This time around, I thought I’d focus on the music because it always takes me a lot longer to write the lyrics, and I thought I’d be able to finish the record a lot faster this way. All that happened was that I ended up having more music to deal with. [Laughs] I had to make myself stop, and concentrate on certain songs that I’d work on with the band. That surprised me, and I think I’ll do better the next time around.

Are you the type of writer who punches in every morning, or do you wait for inspiration to strike?

Once I open that door, I’m in writing mode. Over the years, I’ve recognized that pattern, where I go from writing mode to recording, then out on the road to perform the songs, and back again. In some respects, it all happens at once — first thing in the morning, if I decide I’m writing an album, it’s waiting for me to get up. That’s exciting, and it’s probably the most seductive part of the process for me. Really, if someone could pay me to sit at home and come up with ideas that never even got finished, I’d probably do that.

It borders on being clinical in a way, but I really have to pull myself out of that mindset and take the music further — to work it out with a rhythm section and turn it into a recorded song. I think it’s feeling that fresh spark of creativity, because that’s what hooked me from day one. When I was a kid, I thought that was just the most incredible thing, and it’s hard to hold onto that over the years. If you can do it, you’ve got something, and I think that’s the part of the writing process that it’s hard for me to let go of. I’ve got a lot of work to do.

When you’re writing, do you have a go-to guitar you like to start with?

I have in the past, but not so much anymore. It’s literally whatever is closest, and I tend to work with different tunings, so if the guitar is already tuned in A, I’ll just start with whatever that does, and that will align me for the duration of that particular stretch. It’s kind of funny how that works. I used to play piano a long time ago — way back in the early ’70s, I started writing on the piano, and it gave me a completely different perspective.

I think that’s one way of getting out of a rut, is to try things from a different perspective. There’s a potential song in any instrument at any time, and I always try to acknowledge that. You welcome the muse — you open the back door and wave it in. “C’mon in anytime — feel free to land anywhere!” [Laughs] It’s there. It’s in the ether. You want to tap into that, and honor it. I do not take that for granted. I get as caught up in the daily grind as anyone, but I think it’s important to take a moment, as it were, to be grateful and just acknowledge that.

What about practicing?

The only thing that keeps me from practicing is anything other than practicing. [Laughs] I’ll sit down with a guitar, and forget it — everything else falls to ruin.

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There are musicians like, say, Bruce Hornsby, who are very technically proficient, but they still make a point of focusing on areas of their playing, or specific techniques, that they want to develop or improve. Do you take that approach?

I do, to a point, because of the nature of how I play — the finger-style with a bottleneck and fretting behind the slide. That whole package. There’s so much involved with that — and I say that meaning that the potential there keeps expanding, and I totally believe someone will come along and do a much better job with it in the future. It takes a specialized focus. And also, I have tendinitis; I’ve had it for many years, so unfortunately, I can’t sit and play all day like I used to. In some regards, maybe that’s better.

That has to be a really interesting struggle for you.

It is, and you have to stay optimistic, and at the same time remain grateful for the things you can still do — and focus on things you may not have otherwise. I think there’s an element of lyricism, perhaps, in my playing that I focus on more than I did 20 years ago.

As opposed to pure technique.

Exactly — the difference between playing notes and making music. What is that, exactly? I think you always come back to the song, which gives you a point of reference to accomplish and explore. It’s as if you’re stretching the canvas to create a bigger picture, and all that goes into it. I’m totally fascinated with other players; I really appreciate what they do. It’s really inspirational. Guys like Eric Johnson, or Joe Satriani, or Mark Knopfler — or heroes, like Eric Clapton. I name them just because they’re some of my friends that I’ve worked with, but it never ceases to amaze me. I mean, Vince Gill — he just picks up an instrument and he can do anything. He tears it up. It’s humbling, and humility is a good thing, you know?

Well, it keeps you reaching.

Exactly — and we keep coming back to that perspective. Without it, you can’t move forward. It’s like with athletes, that idea of “personal best.” You’re not really competing with anyone else in that regard — and I’m not taking away from the harsh realities of business and so forth, I’m just talking about creativity, and trying to raise the bar for yourself. You have to have that in place, too.

Do you have a feel, at this point, for where your muse is leading you?

Well, right now it’s been about the instrumentals. I’m sure that goes way back to my love for the Ventures when I was a kid, and other instrumental music. But also, I want to do an acoustic album, and I want to think in terms of — as soon as you start thinking about that, you have to begin considering what it’ll take to pull off the material live, which means everything from the kind of guitar you use to the obvious significance of how you’ll amp it up for the stage. Pickups, EQ, all of that. So I can start to see all that stuff lining up and it’s easy to think, “Okay, I’ll get to that one day.” [Laughs]

There’s a bit of a pre-production commitment in a way. But right now, I have at least a volume two that could pick up from where this album leaves off, and I’m pretty keen on doing that. We actually started cutting a couple of those songs, and just ran out of time. This is why we reincarnate — there’s too much work to do this time around. I’m doing my best.

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Jeff Giles

Jeff Giles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Popdose and Dadnabbit, as well as an entertainment writer whose work can be seen at Rotten Tomatoes and a number of other sites. Hey, why not follow him at Twitter while you're at it?

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