Janiva Magness is a well-known Blues singer and songwriter. Born in Detroit, MI, she has overcome childhood diversity by receiving multiple music awards and nominations throughout her illustrious career. Her 11th album, Original, was recently released to excellent reviews. Women In Rock spoke to her after her performance at the Outlook Hotel in Boulder, CO.
Women In Rock: Minneapolis, 1971. The Otis Rush concert. You were 14. Just exactly how did that change your life?
Janiva Magness: I was pretty much a damaged kid at that point. Pretty damaged mentally—emotionally damaged. I had some psychiatric diagnoses that were pretty ugly at that point. I was a ward of the state. I was, for all intents and purposes, an untethered human being. I wasn’t tethered to my family. I wasn’t tethered to anything. And when you take a person with that kind of damage inside … I was so broken … you don’t tether them to something. I was extremely self-destructive, and I just went on a lark to see Otis Rush. I didn’t even know who he was. My friends told me, “You gotta see this guy. He’s so stunning!” I was, like, yea, whatever. It was Tuesday night at the Union Bar in northeast Minneapolis. I paid my little 3-dollar cover. I snuck in with a fake ID. Didn’t even know what happened to me that night. The music, it was like it reached across the room and ripped my heart out of my chest. It freaked me out. I mean, I was standing in the back of the club crying pretty close from about note one. Now, if you ever saw Otis Rush in the seventies you would know what I’m talking about because he was incendiary. He was completely desperate. He was filled with rage. It was absolute joy. There was no faking, phoning it in, pretending. It wasn’t like that at all. I never had an experience like that in my life where the music just riveted me in that way. So when I left there it was like a spiritual experience. I didn’t understand that when I was fourteen, but I do today. All I knew was that when I left there in the wee hours of the morning and hitchhiked back to where I was staying I needed to find more of that—that thing that happened. I need that thing. So I started grabbing for that thing, that experience. I don’t think it takes much to discern the difference when you’re given a gift like that. It became very simple for me to know who was going to give me that as an experience as a young girl, and who was just going through the motions, period. I had a very similar experience with BB King that same year. It’s crazy. This time I had a pretty good idea what I was in for.
WIR: Your voice sounds great these days after your neck surgery in December, 2012. What happened?
Magness: Over the course of time I had some very severe damage. Lots of multiple car accidents, and probably a little too much couch surfing. So I went in [to the doctor]. I thought I was looking at a hip replacement. I was limping around for quite a while. I thought, in the process of the divorce, that my husband was trying to take away the health insurance. I was afraid I was gonna lose it, so I raised the white flag and I finally went to the doctor. I really don’t like to go to the doctor. He goes, “Yea, I think you have some arthritis in there. I think you’re going be fine, but just in case, I’m going to send you to the surgeon. We’re gonna do an MRI, and it’s gonna be fine. We’re gonna do some injections in your back. It’s gonna be fine. It’s totally conservative.” He goes, “But I wanna look at your neck.” And I go, “Nah, we’re not looking at my neck.” He says, “Yea, I think we need to look at your neck. You’re presenting some symptoms that are [blah-blah-blah].” I said, “We’re not looking at my neck.” He says, “Yeah, we’re looking at your neck.” And it went like that. Finally he goes, “Look, honey. Me and you are in a car driving down Lincoln Boulevard at 30 mph. We get in a fender-bender. What are the odds of that in the business you’re in? I get bumped, I get bruised, I get whiplash. You? Best case scenario, you’re a paraplegic, a quadriplegic, or you’re dead.” I go, “What are you talking about?” He goes, “Look at this.” Then he showed me my neck on the MRI. It’s a mess. And he goes, look at this and this and this. And that’s why this is happening and this symptom and that symptom. He said, “You don’t have any room for any impact. So we have to fix that because your spinal cord is so pinched that the next impact you have will sever your spinal cord.” I said, “All right, so what do you do?” He goes, “Well, the best thing to do is to cut your throat in the front.” I said, “No, you ain’t!” So this is going on with the surgeon. The last person that I know that had that surgery was Renee Austin. That surgeon slipped and nicked her Continual Laryngeal Nerve. That controls everything. And it ended her career, right there on the table. I just wasn’t going to do it, but I pretty much had no choice. So it was really intense and very frightening. I had to sleep sitting up for two months and I couldn’t eat any solid food for two months. I could hardly walk and I couldn’t drive. I have $93,000 worth of parts in my neck right now. I feel a lot better.
