“When I stopped telling other people’s stories, which is another way of saying when I stopped covering other people’s songs and began to step into the blood of writing my own. It is like stepping off of a place that is rich and beautiful.”
Janiva Magness has lived a rich, beautiful and often tumultuous life. A towering Blueswoman whose voice is a unique and distinct instrument indebted to her foremothers and forefathers but unmistakably her own, Janiva has been on a path, a journey of self discovery and artistic exploration. In the past decade Magness has been, as she puts it, “stepping into my own blood.” She has begun writing her own songs, no longer curating extravagant feasts of rare nuggets from American Roots music’s past and present. She has written and published a gripping and engaging memoir that details her life of depression, substance abuse and tragedy. Janiva tells her story through music and prose better than any interviewer could, therefore she is a daunting subject. But, the often outspoken Ms. Magness is also generous, warm and easy to connect with. Janiva is facile and intellectually curious, able to wax poetic on a number of deep personally held beliefs that she has spent her whole life ruminating over.
Janiva is a songwriter, a relatively new development for her. Songwriting was the first step into her blood that led to more artistic freedom and a new phase in her creativity.
‘I mean I have Bobby Bland covers on some of my early material: ‘I’m Not Ashamed.’ I have B.B. King stuff on my earlier records: ‘Green and Lucky Blues.’ Stepping from covering songs from other artists which requires that I take someone else’s song that I deeply connect with and insert myself into it and I engage in that dance with that song, with that story, with that melody and all that stuff. I haven’t stopped doing that. But, when I began to write original songs, which is a bit more like stepping into my own blood, I know that’s graphic but that’s what I feel like, I followed the path. And that had to do with it being my blood, that also had to do with it, in my view, with who I was and where I was at that time in my life. Okay? Which all feeds into: I can’t make the same record twice. I can’t do it. It’s not in me to do that and I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to do it. And there’s my Dad. I’m gonna do it, I’m gonna do it and I’m gonna do what I damn well please. I’m gonna try to do it really well. So that’s sort of like the path of that. It’s a crooked road, I will admit that. There’s no question for me that it absolutely begins and all of it ends with the Blues, and I bring that with me. I bring Skip James in my heart with me on that journey, I bring Etta James with me on that journey. I bring Koko Taylor with me on that trail. I bring it with me.’
But songwriting doesn’t seem to come easy. Janiva agonizes over her songs often born out of turmoil and determination.
“It starts with ‘I have to get out of the way.’ I have to get me out of the way because I’m a very nervous songwriter. I’m very reluctant. I’ll clean out the closet, then I’ll clean out the pantry, and then I’ll do all this other shit. I’ll shred those 5, 6, 9 boxes of papers over there that are sitting on the back side of my office over here that need to be shredded. I’ll do all that other crap. So I have to get out of my own way which isn’t to say I have to get all that other crap done. It often happens late at night. The opening, I consider it an opening, some sort of crack in my armour. That often happens in the wee hours for me, 11:30, 1, 2, 3 in the morning kind of a window for me. Generally, it’s stare at a blank piece of paper until blood drips out of my forehead (haha). Cause that’s what it feels like. And really an integral part of that is me getting out of the way, getting me out of the way, getting my left brain out of the way. Going ‘just be quiet for a minute dear, just come on, come on.”
An important partner and collaborator in Janiva’s life is her producer, songwriting partner and dear longtime friend, Dave Darling. It is this relationship that helped propel Magness into songwriting and sparks her lyrical creativity.
“So I will start something and mostly I’m a lyricist, primarily I’m a lyricist, and I will do something and I’ll bat it over via email or maybe a little song file singing, I sing into my phone, I’ll bat it over to my songwriting partner Dave Darling, who’s also my producer and crazy talented. And he’ll play around with it and then he’ll bat it back to me. Or, he’ll start something and say ‘hey,’ and send it over to me via email, say ‘what ya got?’ Or ‘finish this,’ or ‘give me a chorus and a bridge.’ I’m really really really blessed with that relationship, to have a songwriting foil to have a songwriting partner that is really very gifted as a songwriter himself and also really gets me. There is a really deep and abiding connection in the best way possible between myself and Dave Darling. I think it is a holy place. I don’t know what to call it. There’s a little place that is sacred. That doesn’t happen with everyone, at least not for me. So that’s how that works. And I trust him, because of that, because of the long term relationship, we’ve been friends for a very long time, since the 80’s. So I trust his judgment.”
Janiva is reflecting her life in her songwriting and attempting to disrupt the often violent and sexist troupes that exist in our beloved Blues.
