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|Another Level of Vulnerability: Janiva Magness, September 11 at the Redstone Room|
|Music - Feature Stories|
|Written by Mike Schulz|
|Thursday, 04 September 2014 06:00|
Vocalist Janiva Magness is a four-time recipient of the Blues Music Award for “Contemporary Blues Female Artist of the Year” and the 2009 winner of the “B.B. King Entertainer of the Year” citation, and an overview of the artist’s biography suggests that her life story could be its own blues song. But it’s really more like its own blues album, liner notes included.
Parents who committed suicide, independently, when Magness was in her teens. A baby she gave up for adoption at age 17. Twelve foster homes before her 18th birthday. Homelessness. A suicide attempt. The dissolution of her 17-year marriage. The death of an especially supportive foster mom. Potentially career-ending neck surgery.
And yet, until co-writing three numbers for her 2012 release Stronger for It – including “I Won’t Cry,” the Blues Music Awards’ “Song of the Year” – Magness insists that she never had a strong desire to turn her own experiences into music.
“I just didn’t want to do it, you know?” she says during our recent phone interview. “Songwriting is really another level of vulnerability – this whole other wheelhouse of vulnerability.
“I was also married for a very long time to a very prolific and talented songwriter,” she continues, referencing ex-husband Jeff Turmes, “and I didn’t want that to be something, potentially, on the table between us. What if I sucked? What if I didn’t suck? And honestly, I was fine. I was perfectly fine with being an interpreter of other people’s material.”
Yet when Redstone Room guests, on September 11, hear Janiva Magness perform from her most recent album Original, the musician’s 10th solo release since 1997, they’ll be hearing the blues and soul artist in the act of interpreting her own material – blues-, gospel- and Americana-fueled odes to longing and empowerment and loss and triumph. And as numerous critics have suggested, it’s about damned time.
American Blues Scene magazine, for instance, raves about Magness’ “hypnotizing and artful style that lands her as a songstress of soul and a goddess of gospel,” calling the album “long-awaited for any music collection out there.” Blues Music Magazine, meanwhile, writes of Original: “The choice of material, arrangements, and range of Magness’ vocals puts this record light years ahead of anything Magness has previously recorded.”
“I’m really, really super-happy,” says Magness of the praise Original has received since its June 24 release. “I was very hopeful but, you know, expectations are kind of a tricky thing, and I try to be careful about them. But I’m very surprised at how well-received it is, and very happy about that. I didn’t expect this kind of reception.”
Describing her impetus for deciding, at last, to co-write most of the material (seven of Original’s 11 songs) on one of her albums, Magness says she has Grammy-nominated producer/songwriter David Darling to thank – and, she jokingly suggests, to blame.
“I had been encouraged for a long time to actually write,” says Magness, “and had not been comfortable with the idea of it. But ... my producer [Darling] helped me to understand that if I was gonna try to have any real vitality as an artist in the music business, then I really needed to write. Because that’s really where it’s at.
“So I co-wrote three songs with him on Stronger for It, and all three songs were the ones that got the most recognition. They got the most airplay and were the three songs that the fans really, really engaged with – far beyond the cover material – and then we won Song of the Year for ‘If I Cry.’ And that’s kind of loud, dude. That’s a pretty loud ‘yes’ from the universe, you know? So it became clear that the next indicated action was to continue to write.
“Actually,” she continues, “when we got off the stage at the Blues Music Awards after winning Song of the Year, he [Darling] just looked at me and said, ‘You know what’s next, right?’ And I go, ‘What? We get to go eat? What do we do?’ And he goes, ‘No. No no no no no. All original songs. The next record – all originals.’ And I was just like, ‘Oh my God, you’re torturing me ... .’ But he was right.”
Yet Magness – whose Stronger for It and its preceding 2008 and 2010 albums were produced and released through Alligator Records – understood that there was only one way to guarantee that Original would remain original. “In order for this record to be made without anybody else’s agenda or influence,” she says, “it required that I be fully independent.
“I had a great six years with Alligator,” Magness continues. “I really, really did. I think they’re a fantastic team and a great support team for a recording artist. But here’s a little Music Business 101 lesson. A record company signs an artist, and they give an artist a pile of money to make a record, and also supply infrastructure for publicity and other types of support. And then in exchange for that loan – which is basically what it is, a loan – the interest translates to giving up certain amounts of control of your artwork. They get a certain amount of input, and can say, ‘We don’t like that song ... . How about this song ... ?’
“And then you make the record, and you hopefully get something that both parties are at least reasonably happy with. And then the artist gets in their vehicle and goes out and travels from hell to breakfast to pay back the loan and promote and sell the records, because there are no more record stores. And then people buy it, and you try to pay back the loan pennies at a time.
“It’s just the music business, man,” she concludes. “That’s just the fact of it. And in order for me to stay true to the vision of this record being totally original, I knew I needed to release myself from that.”
Co-writing Original with producer Darling and releasing it through her independent label Fathead Records, Magness calls the process “a tremendous amount of work. It really is exhausting. But being in the music business is a tremendous amount of work if you intend to handle it as a business – if you intend to get any traction and have any kind of forward motion. And as a person, I’m pretty oriented toward forward motion.
“Besides,” she adds, “my alternative is what? Not doing it? I mean, I feel like it’s a huge blessing that I get to do this. This business isn’t for the faint of heart, but I’m really grateful and happy to do the work.”
That gratefulness and happiness are made clear through Original’s progression of tracks. The album opens with romantic heartbreak on the bluesy, soulful “Let Me Breathe” – a number that, at one point, finds its singer literally pleading with God – and continues through beautifully vocalized expressions of regret in “When You Were My King,” uplift in “Everything Is All Right,” and dignity in “Mountain.” (The artist also lets her easy, rowdy humor sneak through in the lyrics to “Who Am I,” particularly when she instructs the focus of her song to “Say it again, a little less bitchy, please ... .”) By its close, however, both Original and Magness’ gorgeous, passionate, truthful vocals eventually land in a place of contentment and deep serenity on the climactic “Standing” – although Magness states that this seeming mirror to her own serenity wasn’t intentional in design.
“It wasn’t planned that way,” she says. “I’m a little superstitious, or a lot superstitious, about making records and being too calculating about it. I think it’s a bad idea and gets in the way of the music. I think the muse is very real, and I don’t want to mess with her much. I sort of believe the process to be a bit of channeling, and I want to stay open enough to not steer a project – to not get too committed to some idea that things are supposed to go a certain way.
“So the songs come through, the process comes through, the music comes through, the vocals come through ... and then the sequence becomes obvious,” she says with a laugh. “You know what I mean? That’s how it develops. If you get fixed on an idea, and just fix on that idea, you can miss a lot.”
Janiva Magness performs at the Redstone Room (129 Main Street, Davenport) on Thursday, September 11, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $18, and more information and reservations are available by calling (563)326-1333 or visiting RiverMusicExperience.org.
For more information on Magness and her recent album Original, visit JanivaMagness.com.
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