Talking on the phone with Janiva Magness from her home in Los Angeles is kind of like having a conversation with a firecracker, or a flash of beautiful, strong lightning. The blues singer is eloquent, honest, passionate and open about her struggles and her victories. Magness has traveled leaps and bounds from a childhood in Detroit marked by the suicides of her parents, foster care, teen pregnancy, depression and addiction. For her latest album, the Los Angeles-based musician left Alligator Records, where she’s been since 2008, to start her own label: Fathead Records. The move left her without a safety net or a parachute with which to land; it also allowed her to create the most personal, powerful and cathartic record of her career. Song after song showcases Magness’s powerhouse vocal talent along with a recently discovered knack for writing songs that give the listener heart swells of hope and inspiration. In 2009, Magness took home a Blues Music Award for B.B. King Entertainer of the year, and in 2013 she took home two more for Best Contemporary Blues Female Artist and Song of the Year for “I Won’t Cry” co-written with Darling. Original takes this already well-established blues master to the next level and is deserving of even more awards and accolades.
Magness performs at the Krush Backyard Concert on Thursday, July 10.
What do you love most about the new album ‘Original?’
I really am grateful to work with Dave Darling in any capacity. He’s not just my producer. He’s also my collaborator in songwriting. Dave and I wrote seven songs of the 11. It blows my mind that I’m co-writer on more than half the record. I co-wrote three songs on my previous release on the last record and before that I was pretty much a “no-writer” as in I didn’t write any songs. Plus my band, it’s my road band that plays on the majority of the record and they are just killer.
How did your entry into songwriting begin?
It started on the previous release. Dave and I got song of the year at the 2013 Blues Music Awards for “I Won’t Cry.” We literally got off the stage with the hardware in our hands and we were backstage buzzing about from the excitement and Dave looked at me and he said “You know what’s next. The next record is all original songs.”
What has the songwriting process been like?
It’s been painful. Dave makes a joke about it. It’s easy, put a blank piece of paper on the desk, now go and bleed on that. He’s kind of right. It is for me. I can only write what I know. It’s about trying to articulate the truth without making too many mistakes, you know.
Why did you decide to leave Alligator Records, which you’ve called your dream record label, to release Original on your own label, Fathead Records?
You know, everything changes. And you start there. I can only sing what I know and I can only write what I know. In order to stay true to what was in my heart for the next record, in order to stay true to the song, the writing, the recording, the performance, the mixing and the mastering, and to stay true to the music as it seemed to be coming through me, I knew the only way to make this record was to be completely and totally independent with no one else’s input and no one else’s agenda. A record deal is a loan. You make the record and they have input, and you give away a good amount of control. It’s Music Business 101. Alligator is a great company to be with, but I had to make this record. I knew I had to record these songs.
I’m 57-years-old. Nobody has been the boss of me for a very long time. It had to be done this way. Once that was clear, then the decision was made. I love the staff at Alligator. They are very dedicated, very good people, but I had to go.
Original was released on June 24. How’s the record been received?
Well, we’re in the top ten on the Roots Music Report. People are really embracing it. It’s really pleasing because you never know. I’m not the kind of person who assumes things. I don’t assume that people are going to love me and I’m going to get radio airplay.
I had hopes but not really expectations. I’m not great with the expectations thing. It feels amazing right now. It feels like I’m alone in my office doing the happy dance. I’m looking at the cats, going, “We’re rocking it!” It’s really nice that it’s being so well-received.
What was it like receiving the 2009 Blues Music Awards for B.B. King Entertainer Of The Year?
That was hallucinogenic. That was transcendent. That was something that I’m sure I’ll never forget ever. I’ll forget my name before I’ll forget that moment. The first time I heard B.B. King perform I was 14- years-old and in Minneapolis. He opened a show for Quicksilver Messenger Service. For someone like me, the woman that I am, the person that I am with the world of experiences that I’ve had, some have been very dark, some have been breathtakingly beautiful moments in my life, to have B.B. King standing on the stage with an envelope and Bonnie Raitt standing next to him with a piece of hardware . . . to be standing there and hear him call my name. I was like that 14-year-old girl, getting up there. All I could do was grin like a baboon. It still makes me cry. I recount it, I cry. How is it possible that it gets any better than that?
In one interview, you said: I step forward for youth at risk in this country. What does that look like for you?
When my schedule allows, I do a fair amount of public speaking. We used to refer to foster care as the meat grinder. You’re coming out the other side and standing on the shore. How does that person become a successful entrepreneur? What do you do? Everything at-risk youth have to navigate plus the cons of being in the foster care system, the depressions, the post-traumatic stress, the stigma that’s attached. I do public speaking because I was that kid. I am an alumni of the foster care system. I came out the other side. Those moments no longer define me. They are a kind of fertilizer, but they don’t define my days and nights anymore. I used to be that damaged kid every day. Every once in a while I have a rough patch still, because that’s the way it is. But most days I’m solid, most days I’m good, I don’t wonder why I’m alive anymore and there was a time that I thought that every day.
To be seen and viewed by these organizations as a successful human being, from what I came from, it’s a huge deal and a major responsibility in my life. To do what I can, to say, we need more good people to step forward for youth at-risk. There’s something that you can do in ten minutes that you can do to change the life of a child. You can write a letter to the editor or your local newspaper when you meet a person who is a product person of foster care. Give people a shout out, talk about the yes, speak loudly, and speak about the yes. Volunteer at a youth center. Answer the phone. If it hadn’t been for the volunteer that stayed an extra 15 minutes at the youth center on that Sunday night when I was homeless and pregnant at 16 . . . I was spit out by the hospital after a week in the ICU when I’d tried to commit suicide. I had nowhere to go. If that volunteer hadn’t called on a list of strangers to take in a teenage girl for three days, the end of my story would be very different. We are saved by seconds and inches. If you have a second, stand up for us. It will make more than you day, I promise you that.
In a blog post, you said that gratitude is probably the overwhelming emotion in your life these days. What are you grateful for?
I’m grateful for the music. I’m grateful for the friends that I have. I’m terribly grateful for Dave Darling because he’s my friend, not just my record producer and collaborator. I would trust that man with my life. And I don’t trust many people. He has really pushed me. I let him push me deeper into songwriting. Look what happened. This record came out. People live their entire lives without, sadly, tragically without having a friend like that. I’m grateful for my band. I’m grateful for all the wounds because they have turned me into some kind of master where I have a PhD in making lemonade. Because I shouldn’t be here, and if I’m here I shouldn’t be happy, I should be messed up, locked in an institution somewhere, but I’m not. I’m grateful for Carrie my final foster placement. The seventh person on that volunteer’s call list was Carrie. She said sure bring her here and then I never left.