WIR: It doesn’t seem to have affected your voice.
Magness: I had to do vocal rehab. I got very lucky. I got in with a guy named Nate Lamb, who is probably the best vocal coach in the world. It changed the way that I sing.
WIR: You’re writing your own material now. During your stint with Alligator Records, you had a few Blues Music Awards, didn’t you?
Magness: Yea, during those six years I won four. There’ve been like 22 nominations. And the last two were for Best Contemporary Female Artist and Song of the Year for “I Won’t Cry”, from the Stronger for It album.
WIR: A few of your tunes from Original seem to reflect personal stories. How much of that album is from your personal life?
Magness: Every stinkin’, rotten word. But you know … the beginning, middle and end to human experience, loss, redemption, spitting, resentment, resolve, absolution if you want, hope … it’s all there. It’s all true. There’s something about telling the truth. It’s probably from my dad. I only know that the job is about connection, and so in order for me to do the job, the vehicle is the music. But the job is not the music. The job is connection. I get it. It took me a while to figure that out. So, in order for me to do that I have to be able to tell the truth. I have to be able to bring myself to the songs. That’s the bar. That’s the standard. I guess that’s a more accurate way to say it. That’s what I look for covering other people’s material. How much can I bring of myself to this. How much truth can I bring of myself, of my experience. I can sing “Oh Baby, Baby” all night long, but it doesn’t mean shit and I don’t care about that. And I think that people deserve more, and I don’t wanna serve that. The world is moving so fast and we are given so much misinformation and so much garbage. We’re fed garbage every day, everywhere we look. Crap, crap, crap. I don’t wanna serve that idea. I don’t think that’s what I’m supposed to do. I think I’m supposed to tell the truth. So I have to be able to bring myself to it, whether it’s a song I wrote or somebody else wrote. The level of intimacy, which I think is part of what you’re asking about on Original, is deeper because I co-wrote more than half the material. So, of course, I’ve noticed (which is funny to me) that I don’t really need cheat sheets. I don’t really need my lyric sheets. They’re like my binky. I always need my lyric sheets, even if I don’t look at them. These songs are so of me that I don’t need the lyric sheets. That sounds like nothing, but it’s huge, I assure you.
WIR: Are you still writing your memoirs?
Magness: Yes. I’m working on that. I have a literary agent in NY, one of the top three literary agents, which is really exciting, and he’s shopping that to publishers. So we’ll see.
WIR: Is it coming out soon?
Magness: We’ll see what the publishers want to do. If somebody wants to throw money at me so I can get off the damn road and I can pay my rent that way, I will sit down at the desk and we’ll finish the book. It’s about half done.
WIR: You’re involved with Child Welfare League of America (CWLA).
Magness: Yeah, CWLA Foster Care, Alumni of America and National Foster Care Month. I have a debt that I can never repay to someone, so this is what I do. There’s been a tremendous healing as a result of it that I did not expect. I spoke to a group of people—kids. I just did it Thursday this last week up in Taos, at the Independent Living Youth Conference for the University of New Mexico—about 63 kids. They were all aging out of the system. You wanna talk about a tough room. These are foster kids. They’re aging out, man. They’re mean. You wanna talk about bullshit sniffers, about someone who’s got radar for bullshit, you just talk to a foster kid cuz we’re up to here with that crap. But to speak to a group of people like that, especially young people getting ready to have a life, and to see the light go on in a kid’s eye when they look at me like, “She don’t look like she ever had a hard time.” Then I share my story. When I was in the system we called it the Meat Grinder cuz that’s what it felt like. Going through that and then coming out the other side, and then having a life. Awkward, clumsy, stumbling forward on a very crooked road into a life where most of my days and nights… That part of my life, the early hard part, it doesn’t define me any more. I still have rough patches. I will always have them. But most of the time I’m good. And that’s far more than a miracle. And I have a debt that I cannot repay. You know, to see the light go on in a kid’s eye when they go, My God, she’s got such an amazing life. All this effed-up shit happened when she was a kid and then she was all crazy and acting out trying to kill herself and doing all this crazy stuff, drinking and taking drugs and acting crazy like me, going through 12 foster homes, and holy shit! And she’s more than cool. She’s got a life. The noise, the noise. I hid in the closet a lot trying to be as small as I possibly could. I had two places I always hid. One was the closet behind the longest coats on top of the shoes. I would practice not breathing so they wouldn’t find me. And then I would hide between the bed and the wall with my back to the wall facing the bed; but I’d squeeze in between the bed and the wall so I could see him coming. That was my father. That was the home I was born to. I can look in the eye of a 16-year-old who’s as hard as nails and I get it. When I tell them those kinds of things, it’s like it takes off the top of their head and it opens it because they know that I know—that I really get it, that I’m not some talking head going wah-wah-wah to them. And to watch the light go on in the eye of a young person, to actually watch that event happen, there aren’t really any words for the beauty of that and the healing that comes as a result. It’s crazy. Crazy good.
