Q&A with singer Janiva Magness, one of the most beloved figures in the Americana, blues and roots music

"We are strong and solid as women in the Blues. I find many very talented women coming thru the ranks and find this very hopeful."

Janiva Magness: Love, Hope and Protest

After Janiva Magness added a 2016 Grammy nomination to her 26 Blues Music Award nominations — with seven wins, including Entertainer of the Year — she might have taken at least a short rest on her laurels. Instead, one of the preeminent voices in contemporary American roots music has raised the bar for herself. Magness’ 14th album, Love Is an Army, is a brilliantly crafted bridge between the past and present, blending the echoes of classic soul and Americana music with timeless themes of love and the very contemporary sound of protest. A seven-time Blues Music Award winner, Magness has more than earned her right to sing the blues. Her life story comes straight out of a blues song. As she recounts in her soon-to-be-published memoir, she was born in Detroit, and among the fondest memories of her childhood were the sounds of her father’s blues and country record collection. Childhood was short lived for Magness, however; as an adolescent she lost both parents to suicide. She spent the next several years bouncing around the foster care system, a traumatic experience that inspired her adult advocacy involvement with a variety of foster care programs. As a young woman, her life was seemingly spiraling out of control. She was saved one night in Minneapolis when, underage, she snuck into a show by bluesman Otis Rush. She started down the path of a music career, working as a recording engineer before being coaxed out in front of a microphone as a backup singer and finally forming her own group in Arizona.

Photo by Margaret Malandruccolo

He has become her key songwriting foil and is the primary architect of the album’s gorgeous textural sound, which blends acoustic and electric instruments, flourishes of Latin percussion, horns and an enlightened approach to the studio to create perfect settings for her vocal prowess. And there’s more than range and craft to Magness’ voice. Her singing rings with sincerity. Since launching her career with 1992’s More Than Live, she has grown to become an accomplished storyteller and diviner of the heart, allowing songs like the title track, “Doorway” and “Say You Will” to reveal life’s potent truths. Magness explores her own turbulent youth, her rise to stardom and more in her just-finished, yet-untitled memoir—a book that took three years to write and has already inspired an in-the-works musical. Today Janiva Magness is one of the most beloved figures in the Americana, blues and roots music world. She’s reached a larger and more diverse audience with each succeeding album and developed a reputation as a live entertainer that’s made her a staple of the international festival circuit.

Interview by Michael Limnios

How has the Blues and Rock Counterculture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

The Blues culture has had a deep and profound influence on my world simply because it is the music of the common man and woman. The working man and woman. The culture of the music itself has helped me understand in a deeply personal way that I am not alone in my struggle to survive and ultimately thrive against the odds.

Rock has had considerably less of an influence on me personally although I was exposed at a young age to the Rolling Stones, The Beatles, and some earlier rock bands like Led Zepplin. It is important to recognize of course these bands were greatly influenced by earlier blues music and musicians. Strangely for a young girl at age 14 years old I was far more interested Blues than any other music. That turned out to be great fortune in my case. Lucky me!

How do you describe Janiva Magness sound and songbook? What characterize your music philosophy?

Blues, Memphis and Detroit Funkified Soul grooves and beautiful ballads. Tell the truth. Bring yourself to the music. The music is the vehicle, the job is connection.

What were the reasons that you started the Americana, Blues and Roots music researches and experiments?                                     Photo by Margaret Malandruccolo

Primarily as a way of spreading my wings creatively I suppose.  I was not thinking of it as an experiment as much as a stretching, creatively. And incorporating the latter musical influences which also encompass soul and funk as well as folk music. Then of course the writing began to come thru, and I believe the writing of new material, new songs is very important to the continuation of the music. I also believe it is very important to note that the “words” are simply that. Words that are used to define and quantify a craft. To quantify art so people can yes, find it possibly more accessible to the masses. However it can also be very confining and ultimately can do damage or even choke the music itself if we are not careful with how much importance we place on these “genre labels”. At the end of the day – at least to me the job is about connection. The vehicle is the music and I am grateful to be a part of the exchange with audiences. I consider it a blessing to be a musician – on most days.

