Photo by Kevin Umlauf

July 4, 2012

Janiva Magness: How strong can she get?

Janiva Magness is just another word(s) for nothing left to lose. The Detroit native lost both parents to suicide as a teen, lived on the streets and in foster care for a while, and gave up her own child for adoption — all before she was an adult. Last year, her marriage of 17 years ended, and she lost several people close to her around the same time. Good thing she already had the blues, and gets paid for having them. 

Stronger for It is her latest album, the 10th in a career that has spanned almost three decades. Magness co-wrote three songs for the new collection, pairing them with well-curated covers of songs by Grace Potter, Shelby Lynne, Buddy and Julie Miller, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Matthew Sweet, Ike Turner, and — most boldly — Tom Waits, a vocalist most wouldn’t try to tackle.

Though she’s overcome many hardships in life, there was still one more hurdle left for this vocalist and acclaimed interpreter. “I’ve been very frightened by the idea of songwriting,” she says. “It’s one of the standout things, to me, about the new record, is that there’s some original material on it.”

Magness has accepted help from others, in personal and professional ways, through the years, and therapy has helped her understand herself. “I’ve had legions of help to … basically get (myself) out of the way, you know?”

It’s even helped her understand her fear of songwriting. “Songwriting is another level of vulnerability. And it also has to do with the fact that I was married to a very, very prolific songwriter for 17 years. And I just didn’t want to go there. I didn’t want to venture into that part of the muse.”

Eventually, Magness took up the pen and started writing, perhaps just to prove she could do it. “It’s so not much that, it’s more becoming willing to try,” she admits. “I don’t know if that makes sense or not, but to become willing to try was the biggest thing that I had to traverse in myself. There’s fear of failure, and then there’s fear of success (laughs). Right? When it came to the songwriting, I came to that pretty reluctantly … I feel very, very fortunate to work with my producer, Dave Darling. He’s really, really talented.”

Magness focused on wri-ting lyrics, and Darling wrote music, but helped with lyrics when Magness needed a push. “Although, usu-ally, the cadence of the lyric makes itself known. The music is written based around that.”

Her taste in other people’s songs shows how wide her reach is, and though her numerous blues awards and association with Alligator Records have labeled her as a blues singer, she’s also a soul powerhouse, winning over fans like Mavis Staples and Bettye LaVette.

Magness has lived in Los Angeles since 1986. In some ways, life has gotten easier. “I love the weather, I’m completely ruined by it. Forget sub-zero, snow-blowing temperatures. There’s a lot to love … I live not too far from the water, which is wonderful for me. There’s a great energy that’s out here.”

There’s a lot of everything out there, including a vibrant roots-music scene. “There’s an artistic community out here, believe it or not … There’s no shortage of exceptional musicians.”

When I reached her by phone last week and asked her thoughts about coming back to Louisville, she quickly displayed her down-to-earth perspective.

“Always glad to be workin’,” she says with a wry laugh. “I think Louisville’s a great town … In my experience, the people there are really into the music. And I always, always appreciate that.

“I have this life where, what I do, I have the deepest passion for that. Playing music. Singing songs. I have the best band ever, basically … I love, love, love my job. I get to travel around the world, singing songs with this stellar band. People frequently applaud. And somebody hands me money after that. I just think that that’s wild. I think it’s completely insane — in every good way.”

Janiva Magness with Li’l T&A
Thursday, July 5
Uncle Slayton’s
1017 E. Broadway
uncleslaytons.com
$15 adv., $18 DOS; 8:30 p.m.