Blues chanteuse Janiva Magness has channeled her tragedies into an impressive body of work that stands with the best the genre has to offer.
That could be dismissed as press kit hyperbole, but considering her desultory lows (losing both parents to suicide as a teenager, trapped in an ineffective foster parent system, pregnant and forced to relinquish her baby at 17) and triumphant highs (signed by Alligator Records honcho/Blues genius Bruce Iglauer, named the Blues Foundation’s B.B. King Entertainer of the Year in 2009, just the second woman, after the legendary Koko Taylor, to earn the award), it seems inadequate to describe Magness’ bitter struggles and the sweet rewards she’s fought to enjoy.
Inspired by a mesmerizing Otis Rush concert as a teen in Minneapolis, Magness pursued music, first from an audio engineer’s perspective.
While taking classes, Magness’ employers at a St. Paul studio persuaded her to lend backing vocals to some of the facility’s clients. Emboldened by that success, Magness relocated to Phoenix, forming the locally popular Mojomatics before moving to Los Angeles in the mid-’80s.
In 1997, Magness released her first studio album, It Takes One to Know One, followed by three indie releases, leading to her 2004 signing with Northern Blues Music (NBM). Her two NBM albums were co-produced by Magness and Canadian superstar Colin Linden; they took the 2004 Maple Blues Award for Producers of the Year. She signed with Alligator in 2008 and has released three critically acclaimed albums with the esteemed Blues label — 2008’s What Will Love Do, 2010’s The Devil is an Angel Too and 2012’s Stronger for It, only her second album featuring her own material (her debut was the first). Stronger for It was nominated for five Blues Music Awards last year, bringing her total to 22 nominations from various Blues organizations in just the past seven years.
Despite her travels, Magness’ Detroit birthplace still looms large; she credits Motown’s Soul/Pop influence and her father’s Blues and Country record collection as her musical DNA and her troubled childhood as the well of truth she draws on for every word and note she sings.
JANIVA MAGNESS headlines Night 2 of the Cincy Blues Society's Winter Blues Fest on Saturday, Feb. 8 at downtown's The Phoenix. Details here.