How do you describe "Love Is An Army" songbook and sound?

It is a collection of original songs that we hope encourage and inspire others to stand and speak their truth. To stand up for other people in need. The world is in much trouble these days and the only way to get through these troubling times that I know of is to do that TOGETHER. We have greater power than we imagine and there is great strength in numbers.

What does "Love" mean to you?

The taproot of the soul. the place we connect with each other internally and the reason for life is to manifest this in all its many ways. Through connection, through art, through being of service to another in need.

Are there any memories from “Love Is An Army" studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

Wonderful feeling overall that there was a great synergy happening while we were recording it. This was true of not just the musicians but also the engineers and all there. It was a lovely time.

What do you learn about yourself from the blues music and culture? What does the blues mean to you?

I have learned that Blues music knows no boundaries of race, religion or finance and that it will take all who embrace it as a healing force. It is home and it has held me for many years for which I am eternally grateful.

"Very important on both fronts. My dream is to work less and earn more. My dream is for time to garden and a place to do that. A home that no one can force me to leave. Time with my husband a house pets. Peaceful nights and days. Time to do all the yoga I please! (Photo by Margaret Malandruccolo)

What´s been the highlights in your life and career so far?

SO many it is difficult to count. Meeting Koko Taylor and her embracing me as an artist and friend. Taking a huge risk to begin to write songs and then stepping out onto a stage and seeing the audience mouth the words to my songs as I sing them! Being acknowledged by the Blues Foundation and given accolades for my work thru them including B.B. King Entertainer of the Year award given to me by B.B. King himself. Traveling so many places in the world to play my music including Mumbai India this year! I am STILL waiting to be asked to come to Greece and perform... Being nominated in the 2017 Grammy Awards for Best Contemporary Blues Album for Love Wins Again. Because I take my work so personally, this is priceless stuff to me.

What has made you laugh and what touched (emotionally) you from Otis Rush, BB King, and Koko Taylor?

All three had such raw passion for their craft and during performance. Otis had unbridled intensity to his playing. Energy that was truly wild to me.  BB King had an ease and sophistication that compared to none. Koko was intense and joyful and very funny.

How has the Foster Care Alumni influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

Tremendously. It is impossible to articulate all of this to you but I can say that without the right placement in the Foster Care system I would have surely not have survived myself or the world.  As far as I am concerned I have the debt that cannot be repaid. So, my obligation and honor are to pay it forward as best I can. Our families are not always born of blood.

How important is the activism in your life and music? What is your dream and nightmare?

Very important on both fronts. My dream is to work less and earn more. My dream is for time to garden and a place to do that. A home that no one can force me to leave. Time with my husband a house pets. Peaceful nights and days. Time to do all the yoga I please!

My nightmare is a world in conflict that never ends. My nightmare is others suffering and being unable to help. My nightmare is not being able to take care of myself and suffering.

"It is one of the greatest modern musical art forms that introduced African American early cultures to the wider world and therefore has resonated beyond time - therefore influenced all modern musical genres from that point moving forward." (Photo: Janiva Magness & B.B. King)

Which acquaintances have been the most important experiences? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

Certainly Otis Rush, BB King, Koko Taylor and Carrie - my final Foster Mother. Keep trying. Never give up. No prisoners taken.

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

I miss the majority of musicians really respecting their craft and the history of the music. I would love to see more of that and less popular TALENT shows that focus on fame and more focus on the CRAFT of being a musician. I hope to continue to make records and play live, to more people as long as I am wanted. My fears of course are for some reason having to stop playing music which would leave me heartbroken.

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues with Soul and continue to Roots and Rock music?

Blues is a great America art form that was originating from field hollers of slaves and gospel music. That music then developed into a variation of styles moving forward. However all of this is tap rooted in the survival of peoples that came thru great struggle and hardship. THIS to me is why Blues in its many forms is so universal in its message and connection to the masses of the world. That became much more commercial when it was electrified and then performed by a white audience (Rock and Roll).

