Janiva Magness Got Through the Death and Loss of 2011 with This Year's Stronger For It

Janiva Magness Got Through the Death and Loss of 2011 with This Year's Stronger For It
Jeff Dunas
When you hear Janiva Magness sing, you're hearing a life: a tough one, a lucky one, a damn hard-fought one. The Detroit-born, Southern California-based blueswoman has a near 30-year career in music behind her, and who knows, maybe 30 more years ahead of her. Whatever happens, she's unlikely to make another record like Stronger For It, her 2012 album for the Alligator label. It deserves to be called a career record because it draws on all the hope and strife and power of her voice and her killer instinct for interpretation, whether she's transforming unlikely sources like Buddy Miller, Matthew Sweet or Shelby Lynne, or co-writing with her producer David Darling. The album is filed under blues but it's white hot soul music, born out of a brutally hard year of loss and a will to keep making music that "makes a connection," as she puts it.

I connected with Magness via phone as she headed towards Lincoln, Nebraska, on her way to St. Louis for a Friday, August 3 show at the Old Rock House (1200 S. 7th St). As in her singing, she held nothing back.

Roy Kasten: Can you tell me about the back story to Stronger For It, where the idea for the record came about?

Janiva Magness: I'm always looking for material that I connect to. That's my bar, so to speak. I don't really care where it comes from, if it's something that I can bring myself to. I understand that it's all about making a connection to a listener, and music is that vehicle.

2011 was a really interesting year. I had the best touring year I ever had. I worked more and was on the road more than I ever had been in my career. And I made a record that year. I had a great career year. On a personal level, I had pretty bumpy row. A lot of people were in the frying pan in 2011 and I was one of them. I unfortunately buried eight people who were very close to me: my brother and my mom, the only mother I ever knew. I lost a seventeen-year marriage. And my cat died the week before Christmas. And I made a record and toured my ass off. To say that I felt insane and schizophrenic in 2011 is putting it mildly. It was really an intense year.

And a lot of people were having an intense year. I don't take comfort in other people's pain, but I was grateful that I wasn't the only one, that I wasn't being picked on by the universe.

So I take this record very personally. It all came out on the record. Are the songs autobiographical? Yes. Are they always autobiographical? Yes. Is this record dialed up a few notches? Yes.

I've never experienced anything close to your year. But when I face hard times I tend to withdraw. The last thing I want to do is work. But you were able to make amazing music out of it.

I work very hard and I'm grateful for my work. What's really accurate is that the music, and it's always worked this way, it lifts me up. It lifts my heart and it carries me through the day. The guys in the band know this but in 2011 I was doing a whole lot of crying. I was doing a whole lot of getting off the bandstand and crying. What I wanted to do was retreat. But I couldn't. And that was a really good thing. I was so grateful I was so busy; that's how I got through. I came out the other side of a remarkable career year and a devastating personal year.

You turn to a lot of songwriters that most blues and R&B artists wouldn't touch, even if they'd heard of them. You're doing Buddy Miller and Shelby Lynne and Matthew Sweet. He's about as far from the blues as you can get.

I really don't care where the material comes from. I love that Matthew Sweet song ["Thought I Knew You"], but you should listen to Matthew Sweet's original. It has nothing to do with my version. [Laughs.] I didn't know what we were going to do with that song. I was lucky enough to work with David Darling, an incredibly talented producer and songwriter. He was like, "I know what to do, don't worry." Now that Matthew Sweet tune is a soul tune.

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