Featured Blues Interview – Janiva Magness
Each time you hear a blues singer lament about their sorry situation and sad status in life you are listening to their own life’s history.
And each time you hear an R & B artist sing about hopelessness and tragedy it’s like hearing the biography of Janiva Magness.
Janiva’s life reads like a Greek tragedy complete with the main character overcoming misfortune and disaster; and through heroic circumstances becoming even greater and more complete than before.
Her life story may be of mythic proportions and sound like a Shakespearean play, the catastrophes and her determination are very real.
Born in Detroit, Magness suffered the terrible tragedy of losing both of her parents to suicide before she reached her mid teens. Forced onto the streets and then placed in a series of a dozen foster homes, she was pregnant at the age of 17 and gave her baby daughter up for adoption.
Inspired by the music in her Dad’s large blues and country record collection, a discouraged, stressed out and extremely underage Magness attended an Otis Rush concert in Minneapolis, and the performance she witnessed changed her life. Looking back, she realizes her personal and creative redemption started at this show.
“Ha. I went by accident with some of my older friends. They all told me: “you have to go; you’ll love it!”.”
“I was 14 years old. I got very, very lucky, you know? Otis played as if his life depended on it. There was a completely desperate, absolute intensity. I knew, whatever it was, I needed more of it. That was the same year I saw B.B. King open up for Quicksilver Messenger Service. Just a great year that really changed my life.”
At the same time behind the scenes, and totally unintentional, she took in the influences of Detroit’s wonderful Motown pop and soul sound which helped shape her style and approach as a musician. She was finally about to move forward.
Soon she was studying to be a sound engineer in St. Paul, Minnesota, Not long after beginning this production job in the studio, she was coerced into doing some backup vocals for the likes of Kid Ramos and R.L.Burnside. This eventually led her to Phoenix, Arizona where she formed her own band The Mojomatics.
Janiva poured her young lifetime of emotion into her phrasing and vocal delivery and the group grew to have a large and solid local fan base. After enjoying moderate success with the band, Magness moved to L.A. in the mid-eighties and her debut cassette, More Than Live appeared in the mid nineties.
Her first album, It Takes One To Know One came out in 1997. Then in 1999, she starred in the stage production of It Ain’t Nothin’ But The Blues’ at the David Geffen Theatre in Westwood, California, and her stage presence and comfort became second nature during this time.
Three independent releases followed before Magness signed with NorthernBlues Music and put out Bury Him At The Crossroads in 2004 and in 2006. Both albums were co-produced by Magness and Colin Linden. Bury Him At The Crossroads earned them a Canadian Maple Blues Award for Producers Of The Year and Do I Move You? reached Number 8 on the Billboard Blues Album Chart.
At this time, Magness began to draw a lot of critical and fan attention especially in the blues community. Her career was in full swing and she received an armful of music awards and she hasn’t slowed down since. As her skills increased her confidence grew too. In 2008, Janiva signed with Alligator Records and released What Love Will Do followed by The Devil Is An Angel Too in 2010.
In 2012 Janiva released Stronger For It which included some of her own original songs; the first album to do so since her debut. That release won the 2012 Blues Blast Music Awards for Best Contemporary Blues CD, the song “I Won’t Cry” from the album won Song of the year and Janiva also won their 2012 Best Female Blues Artist of the year.
Stronger For It sounds like the title of her autobiography and also won awards from Amazon.com with “Dirty Water” being named the Best Blues Song of 2012 by the huge on-line site. The CD is also up for 5 Blues Music Awards in Memphis including Best Female Artist, Best Blues CD, and Song Of The Year (I Won’t Cry).
For the past few years, Magness has toured widely across Canada, Europe and the United States. To date, she has nine released albums and both her fame and fortune continue to grow.
“There’s a couple of reasons why I included some of my own songs. I was married for a very long time to a prolific songwriter.” (Magness was divorced last year and with the resulting loss of a few close friends that results from a matrimonial split, her life of turmoil continues).
After being married to a great writer she says, “I just didn’t want to go there. What if I sucked? What if I didn’t suck? I’m not sure which is heavier on the scale for me. There’s a responsibility for each to me as there should be. What’s so exciting for me and equally as frightening is that the songs I write I get stronger from.”
On Stronger For It there are also cover songs by Grace Potter, Shelby Lynne, Buddy and June Miller, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Ike Turner and most surprisingly, even Tom Waits.
“Waits’ voice is vulnerable like a chain saw.” laughs Janiva. “It’ll just cut through you and they’ll be all kinds of splinters all over. I’m a long time Waits fan.”
“Here’s a funny story for you. I remember once I’m backstage with Duke Robillard originally from Room Full Of Blues, at a festival and he’s waiting to go on and he starts talking with me about being on the road with Waits on a tour. We are both really into the discussion and enjoying the talk.. He then goes onstage and does “Make It Rain” and I freaked out. It was great!”
