Mark Lanegan found his voice, and it’s unmistakable
Two deliveries arrive at the door while Mark Lanegan is on the phone from his home in Southern California. The second is a breakfast sandwich. When he puts the package down, there’s a commotion of dogs in the background. Lanegan has three: two mini Australian shepherds and a Teacup Pomeranian.
“The little one is trying to guard it,” he explains.
The first delivery is a little more momentous. It’s the first copy of “I Am the Wolf,” a new collection of lyrics from the singer’s solo recordings to date. The book has introductions from John Cale and Moby and words of praise from admirers including Nick Cave and Anthony Bourdain.
“That’s cool,” Lanegan says in his unvarnished rasp, allowing himself a few seconds of satisfaction.
Satisfaction is not an emotion you’ll encounter much in Lanegan’s lyrics. After establishing his voice with the Seattle band Screaming Trees around the time of the grunge eruption, Lanegan has crafted an impressively prolific two-decade solo career with dark songs about dejection and regret. Lanegan and his touring band play the Brighton Music Hall on Saturday, supporting his latest release, “Gargoyle.”
The album, much of it built on layered tracks by the British musician Rob Marshall, is a little more extroverted than Lanegan’s usual lone-wolfishness. It’s still plenty moody, but when a fan tweeted at Lanegan asking whether it was his “most upbeat album yet,” he replied, “Yes but keep it under yr hat I have an image to uphold!”
Life is pretty good for Lanegan these days, in large part because he has learned how to hold onto his. “It took me quite a while to find my natural voice,” he says, noting that he didn’t write material for the early Screaming Trees records. “I’m glad I stuck around long enough to see that happen.”
His struggle with addiction was an open secret for years, and you can hear it in the music. Asked about a 2004 song called “Like Little Willie John,” who died in prison at age 30, Lanegan recalls that he had to go back and listen to his old stuff to confirm the lyrics for his book.
“One thing I did notice, that song in particular and others on that record [the incongruously titled “Bubblegum”] struck me in an emotional way I hadn’t expected. Those songs were written about real things, from the heart. It’s a heavy record for me.”
Though his post-grunge career has been “criminally underappreciated,” as Bourdain alleges, Lanegan has found time while making more than 10 albums under his own name to record with Queens of the Stone Age, Isobel Campbell (of Belle & Sebastian) and, as the Gutter Twins, with Greg Dulli of the Afghan Whigs. All of the music he touches shares a common theme: transcending the void by finding art in it.
Lanegan credits a single gig in San Francisco with lighting the path to a solo career beyond grunge bombast. After Screaming Trees opened for the Rollins Band, bassist Donna Dresch — who’d joined the group during one of the epic rows between founding brothers Gary Lee and Van Conner — took him across town to catch the tail end of a show by Galaxie 500, the short-lived but fondly remembered Boston trio that made tranquillity a virtue.
“That was really, believe it or not, the first time I’d seen somebody playing quiet, delicate music to a packed house, with people paying strict attention and loving it,” Lanegan says. “I’d just come from this high-testosterone [scene], and it struck me how you could do this other thing.”
He began devouring the music of Tim Hardin, Fred Neil, Tim Buckley, Nick Drake, and other like-minded songwriters: “I definitely went into a hole with that stuff for a while. It gave me an outlet for music that I actually enjoyed playing. I didn’t always enjoy playing music with the Trees.”
As a reluctant performer in general, Lanegan says, it was a struggle to get used to shedding the armor of loud guitars.
“I was never super comfortable playing music in front of people anyway. Now I enjoy it, but it wasn’t the easiest thing to get past.”
Over time, he has mastered the power of restraint. There were nights when the Trees exuded power onstage. But that couldn’t last.
“Well, nothing lasts,” Lanegan says, chuckling. “Sometimes it didn’t last 15 minutes.”
Mark Lanegan Band
At Brighton Music Hall, Aug. 19 at 8 p.m. Tickets $27.50, www.crossroadspresents.com