“Let’s take for example the lyric ‘I Need A Man.’ That’s a good example. He (Dave Darling) sent me a track that was very Bo Diddley-esq, (hums the classic chunky Bo Diddley shuffle) and it was super funky. He sent me this track and I was like ‘come on,’ you know. He gave me nothin’, just gave me the track, a basic demo of the track which was pretty stinky. I literally wrote 98% of that lyric in one sitting in the wee hours at my desk staring at the blank piece of paper listening obsessively to that track. And I was at a point in the curve of my life where I was a few years post divorce of a long term marriage. So I was done being doubled over with my arms across my stomach at that point in my life. I was starting to stand up again and look around and go ‘hmm, I ain’t dead yet.’ And lookin’ at some of these fine younger guys, true story, and I thought ‘you know what, how come there ain’t no like female mating call tunes?’ They’re out there, you can look at Denise LaSalle’s library, you can look at some of the other libraries that are out there of songwriters and recording artists in Blues and Soul and Rhythm and Blues and you’ll see them every once and awhile. But mostly it’s you know boom boom out go the lights, I’m gonna murder my baby, and songs like your funerl and my trial, you know what I mean? And now there’s a song called ‘I Need A Man,’ which is a complete mating call, it’s a total mating call that’s all it is, it’s that simple.”
Janiva Magness is outspoken and fearless in naming injustice and speaking truth to power. After spending a career doing her art, often in spite of structural sexism that was designed to exclude her, Magness is clear about the debt she owes to the cultural heritage of African Americans and their music.
“I am my father’s daughter, I am my father’s daughter, there’s never been a question about that in this regard. And what that means to my listening audience, to my fans, is that I’ve been graced with and I’m terribly grateful to have made a career out of doing what I damn well please (laughs). And, where that begins, honest to God, and where it ends is in Blues. It’s where it begins and where it ends, with Blues. There’s a lot of dialogue right now in the Blues Music Community, about a lot of delicate issues. Can you do Blues if you’re not Black? Is it authentic? What do I owe? What do I owe the people that began this path, of this music, of Blues specifically, you know what do I owe? That dialogue is going on out there. And there are a lot of people standing up and speaking up and speaking out. And, there are a lot more people which honestly makes me sad, that are being silent, and quite frankly the silence is deafening. To me, and a lot of other artists that have made their careers in this African American art form, that’s based on field hollers and Gospel music, your silence is deafening my friends. It really is. And it’s hard, it’s hard, it took me a while to find the words to say something. But I feel so deeply that we must. We must engage in dialogue here. Everybody is hurting, it’s hard for everyone.”
Singing and being an artist has been in Janiva her whole life. Even when her confidence was low, music had her in thrall.
“You know in the 70’s I didn’t think I could sing. I knew I would die quite literally if I couldn’t be around music and musicians. I knew enough to know by then that I needed it. And so I said in great Magness fashion, ‘screw you I’m gonna do the next best thing and I’m gonna become a recording engineer’ and I don’t care there are no women recording engineers that means nothing to me. I’m just gonna do this, get out of my way. There’s my Dad. And so I hustled a scholarship, I hustled a gig and I got a job in a recording studio. And then the music came around through the back door and back inside and grabbed me and said ‘no you get in front of the mic, not behind the mic, let somebody else plug those cables in.”
Janiva is a student of the Blues. She quickly and freely sites Skip James, Etta James, Koko Taylor, B.B. King, Bobby Bland and, possibly most importantly, Memphis Minnie. But any fan of Magness knows that she has eclectic tastes and with every album consistently throws listeners into wondrous new environments.
“It begins and it ends with Blues. So making this career out of doing what I damn well please. It has been a journey not only for my listeners, it’s been a journey for me. There’s no question in my mind the tremendous debt that is owed to Gospel music. There’s no question in my mind the tremendous debt that is owed to Country Blues. To people like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf and Memphis Minnie to Skip James, to Son House. And I have deeply, deeply, studied all of that music for a very very long time. Now, I suppose you could say that every one of my records has been a journey on that road. And I believe that to be true. There are artists who have made entire careers, up to the day that they died, making the same record. And done it brilliantly. Bobby Bland. And for the large part B.B. King. Okay? Two absolute Gods, as far as I’m concerned. Two Gods. You know, Otis Rush, let’s talk about Chicago then. Koko Taylor. Okay? And’ve done it brilliantly. I’m not one of those artists. I’m not. I’m not one of those artists that has carved a career out of making the same record again and again. I’ve changed, I’ve moved. I’ve never left my deep and abiding love for Blues. It’s never left me, ever, and it never will. It is the heart and soul of everything that I do.”
The scope of history and the ever changing business of music has shaped how Janiva has built her career. She thinks deeply about the reactions she has received for what seem to her, to be natural moves through her artistic muse.