“With my own music, the songs I choose have to have a personal connection to me. I need that deep level of connection to perform a cover.”
But the connection has it’s limits too: does an artist have to live the blues to be truly authentic? “I don’t know if you have to live the blues but I know you have to experience it. Do I live it day in and day out? No. But I think you have to experience it to serve it properly.”
“Look at my life and where I am, that’s the way it is in my life and I think it has to be similar in other artist’s lives for them to really come across. Singing about things I’ve never experienced doesn’t happen in my career. I don’t feel comfortable doing songs like that. If I can’t feel it personally, I certainly can’t honestly sing it to an audience.”
At many of the gigs she plays at, her audiences are generally unaware of her tragic upbringing at the time they hear her wonderful renditions.
“I don’t think that most of the people in my audiences are aware of my personal life when they first hear me sing, but after they hear me and do some research, they become fans. I don’t necessarily first promote my history because it’s my voice that’s the big deal, but it is an important part of who I am, so I never hide it. It seems that people first hear me and after they learn about my life they like me even more.”
This talented artist hasn’t forgotten her past either. Janiva does a lot of charity work for National Foster Care and has recently reconnected after a decade and a half with her daughter.
“It’s a huge honor to be the spokesperson for the National Foster Care Month Campaign. I am also an Ambassador for Foster Care Alumni of America. It speaks to the idea that if I can stay on the train long enough the scenery is gonna change.”
“When you’re young you think things will never change; “I’m always going to be struggling” and “no one is ever gonna want me”. These kids need to hear it. There is a way out.”
“Parents and counselors on the front line also need to hear it. I never forget, in part because of my love for music and how it has lifted me up and in part because someone was brave enough to stand up for me when I was much younger and a foster child at risk.”
And other parts of her life are currently coming full circle too. “I now have a good relationship with my daughter and I am eternally grateful to her parents for helping us reconnect after 17 years. She’s been bitten by becoming an artist full time too like me but I don’t think that’s what she wants to do for a living.”
“I think that anyone trying to do music has to be applauded. I’m the luckiest woman alive, I’ve learned. For the early part of my life to make any sense; the mental illness, violence, death, tragedy; if you take it all in face value; it makes no sense at all. If I back up and say I’m gonna try to get out of the way of all these experiences- if I can- then my craft and my conduct turns out to have some kind of purpose after all. Now I can help someone else understand they’re not alone. They can get to the other side too. I think that’s good news. There’s too many people out there just going through the motions.”
Her passion is evident onstage and off. “When I first heard about the award nominations, I was sitting in front of my lap-top just crying. I was SO happy. With Amazon, they reach so many people. I was very humbled, grateful and extremely happy about my good fortune.”
In 2009, Janiva was named the B.B King Blues Artist Of The Year by The Blues Foundation becoming only the second woman, after Koko Taylor to be so honored. In the same year, she was named the Contemporary Female Blues Artist of the year which she had already won in 2006 and 2007. She was nominated again last year. Since 2006, she has had 17 similar nominations. In fact, a recent USA Today has stated in print: “Magness is a blues star”; how cool is it for this artist with a long, hard life to finally be recognized? “It doesn’t get any better than this!” (laughs)
Is there a more suitable blues artist to listen to for advice on overcoming distractions and furthering your career? “I have a lot of things I can tell people in terms of life and music. I do. I really do. Resistance is the ticket. Do not give up. Do your homework. Get full command of your instrument. Eat it. Sleep it. Shit it.” (laughs)
“There is a huge glut of mediocre players and beneath that are people who didn’t do their homework and have no respect for their instrument. In my experience, that’s not where the better artists are. Do your homework.”
In concert, the music starts, Magness closes her eyes and starts to sing. The walls shake and the crowd goes wild. And in some circles, she is compared to Mavis Staples. “I am deeply honored by that comparison. She is simply the best. In the past, I have heard people compare me to both Tina Turner and Bonnie Raitt. Both of those artists I am a huge fan of so I feel very much complimented whenever I hear that. Whether it’s true or not is a different story but I love to hear things like that; it justifies my career.”
Getting into useless arguments about who is more soulful Etta or Aretha misses the point: honesty and passion know no audio boundaries. One discussion that is important however is the amount of influence experience has over innocence and naivety. Can a voice with no memory reach into your soul? The sounds of this songstress are on the other side of this spectrum.
In a musical era where genres are less precise and artists have difficulty identifying themselves in a specific way, Janiva’s incredible drive and passion are quickly noticed and greatly appreciated.
Visit Janiva’s website at: http://janivamagness.com/
Photos by Bob Kieser © 2013 Blues Blast Magazine
Interviewer A. J. Wachtel is a long-time entertainment journalist in New England and the East Coast who currently writes for The Boston Blues Society and The Noise Magazine. He is well known in the Boston and N.Y.C areas for his work in the Blues for the last two decades.
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