Why do you think that the American Roots music continues to generate such a devoted following?

That to me is very simple. American Roots music – as a broader umbrella of a category is the largest growing category of music today.  This is music that is focused largly on the songs (the stories) of other people, played on real instruments by real musicians. This is an experience that I believe we all crave whether we realize this or not. Because music is such a powerful medium. It speaks to the place where there are no words. I have always needed that kind of dialogue, like millions of other people. People want to hear songs with depth and meaning. Something personal to them to relate to and help carry us thru the day, week or month. American Roots music encompasses the elements of folk, blues, soul, bluegrass and early country music allowing for these kind of experiences.

"The Blues culture has had a deep and profound influence on my world simply because it is the music of the common man and woman. The working man and woman." (Photo by Jeff Dunas)

How do you describe your previous album BLUE AGAIN sound and songbook? What characterize album’s philosophy?

This is a return to my taproot in sound and song selections. It is raw and right. My Producer Dave Darling and I, for some time now have talked about making a recording that represents a return to the taproot for me as an artist. The opportunity came this year and so we jumped on it. To make a very potent and to the point recording of some of my personal favorite traditional style Blues songs by some of my favorite artists. Then we thought we should add a few guests for fun so I asked Kid Ramos, Sugaray Rayford and TJ Norton to help us out. I think it worked out very well – yes?

What has made you laugh and what touched (emotionally) you from BLUE AGAIN studio sessions?

Laughing lately has been difficult. The world is in such troubling times. I have had to resort to cartoons and The Muppetts. Silly things and videos of animals that are fun to watch which helps lighten my mind for a moment or two. The sessions for Blue Again were very “live” and in that way where we played the songs a few times and hit the RED button to record and voila! The music was largely made. I am grateful for my band  - Gaary Davenport on Bass, Zach Zunis and Garrett Deloian on Guitars and Matt Tecu on Drums – all who play on the record and my Producer Dave Darling of course as well as the help from our dear friend Arlan Schierbaum on Hammond organ and various piano and Wurlitzer type instruments. Then as I already mentioned the special guests. It was a fantastic and very live experience and I am moved by how quickly it came together and the joy in playing the music itself.

What moment changed your life the most?

Hahaha! I wish it was a simple as one moment. There have been a series of miracles. True miracles in my life that have changed my heart and mind for the better. Countless gifts that have brought me to the place I am in now which is mostly joy and peacefulness. Music is certainly one of those!

"I have learned that Blues music knows no boundaries of race, religion or finance and that it will take all who embrace it as a healing force." (Photo: Janiva & The Blues Connection, 1980)

What does to be a female artist in a “Man World” as James Brown says? What is the status of women in Blues?

Work twice as hard, be twice as smart and do not take other people’s problems personally (their sexism) is not MY problem, even though they may try to make it so. We are strong and solid as women in the Blues. I find many very talented women coming thru the ranks and find this very hopeful.

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

That music would be reinstated into ALL early schooling programs as a requirement.

What is the impact of Blues and Soul music and culture to the racial, political and socio-cultural implications?

It is one of the greatest modern musical art forms that introduced African American early cultures to the wider world and therefore has resonated beyond time - therefore influenced all modern musical genres from that point moving forward.

What is the biggest revolution which can be realized today? What do you think the major changes will be in near or far future of the world?

We all need music more than ever before. These are very troubling times every where in the world. My hope is that we are able to rise up and overcome these issues we are all so concerned with for our lives and the future of children and grand childrens lives. The environment and the world economy. The quality of living we can access, healthcare, many many things we need to join together and rise up to help each other and fight the corporate greed that is a sickness in this world we live in. I believe we can do this, but we must join together in cause.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?

Greece. For several months please!! With my husband and on tour for some of that time. Truly Greece is one of the two places I long to be before my end of life. I have great hope for this.

Janiva Magness - Home

Photos by Shelby Duncan

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