“I encourage more experimentation in listening and more experimentation in performance. I encourage it. I will never ever be Memphis Minnie I won’t be and I love Memphis Minnie records. And she was a badass. I will never ever be Koko Taylor, for obvious reasons and maybe not obvious reasons. But it doesn’t mean I’m not gonna die with that vinyl in my cold dead hand. Because I refuse to be sentenced by anyone because of my history or my skin color or anything else to a life listening to music I don’t connect to. That’s the nicest way of saying it: music I don’t connect to. You know I’m inflammatory enough, I’m outspoken enough, I don’t need to make it worse. Am I not allowed to be funky? Am I not allowed to listen to music by a group called Ollabelle? Am I not allowed to listen to Alison Krauss? Why? Am I not allowed to listen to Maria Callas? Why? If you’re gonna deny me, put it on the table, back it up. Otherwise shut your pie hole. Get out of my way. If you don’t have the balls to be honest, I don’t have anything for that.”
Janiva’s blood has led her to tell her life story. It is alternatively painful and joyous. Her book Weeds Like Us, published in 2019 by Fathead Records, was a labor of love to herself and to her struggle; a mitzvah done for people who struggle as she has.
“I know it’s not an easy read. I’m greatly relieved and encouraged by the response that I’ve got. People that come from the kinds of experiences I do or worse, and there are far far far worse, people I personally know. To watch the light go on in someone’s face, to watch the relief come across the screen so to speak. As a connection point, there’s somebody that said that I like to quote ‘If we are given enough grace we will come to find that our greatest tragedies can become our greatest assets.’ And I believe that. So there’s that. I’m grateful to have done it and then have it off my plate because it’s something that has bothered my conscience most of my life.”
Janiva is her hardest task master. She berates herself and fights and challenges herself. Coming to a place where she could share her story in writing was a struggle, a battle with her own emotions and trauma. But she was driven to do the work.”
“There’s a long haul there. As a dear friend of mine says ‘it turns out that the long haul is long.’ (laughs) Goddamn she’s right. And that’s my way of humorously saying that I have known most of my life, now that’s a long time now I’m 63, so I’ve known most of my life that I probably should write a book. But I didn’t want to, I was extremely reluctant and I talk about that in the book. I was extremely reluctant to agree. And it wasn’t anybody else that was asking me, it was just me. This is my inner dialogue. So I didn’t want to do it. I knew I needed to do it. I knew I should do it. And getting from that fixed place to being willing to talk at all, took about 35 years for me. And then moving from being willing to talk at all to secretly knowing that l should really write the book, like making that sentence, took a few more years. The process of writing the book once I surrendered to the inner, I don’t know what to call it, when it’s that little knocking. When it knocks on you, keeps knocking and it doesn’t go away. Quite frankly you tell it to fuck the fuck off and it won’t. That thing. When I finally surrendered and said okay I’ll do it. It took another few years, 2 to 3 years to actually say okay I’m going to do it and raise my hand. And then once I did that, the process of writing and crafting was 6 years approximately.”
Janiva continuously shows her heart and love for humanity especially in her motivation for testifying to the pain and suffering she endured.
“The thing that I held on to in all of my second guessing and insecurities, the one thing, it was the one candle in the wind for me, which is that it could serve to help other people. And I had already borne witness to that through my work with foster care and through my work with at risk youth. I had already seen that hard evidence right in front of my eyes over and over and over again. So I knew the power of it. I don’t mean the power of my story, I mean the power of that experience. And that was the one candle for me through the whole writing process of I don’t want to do this, I can’t do this, I’m in a really heavy PTSD episode again. All of that was going on over that process of 6 years. Yes/no, yes/no push/pull. I think I might be able to get a rope at the Home Depot down the street and just, just shut up. Just shhh. All of that battle, the one thing was that it could help somebody else that was still struggling.”
There ain’t any sabbaticals in the Blues. You can’t take a few years off to write your life story in a peaceful mountain retreat. Janiva had to write her book and drag-ass around the country, and the world, playing her music and record her albums and do it all without losing her mind. Fortunately she had help and support. Ghostwriter Gary Delsohn “really shepherded this thing, shepherded me, and shepherded this thing, for me.” She credits Delsohn, a Pultizer nominated author and reporter, with getting the book done. “It wasn’t gonna happen without him. He really helped me get the stories linear, not be too redundant, and shape it into something someone could read.” Janiva and Dave Darling also produced her newest record Change in the Weather: Janiva Magness Sings John Fogerty while trying to zip up the book.
