Julian Lage, Guitar Prodigy, Comes Of Age Lage could have been born with a guitar in his hand. The child prodigy began playing at age 5, and by 8 he was playing with Carlos Santana. On Sounding Point, Lage explores his love of film scores.
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Julian Lage, Guitar Prodigy, Comes Of Age

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Julian Lage, Guitar Prodigy, Comes Of Age

Julian Lage, Guitar Prodigy, Comes Of Age

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Julian Lage was not born with a guitar in his hand - but close. He started to play at age five. At eight, he was playing with Carlos Santana and was the subject of an Oscar-nominated documentary film. At 11, he appeared at the Grammys and was spotted by Gary Burton, who asked Lage to perform and collaborate with him.

Julian Lage has now reached the age of majority, with plenty of notches on his guitar from playing at the San Francisco and Newport Jazz Festivals to studying Indian music at the Ali Akbar College of Music and classical music at the San Francisco Conservatory, to featured performances on records by others.

Now he is making his debut as a solo recording artist.

(Soundbite of song, "Clarity")

HANSEN: That's "Clarity," one of the cuts on "Sounding Point," Julian Lage's debut recording, which will be released this week. Julian Lage is in the studios of WBUR in Boston. Welcome to the program.

Mr. JULIAN LAGE (Musician): Thank you so much for having me.

HANSEN: This tune we played, "Clarity," this is not a new tune for you. This was a tune that you actually composed earlier and played with Gary Burton?

Mr. LAGE: I did. I think I was 15 when I wrote the first draft of it. I brought it to Gary and we played it as a duo on a record called "Next Generations," which was the second one we made together. And I remember it being fun and pretty and it worked well, but I don't think we ever performed it live as a duo. And when I knew I wanted to make a record, I decided to rewrite it.

HANSEN: How did you rewrite it?

Mr. LAGE: Well, I had a different band. You know, it was always duo or trio, but I had a cello in the band now. And that's a new instrument for me to write for, so I wanted to use this to feature it. I basically wrote cello into it as much as I could, you know, to make it sound as lush and romantic and big as possible.

(Soundbite of song, "Clarity")

HANSEN: Is this the first chance you've had to record a solo album and had you been asked to do so before?

Mr. LAGE: I had. I actually turned down several offers. I think the first was probably around the time of the Grammys, you know, 11 or 12 years old when people started to notice that I was on the scene. And at that time I just wasn't ready. Musically, I could've done something, but personally, too, I didn't want to be on the scene as a solo artist yet. I really wanted to wait until all the pieces felt like they were coming together.

I wanted to make a record that drew on the music that I loved when I was a kid, which was not only jazz, but a lot of it was film scores - Bernard Hermann music and a lot of impressionistic classical. And I never - I loved it, but I was just kind of faking it, I guess, if I ever tried to play it or write it. So, I pursued teachers and musicians and people that would really help me bring this image together of a music that wasn't necessarily one thing or another.

HANSEN: There is a lot of variety on here. And I'll tell you something I wasn't expecting, and that was bluegrass. I mean, you're collaborating with well-known banjoist Bela Fleck and Chris Thile, the mandolin player of Nickel Creek and Punch Brothers. Tell us about the song you recorded with them, "The Informant."

Mr. LAGE: Yeah, that piece was written mainly by me and Chris. It was actually inspired by a lot of Russian music I was studying. The way it begins is very reminiscent of, I guess, modern Russian composing. You know, it's kind of quick and it's over before you know it, but a lot of stuff was thrown in there.

(Soundbite of song, "The Informant")

Mr. LAGE: "The Informant" is kind of like "The Great Escape," you know, the famous scene when he's riding a motorcycle, going over the hills. And I'm trying to get better at understanding that sense of urgency.

(Soundbite of song, "The Informant")

HANSEN: Are there other tracks on this CD that are film score-ic in nature?

Mr. LAGE: There are, definitely. The second piece is called "All Purpose Beginning," which is, it's kind of about one thing, which is writing a letter to a friend. So the piece starts with the percussionist writing on paper with pencil.

(Soundbite of song, "All Purpose Beginning")

Mr. LAGE: There's a certain sound to pencil writing on paper that I think is really evocative. You know, if you hear it, it could be a love letter, it could be an angry letter, it could be anything. It really doesn't matter.

(Soundbite of song, "All Purpose Beginning")

Mr. LAGE: It's very reminiscent of kind of the love theme from "Vertigo," which is, you know, very romantic, but kind of tragic at the same time. So that one's very cinematic.

HANSEN: I can understand why film scores would appeal to you because often the composers, when you're dealing with something visual, are creating different kinds of themes to match characters and actions. So, it gives you a chance to have variety all within one piece.

Mr. LAGE: Exactly, exactly. And some composers you don't think of as being stylistic. Ennio Morricone was a classical or a jazz composer. He was just kind of perfect. It's, like, what is it? What do you call it? You know, it's whatever the scene called for.

HANSEN: We mentioned how young you are and that you started when you were five. What were some of the drawbacks for you of getting all of this attention when you were so young?

Mr. LAGE: Well, that's an awesome question, because a lot of people don't see it as a drawback, and I didn't either. But there are subtleties that I think a lot of people don't, maybe aren't aware of. Really, there was no drawbacks because I was always, felt like I was in control of my playing. My parents never pushed me. I'm the youngest of five kids, so this was kind of my hobby. This was where I spent all of my time.

It's not so much a drawback as much as a danger. There's a danger of people wanting to exploit the fact that you're young and you're accomplished. And I think the danger is that you can believe it. I don't think I ever believed any of the hype. I was always - erred on the side of being more, not self-deprecating, but more like, oh, I don't know what I'm doing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LAGE: You know, I've got so much to learn. And I still kind of feel that way.

HANSEN: I find it so funny that when I read that you got your first guitar at five, you wanted one at four, but you father goes, no, no, wait until you're five.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: And Carlos Santana wanted you to play with him when you were seven, and it's - no, no, wait until you're eight.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LAGE: It's - one year makes a big difference. Yeah.

HANSEN: I bet. I bet.

Mr. LAGE: It's true, it's true. No, my dad played guitar. I think he started a year or two before I did. So, he was relatively new to it, and I wanted it, and I think I just wanted something to do. And waiting that one year gave me time to, probably gave them time to also see how interested I was in it. And for a whole year I obsessed about it and there's no turning back.

And same with Carlos. I remember that night - I met him when I was seven. And he's like, oh, do you want to play? Do you want to come out? And it wasn't the right time. You know, I was kind of, I was a little boy. I didn't want to be out in front of - I think the crowd was 20,000 people and it was a lot. And I think it was a safe move to have me not be pushed out there.

HANSEN: Yeah. Given all the styles you play so well - we can enumerate them -but are there others that you want to master?

Mr. LAGE: Oh god, there's a lot more. The biggest one, actually, is musique concrete and French electronic or experimental music.


Mr. LAGE: Yeah, that's something that I think there's a lot of room for discovery. I think where musique concrete and all this, it's called acousmatic music, things that are made with software and computers, in a sense, I think right now in 2009, it's kind of where jazz was in the '60s, where it's everything is exciting and everything is interesting, and it's just ready to blow up. For me, you know, as I look down the road, I think that's kind of the glue that's going to connect a lot of this stuff together.

HANSEN: Guitarist and composer Julian Lage. His debut solo recording called "Sounding Point" will be released this week on EmArcy Records. He joined us from member station WBUR in Boston. Thank you and best of luck to you.

Mr. LAGE: Thank you so much. Great talking to you today.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

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