Janiva Magness: She’s earned the right to sing the blues

Heralded blues singer draws on a troubled childhood in foster homes to bring truth to her songs.

By MARK GUARINO | Staff Writer Christian Science Monitor
posted June 3, 2010 at 4:16 pm EDT

Finding your way home is one of the grand themes of blues music. For many of the music’s originators, rambling from town to town and finding shelter was a common biography that has long since been recast as metaphorical gold in the songs of most contemporary blues singers performing today.

But while many blues professionals can summon in their voice the hurt of being left in the cold alone, Janiva Magness is one of the few who can do so with understanding just how miserable that actually feels.

“If it’s not a truthful story, it’s pointless,” says Ms. Magness, a Los Angeles resident who for 15 years built a career as a heralded blues singer after half a lifetime chasing what she calls “demons” from a childhood that ended much earlier than most. She grew up in Detroit but after both her parents committed suicide within a few years of each other, she ended up in and out of 12 foster homes, eventually becoming pregnant with a daughter she decided to give up for adoption. She was, she says now, “unlovable” and was often homeless. Social workers could not figure out how to help the situation. At age 17 she signed papers to become legally emancipated as an adult, which meant she had no one to rely on other than herself. Her path to becoming a blues singer “makes absolute, 100 percent, sense today.”

“It was as if the music chose me,” she says. “I didn’t understand it really in the beginning.”

Magness is not unlike most road-tested musicians as she plays up to 200 club and festival dates a year. But at age 54, she is hitting her stride, receiving universal good reviews for her music and earning the biggest awards in blues. A new album, “The Devil Is An Angel Too” (Alligator), is her eighth and it arrives on the heels of winning the 2009 Blues Music Award for B.B. King Entertainer of the Year.

Yet offstage during daytime hours she performs a role many in her field may not recognize: spokesperson. For four years, Magness has served as the public face of National Foster Care Month in May, a responsibility that includes public speaking appearances that require her to recount her life story, which she says only recently she has begun to understand is connected to her music.

“It gives the earliest part of my life that was so deeply painful and so terribly troubled and dramatic – it gives it purpose,” she says. “Because without being able to tell the story … it doesn’t make any sense.”

She credits a woman she names only as Carrie with helping “steady the course” when she was a teenager. Carrie, a divorced mother of five children who worked as a cleaner, “was not a likely candidate” for a foster parent, Magness says, but she was also going to school part time to become a counselor, so had empathy for a pregnant teenager who was turned away by several other homes. Magness stayed with Carrie off and on between the ages of 17 and 22.

Magness says the suicide deaths of first her mother and later her father – the same year as her pregnancy – convinced her to give up her daughter for adoption. “I had a moment that I realized I would do to her that which was done to me…. The feeling was so horrifying to me I said, ‘I can’t do this to this baby’ because I was pretty sure I was going to take my own life. That’s what we do in my family,” she says.

The decision at such a young age led to her to resume “with a vengeance a career [of] drinking and imbibing.” “I needed to stop the internal bleeding,” she says. “That stayed. I was pretty much in a haze off and on for several years.”

A few years earlier she had witnessed a performance by Otis Rush, a pivotal figure in the electrifying style of Chicago blues guitar, and a seed was planted that helped groom her future career as a musician. For someone who felt unhinged from her own life, she says Rush’s commitment to every note he played moved her deeply. “The level of intensity blew my mind…. The dude was 100 percent risk, he was all the way in. It devastated me, not in a bad way, but it took me hostage,” she says.

Her own development as a musician took time – she recorded her first album at age 40 – but Magness slowly cultivated a performance style that similarly held nothing back. At a recent stop in Chicago at Legends, the club owned by guitarist Buddy Guy, Magness performed a mixture of old-school soul and blues with an alarming level of honesty about her life, age, and outlook on life interspersed between songs.

The new album is a continuation of the emotional punch and stylistic depth of her live show, from the swampy undercurrent of the title song, “The Devil Is An Angel Too,” to the ecstatic Southern soul of “I Want to Do Everything for You,” by R&B great Joe Tex. On “Homewrecker,” Magness inverts the male swagger of the original by British pop-soul veteran Nick Lowe to a woman trapped by limited choices. Her voice, which delivers both sass and scars in equal doses, is what makes the music immediate and accessible.

“All artists try to have a connection to the songs they perform, but for her its absolutely imperative,” says Dave Darling, who produced her two latest albums. “If she doesn’t have an immediate connection to a song, it’s difficult for her.”

Darling, who considers Magness “one of the last true song inter-preters,” says she told him before they even entered the studio that she wanted a tone that was “quieter and a little darker” than its upbeat and funky predecessor. He says the decision is connected to the way she uses music to work out issues from her past.

“I would guess that all of these songs on all of these records are a necessary thing for her to process her life,” he says. “She’s not just spitting out records here…. It’s always very serious.”

While she continues to fill her résumé with awards and positive reviews, none may be as unexpected as her reunion with her daughter. Through an unpredictable series of events, and the good graces of her daughter’s adoptive parents, the reunion occurred at the teenager’s high school graduation. A desperate late night prayer that asked if her daughter was alive was not just answered, but was expanded in ways she never anticipated.

“That was completely unheard-of. When you signed a baby away in the 1970s, that was it. There was no rescin-ding anything,” she says. “Apparently, the [God] I was raising my fist at kept his end of the bargain.”

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