Janiva Magness: "I See Blues as the Music of the American People"
Janiva Magness is familiar with success. At this year's Blues Music Awards, she won her fourth Contemporary Blues Female Artist of the Year award, along with Song of the Year for "I Won't Cry." Magness can add those to her long list of accomplishments, which includes the 2009 Blues Music Award for B.B. King Entertainer of the Year (she was only the second woman to ever win that award).
But Magness is familiar with hardship as well. Born in Detroit, Michigan, she's endured more than her fair share of tragedies, including the suicides of both of her parents, which left her in and out of a dozen different foster homes and three psychiatric hospitals. Clearly, she doesn't just sing the blues - she's lived them.
She's currently on tour, promoting her recently released and critically acclaimed tenth album, Stronger For It. With her performance at Poor David's Pub (1313 S Lamar St) on Saturday, June 22, coming up, Magness was nice enough to talk to us about her life, music and her new album.
You perform almost 200 shows a year, does that ever get tiring?
Completely exhausting. But, you know, I love it. I'm very, very grateful and believe I'm very lucky.
Your new album, Stronger For It, is the first time you've written some of the songs since 1997. What inspired you to write and how did that affect the album, especially compared to your other albums?
I have managed to make a career out of pretty much being an interpreter of other people's music and I've been fine with that. But it became necessary to sort of get up off of that posture and I had had a particularly challenging year in 2011, which is when we started to make the record. I buried eight people. My kitty cat died. I lost a marriage of 17 years. So it came out on the record. I take my work very, very, very personal. So this time, I think it's a new level of intimacy, a deeper level of intimacy than my previous work.
One of the songs from the album that really stuck out to me is "There It Is." Is there a story behind that?
It's not based on one experience; it's based on a bunch of experiences. It's basically a narrative from a woman that has been holding back. You know how when you hold back saying something for a really long time and then you finally just go ahead and just blurt it out? There it is, there it is, there it is. I said it. There it is. [She laughs] I think "Tense Up and Over It" might be another subtitle to that song. The song's about killing a guy, and we all know there's a difference between thinking about it and talking about it versus actually doing it. [She laughs again] So far I'm on the 'thinking about it, talking about it' side.
You're no stranger to hardship. How has that affected your career?
It informs my craft. I feel very fortunate to be able to tell you today that those experiences, those struggles, those difficulties, they no longer define me. They're part of a landscape, but they don't really define me any longer. But I think I channel a lot of that energy into the music.
Outside of music, you're also in your eighth consecutive year as a spokesperson for the Casey Family Programs National Foster Care Month and an ambassador for Foster Care Alumni of America. What inspired you to do that?
I got really lucky because I found the right place, the right fit in foster care. It took a while but I found it. And it changed everything. One person standing up for me, it changed everything. My job as a spokesperson and an ambassador is to draw more attention to the concerns of foster care and encourage and inspire more good people to help.
As a white woman, you don't fit the standard description of a blues singer. How has that affected your career in the industry?
Well, some people have said to me over the course of the years that I'd be a lot bigger, better-known artist if I was African-American, if I was a black woman. I've had plenty of experiences where people have judged me based on my skin color. The only thing that I have to say about that is that that's not my problem. I have never intended to allow that to be my problem, because the fact of the matter is that I don't think blues cares what color you are. It don't care. It's gonna get you if it's coming for you.
So, how has it affected my career? I don't really have an answer for that. I don't know whether it has or not, but I have no intention to give it too much attention.
There are a lot of white artists in the genre now. Traditionally, absolutely of course, it's a black American, an African-American art form, at its core, at its roots. And I love that. I love the history. I have the vinyl and I have the CDs and I still have some cassettes. I'm a long time, fully committed, all the way in, both feet in, all the way up to my neck, in the genre, in the records, in the music, in the experience. I had the great fortune to see some tremendous blues artists at a young age. That's a huge gift.
I see blues as the music of the American people, by the way. It's the music of the working class people, who work hard for their money, who work everyday and who suffer some very difficult experiences and get through it and come out the other side. We celebrate that. The music speaks to that and the music speaks to tremendous joy and the music speaks to great rage and tremendous heartbreak and having that experience and getting through to the other side. That's what it's about. And that doesn't know any color. I don't think that has color attached to it.
With all that you've accomplished and as one of the most respected artists in the genre, what motivates you and keeps you going?
I love what I do so much. I said this last night to the audience in Ann Arbor. There is a darkness is me. There's always been a darkness inside me, at my core. And the music speaks to that part of me, and it gives me light on the inside, in my heart. It gives me light and I need that light. I need that feeling of connection, because the songs are about connections, the job is about connections. The music is the vehicle, but the job is about making the connection so that, at the end of the night, we know that we're not alone. If there's one person in the audience who feels a little bit better than when they walked in the door because they understand that they're not the only ones who have had that experience, then I've done my job. That's part of what deeply motivates me. And I need that experience too. It's not just the audience. And it's really, really truly a great deal of fun. I have an amazing band and working with them is just a barrel of monkeys. They're really fun and tremendously talented musicians and great human beings. I just want to keep doing this as long as I can.
What's it like to earn the praise and respect of some of the genre's legends, like Mavis Staples, Bettye LaVette, Koko Taylor and Denise LaSalle?
It completely blows my mind. I'm so honored by their kindness toward me. It means the world to me, it means everything and it makes me cry. That's the truth. You're saying this stuff and I got tears in my eyes because it's just such a dream for me. It really is like a dream. I pinch myself a lot these days.
With the success of the songs that you've written, do you expect to write more of your songs in the future?
I'm working on songs right now for the new record, which I'm already working on. I'm looking forward to that and hoping to have something that's good enough to give to the people.
When should we expect that one?
I'm hoping for next year, but we'll have to see.
A lot of people would argue that blues doesn't have the same popularity as it once had. How do you feel about the future of the genre?
There are people out there that say that blues is dead, but I don't buy it for a second. I don't buy it. I'm out there in the trenches. It ain't dead. It's a living, breathing thing. It's in forward motion. I participate every year as a judge for the Blues Foundation during the International Blues Challenge. Anybody that thinks that blues is dead ought to go to Memphis for the IBC. It's far from gone and it's far from dead.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.