11 tracks / 44:45
When folks talk about the blues they always bring up Chicago, Memphis and New Orleans, but there is also a killer blues scene in Los Angeles. One of the most talented artists in L.A. is singer/songwriter Janiva Magness, who has eleven records in her catalog and more blues awards than you can shake a stick at, including awards for Contemporary Blues Recording of the year for her album Stronger For it and Song of the Year for “I Won’t Cry” in the 2012 Blues Blast Music Awards!
But it took a long time to get to this point, and Janiva’s life story would make for an incredible book. She was born in Detroit, became orphaned as a young teen, was placed in a dozen foster homes before she came of age, and had to give up her own daughter for adoption when she was 17. This is a grim biography, but fortunately she found support from her last foster mother and inspiration from an Otis Rush concert that helped her set her sights on a career in music. After working as a sound engineer, getting gigs as a backing singer (including Kid Ramos and R.L. Burnside), and forming her own band (The Mojomatics), she made her way to Los Angeles, where she self-published her first album in 1997.
Magness’ latest CD is the self-released Original, her finest work to date. This is her first album on her own after six years with Alligator Records, and Janiva is treading new ground by stepping up and co-writing seven of the eleven tracks on the disc. This project was produced, recorded, and mixed by Dave Darling, who worked on her three previous albums as well as with an impressive list of artists that includes The Stray Cats, Brian Setzer and Glen Campbell.
From the first track the listener will know why she did not have a blues label make this record. There is blues foundation to everything she does, but this music expands into soul, roots and Americana, so it is impossible to assign it to any one genre. “Let Me Breathe” gives heartbreaking insight into the feelings of emptiness and guilt following a hard break-up, accompanied by sultry and soulful lyrics with hard blues guitar riffs. This contrasts well with the message of hope found in “Twice as Strong” an upbeat pop/soul song with neat background harmonies and the tight backline of Gary Davenport on bass and Matt Tecu on drums.
“When You Were My King” is one of Janiva’s collaborations with the Australian songwriting team of Lauren Bliss and Andrew Lowden, and they definitely clicked on this one. This bittersweet R&B tune slows things down and serves a vehicle for Magness to display her softer side. Jim Alfredson sets the background with his keyboards, and Darling contributes a sweet guitar countermelody. After mourning the loss of her love, for the next track she opines that that void needs to be filled. “I Need a Man” is an upbeat rocker with a Bo Diddley-esque beat that gives the lady a chance to tear loose and her emotion proves to be contagious.
One would think that with her tough upbringing and plenty of bad turns in recent years (divorce, deaths of friends and family, and a major surgery that could have taken her singing voice), that this could be an album of pain and bitterness. Janiva somehow puts all of this into perspective and provides a healthy dose of introspection and hope, as seen in the standout track “With Love,” which features Dan Navarro of the hit songwriting team, Lowen and Navarro, on backing vocals.
The album’s closer, “Standing,” is another group effort from Magness and Bliss/Lowden with a pretty melody (Alfredson’s piano and Zach Zunis’ guitars are lovely counterpoints) and poignant lyrics of loss and strength. Though this is a very slow rhythm and blues track it is far from dull as it builds drama throughout, even as it slowly rolls to a close. This song is the final reminder that Original maintains good pacing throughout and it is helped along with slick production, good musicians and classy arrangements. There is nothing to find fault with here, and Dave Darling fulfilled his role as producer handily.
Original is a stunning album in its honesty and craftsmanship; Janiva Magness has a hit on her hands and surely there will be a few more awards coming her way. But her live show is exceptional too, and these songs will make the transition to the stage very well. So buy the CD, but also make plans to see her on the tour as she has a staggering number of stops before the end of the year and there will surely be one near you!