WIR: Any future plans or collaborations after this tour?
Magness: I want to get the book done, and there are probably some more songs to write.
WIR: How do you feel women musicians are viewed today compared to when you first started? Have you experience gender discrimination?
Magness: This is the part of the interview where I should be laughing at you. You know, I can’t speak to men’s experience. I can only speak to mine as a woman. Of course there’s prejudice. But here’s where I’m at: It’s not my problem, that’s your problem. It’s not any more my problem that you have a problem with me being a woman than it is that you have a problem with me being white or any other color. I won’t accept it. I used to take that on. I used to try to be more, be different, you know? I’m doing what I do now. I work very hard. I have very high standards. I expect a lot from the people that work for me, from the band. And I give a lot, I really do. So if somebody’s gonna come at me sideways because I’m a woman—it happened not too long ago. A guy at a club was being very disrespectful, and I told him in no uncertain terms that he needed to back up right now, and to stop speaking to me that way. Then he started to raise his voice even more. I said it to him again. Then his wife scurried over and told him to stop. He was being a fool because it was completely unnecessary and because you just don’t treat people that way. You don’t do that. It was a sold out show in a small little venue. So the show went on. We split the show in half. We were playing two shows. On break he started to get in my face. It’s just not good. I don’t know. My sense was that he thought he was gonna get away with that cuz I’m a woman, but he didn’t. I don’t have much tolerance for it. I don’t think that I’m all that and a bag of chips because I really don’t think that. I think I’m lucky. I think I work my butt off. And I expect a lot and I give a lot. I don’t think I’m better than anyone, I don’t think I’m anything more or less than a human being; but you don’t get to disrespect me, which is really what prejudice is. It’s contempt prior to investigation. Some people say that’s the greatest sin of all. And don’t expect me to tolerate it cuz I’m simply not going to. You have an expectation, okay, but that’s not mine. That’s yours.
WIR: What words do you have for aspiring young female musicians?
Magness: I say, get command of your instrument. I say, never ever sleep with the boys in the band. Never do that. Not if you want to be respected. You have to handle it like a business and you do not dip the company pen in the company ink. It just ruins the politics of working with musicians. You just don’t do that. Do your homework. Learn everything there is to learn about your genre and more. Go do the history. Do deep research. Be respectful enough to do that. There was a woman a couple of years ago who I had sit in with us. She’d been kind of bucking to do that, and I’m not really big on that cuz I’m doing a show. But I changed my normal tack on that and said, yea come on, sit in and we’ll do this Cocoa Taylor song, cuz this woman touts herself as a Blues singer. Don’t eff with me, man. You call yourself a Blues singer, you better know some Blues songs, and not be up there trying to jive your way through “You Can Have My Husband” or “Hey Lady, You’re Husband’s Cheating on Us”, which is actually a Denise LaSalle song. Don’t be up there jiving your way through that, not on my bandstand. And she was, “Oh yea, I know it.” She got up there and she couldn’t sing her way out of a paper bag on that song. Didn’t know the words. You just gave me a lot of information about you. More than you think. End of story. That’s not cool, man. Don’t waste my time. Don’t waste my stage time. Go home and do your homework. I know young artists that were a third of that woman’s age who know all of Cocoa Taylor’s library. They know more than I do. It happens. Do your homework. That’s it.
WIR: Thank you, Janiva. You’ve had a long night. We appreciate you making time for us.