Janiva Magness Got Through the Death and Loss of 2011 with This Year's Stronger For It

by

JEFF DUNAS
  • Jeff Dunas
When you hear Janiva Magness sing, you're hearing a life: a tough one, a lucky one, a damn hard-fought one. The Detroit-born, Southern California-based blueswoman has a near 30-year career in music behind her, and who knows, maybe 30 more years ahead of her. Whatever happens, she's unlikely to make another record like Stronger For It, her 2012 album for the Alligator label. It deserves to be called a career record because it draws on all the hope and strife and power of her voice and her killer instinct for interpretation, whether she's transforming unlikely sources like Buddy Miller, Matthew Sweet or Shelby Lynne, or co-writing with her producer David Darling. The album is filed under blues but it's white hot soul music, born out of a brutally hard year of loss and a will to keep making music that "makes a connection," as she puts it.

I connected with Magness via phone as she headed towards Lincoln, Nebraska, on her way to St. Louis for a Friday, August 3 show at the Old Rock House (1200 S. 7th St). As in her singing, she held nothing back.

Roy Kasten: Can you tell me about the back story to Stronger For It, where the idea for the record came about?

Janiva Magness: I'm always looking for material that I connect to. That's my bar, so to speak. I don't really care where it comes from, if it's something that I can bring myself to. I understand that it's all about making a connection to a listener, and music is that vehicle.

2011 was a really interesting year. I had the best touring year I ever had. I worked more and was on the road more than I ever had been in my career. And I made a record that year. I had a great career year. On a personal level, I had pretty bumpy row. A lot of people were in the frying pan in 2011 and I was one of them. I unfortunately buried eight people who were very close to me: my brother and my mom, the only mother I ever knew. I lost a seventeen-year marriage. And my cat died the week before Christmas. And I made a record and toured my ass off. To say that I felt insane and schizophrenic in 2011 is putting it mildly. It was really an intense year.

And a lot of people were having an intense year. I don't take comfort in other people's pain, but I was grateful that I wasn't the only one, that I wasn't being picked on by the universe.

So I take this record very personally. It all came out on the record. Are the songs autobiographical? Yes. Are they always autobiographical? Yes. Is this record dialed up a few notches? Yes.

I've never experienced anything close to your year. But when I face hard times I tend to withdraw. The last thing I want to do is work. But you were able to make amazing music out of it.

I work very hard and I'm grateful for my work. What's really accurate is that the music, and it's always worked this way, it lifts me up. It lifts my heart and it carries me through the day. The guys in the band know this but in 2011 I was doing a whole lot of crying. I was doing a whole lot of getting off the bandstand and crying. What I wanted to do was retreat. But I couldn't. And that was a really good thing. I was so grateful I was so busy; that's how I got through. I came out the other side of a remarkable career year and a devastating personal year.

You turn to a lot of songwriters that most blues and R&B artists wouldn't touch, even if they'd heard of them. You're doing Buddy Miller and Shelby Lynne and Matthew Sweet. He's about as far from the blues as you can get.

I really don't care where the material comes from. I love that Matthew Sweet song ["Thought I Knew You"], but you should listen to Matthew Sweet's original. It has nothing to do with my version. [Laughs.] I didn't know what we were going to do with that song. I was lucky enough to work with David Darling, an incredibly talented producer and songwriter. He was like, "I know what to do, don't worry." Now that Matthew Sweet tune is a soul tune.

You also co-wrote three songs for the album, collaborating with David. "I Won't Cry" is especially powerful. Can you tell me about writing with him?

We don't have a set way of doing it. Sometimes there'd be a lyric or a part of a lyric that I'd written, sometimes it's lyrics we had written together. I might come to him with an idea and he'd finish it. We'll bat it back and forth until we were happy with it. I'm pretty new at the craft of songwriting. Dave is an old sage at it. I'm lucky to be working with him.

I'd like to take you back a bit: You've talked about having your life changed at an Otis Rush concert. What do you remember most about that night?

It terrified me. I was so young and disconnected at that point in my life. That's a common experience for foster youth, that feeling that you're out there floating with no tether. That was my life at that time. I felt such a deep connection with what Otis was doing. It riveted me. It was like a giant lightning rod. It devastated me. I didn't really understand the experience. I cried and cried in the back of the club for most of the show. When I left the club at two in the morning, I knew that whatever it was, that thing that happened between me and Otis was deeply personal, and I was going to seek that out. I didn't understand it until years later. It changed my experience of the world. It made me want something.

I don't know how to articulate to you without going into the experience of a foster child, to be that youth, to be so disconnected. You're just existing. The world isn't safe enough to want anything, so you don't. You're just there. Otis just cracked that wide open for me.

You've been very active in foster care charity work. How does that fit into your music?

I am a deeply honored, for six years, to be spokesperson for National Foster Care Month, which is technically the month of May, but we celebrate it all year long. I'm also an ambassador for Foster Care Alumni of America. Both of those are huge honors and responsibilities. My job is to do as much as I can and as often as I can to encourage and inspire people to step forward for youth at risk, by talking about my experiences in foster care.

Now, I have all the Jerry Springer stories you need. Most foster care youth do. I'm only interested in talking about that window of time in my life, because I got lucky at the end. I found the right fit in a foster parent. That was a game changer for me. This woman stood up for me when I couldn't stand up for myself. That changed everything. It didn't just change one thing in the life of a kid who was in trouble. It changed everything. Once again, it changed the way I viewed the world, the way I experienced life. We need more good people to step forward. Fostering isn't right for everyone, but it's right for a lot of people. And there are a lot of other things you can do to change the life of a child. It isn't just fostering. If people want to learn more they can go to my Website, or to fostercare month.org or fostercarealumni.org.

Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me.

You're welcome. One more thing, if that's OK. You can do with it what you will.

I lost a dear friend last night, a friend who was a blues DJ for many years, and a long time supporter of mine. Bluesman B Griffin, a DJ on KBXR, 102.3 in Columbia, Missouri. We lost him last night very unexpectedly. I'll be dedicating shows to him, and the show in St. Louis will be dedicated to him as well.

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