“First of all if you’re not hip to John Fogerty I don’t know where you’ve been. When we were recording Love Wins Again which turns out to be the 2016 release that I got a Grammy Nomination for, which is a very commercial release by the way, sonicly very commercial. And that was my first record for Blues Elan. The owner of the label said ‘hey would you ever consider this one John Fogerty song?’ And was like I’m thinking ‘(long exhale, exhausted skeptical chuckle), haha I don’t know how you print that. (haha) I’m thinkin’ ‘Okay… what’s the name of the song?’ He goes ‘As Long As I Can See the Light.’ I go ‘that’s like my favorite song at all from all that Creedence/Fogerty stuff it’s my absolute hands down favorite tune. I would love to cover that song.’ So we put that on the Grammy nominated Love Wins Again. And It went really really well, it got a ton of air play.”
“And so album cycle comes again, and then another album comes around again and then it’s time for another album for Blue Elan. II was trying to finish the book. I had set a drop dead goal for myself because I was tired of it and I wanted it to be done and I was sick of my own procrastinating and my own internal push/pull. I was just ‘get it done for God’s sake, I wanted to get the book done.’ And I had to fulfill my contract and I had to give Blue Elan another album. And so charged with the idea of writing an album of original songs again and finishing the book at the same time I knew I would have probably a psychotic break if I tried to do that (chuckles). I’d have a nervous breakdown if I tried to do that. It was too much. It’s just not easy for me to write. And I’m not complaining about that but it’s not an easy process, it’s gristly and kind of hard for me. Dave and I both kind of looked at each other at the same time and said ‘what about doin’ a covers album?’ And it was kind of like (skeptical whiny voice) ‘well yeah.’ ‘What about John Fogerty covers?’ We both kind of looked at each other and went ‘Oh. that went really well with ‘As Long As I Can See the Light’ didn’t it? Yeah it did. Well let’s take a look at that.”
John Fogerty’s roots-rock well of songs was the perfect deep dive for Janiva to make. Kindred spirits in a way, Fogerty’s eclectic often iconoclastic writing and performing matched Janiva’s defiant heart.
“It turns out that Fogerty is this incredibly prolific writer, during Creedence, after Creedence. He’s just really a prolific writer. So there was this huge tsunami of songs. Dave and I proposed it to the label and the label was like ‘oh hell yeah.’ So that idea took pressure off of me as a writer. To be able to finish writing the book and record the album, because I had to finish writing the book and record the album at the same time. So we just began culling, going through the volume of Fogerty material. It’s hard to pick a bad song of his to my ear. Okay so maybe ‘Put Me In Coach,’ that wasn’t going to get covered, okay. The baseball song, which is apparently a huge hit of his. I’m not singing “Put Me In Coach,” so that was kind of a running joke throughout the process of the recording ‘come on, put me in coach.’ So we got it culled down to about 50 songs and then got it culled down to the number that ended up on the record. So that was a John Fogerty covers record. I know a lot of people were surprised by it, okay, I’m glad I’m not predictable. And people seemed to love the record.”
The COVID-19 crisis has hit Janiva Magness as a human and as a musician. Her year of gigging and work is “wiped out.” She has dear friends who are sick. But, Janiva is still there for us, producing music and trying to define this moment for us. Janiva released on the day of this interview a cover of a Chris Cornell song “Safe and Sound.” She is working on another very important cover.
“This song that I really need to cover, I need to cover it and I didn’t write it either, it’s written by Tom Prasada-Rao. It’s the song that he wrote a couple weeks ago for George Floyd. It’s called ‘Twenty Dollar Bill’ and we’re working on tracking that now. It may be the most important song of the century. I certainly feel it that way when I hear it. Tom wrote that, he’s a songwriter who lives in Austin Texas. He put it out on a little home video in as best of a version as he possibly could because he had just finished his chemo and he wasn’t feeling very well, fighting a very difficult personal battle. And this song just comes and he writes it and makes a little video and he sends it to his friend Dan Navaro. And Dan, who is a very dear friend of mine, calls me up and goes ‘Jesus Christ you gotta hear this thing.’ He sends it to me. The song has been covered by like 150 people in the last three weeks. I think it’s gonna be one of the most significant songs of this century. It’s a beautiful heartbreaking song.”
Janiva Magness is a warrior, a survivor and a champion. The blood that she has stepped into, the blood that courses through her music, her writing and her activism, is the justification for her will and courage. The will and courage to realize her life’s work on her own terms. With an open heart and a healthy dose of skepticism, Janiva creates and connects.
“Well I’m grateful I don’t have to fight as much as I used to have to fight. I used to have to fight a lot more. And that really speaks to my stubbornness. Meaning 15 albums later I’m still here. So yea, I used to have to fight more than I do now, I guess because people are maybe tired of fighting me (laughs) I don’t know. Maybe there might be some respect involved. There might be. I don’t like to assume too much.”
Visit Janiva’s website to find her music and more at www.janivamagness.com.