Jack Firneno, the Wire
Don’t let her profile shot, head down with eyes closed, on the album cover for Original fool you: Janiva Magness is not here to suffer fools. Even on a cell phone connection spanning half a continent, that much is crystal clear.
“If you’re coming at me with some sort of curiosity, gossip or Jerry Springer thing, I’m gonna tell you where to stick it,” she said, albeit rhetorically, at one point, but also through what almost sounded like gritted teeth. “These earlier parts of my life, so difficult, crooked and a bumpy road there, that part is none of anyone’s business.”
Fortunately, the plan was to talk about how she wrote nearly an album’s worth of songs for the first time in her 18-year recording career, and her upcoming performance showcasing them at the Sellersville Theater. So, let’s start with the record.
Last June, the blues singer released Original, a collection of 11 songs of which she wrote seven. It was her first time taking the reins like this: Many cuts from her previous 10 records were written by her now ex-husband, others were catalogue songs and classics.
Those all were comfortably steeped in classic blues, R&B and some gospel, often heartfelt and wrenching and always wrapped in Magness’ often muscular and gritty delivery. Original retains that spirit, but branches out a lot further.
The opener, “Let Me Breathe,” signals a contemporary pop awareness. A Hammond B3 organ swells much further in the background than on previous outings, conceding to touches like a glockenspiel in the introduction.
Then there’s the crushing, heavily processed sound on “When You Were My King” — a song with an astoundingly bittersweet hook as well — and some urban folk on “I Need a Man.” Not to mention a little Jimmy Cliff nod in the melody line on “With Love.”
It’s a step outside her comfort zone in more ways than one. Trying to assimilate contemporary production styles after a decade and a half of roots-based music can easily result in a stilted, hackneyed affair. But Magness, along with her producer and collaborator Dave Darling, pull it off with grace.
Of course, they had some encouragement by the time they began the project. Magness had been named Contemporary Blues Female Artist of the Year three years in a row at the prestigious Blues Music Awards in Memphis, Tennessee. She’s one of only two women to have received the B.B. King Entertainer of the Year Award, sharing the distinction with Koko Taylor.
And, in 2013, she won Song of the Year for her song “I Won’t Cry,” which appeared on her 2012 album Stronger For It. That award was what finally “nudged” Magness, as she says, to put out an album of her own compositions.
“The fact is that the universe, God, if you will, the audience, the muse, if you will, has responded in the last few years in the way it has, it’s really beautiful and really frightening,” she explained. “It’s saying to lean in to the writing, lean in to practicing the craft of being an artist, being a songwriter. Lean in to that more, do it more.”
It took a long time for her to hear that message, despite often being encouraged to heed it. For starters, there’s the challenges that come with creating your own songs. “Writing is easy,” she joked. “You take a blank piece of paper and stare at it until blood comes out of your forehead.”
But for Magness, putting her own work out there means becoming vulnerable and revealing more about herself than she’s used to. Not that you could tell that immediately from the information that’s already out about her.
Magness’ own professional bio talks about the “crooked road” she was on before settling into her career as a renowned blues singer: Losing her parents to suicide at 16 and living on the streets and in foster care, getting pregnant and giving up her child at 17.
“I was the kid who doesn’t make it,” she recalled. “You would see me coming and want me to go away. You’d shut your lights and lock the door. That happened to me a lot.”
It would make for an easy narrative device to say her life changed when she snuck into a dingy club while still underage, and saw blues legend Otis Rush perform, but even that’s not quite true.
“I didn’t understand at 14 years old that this was a bar I should set in terms of performance,” she admitted. “I didn’t know I’d be a singer till much later.”
Regardless, the performance resonated with her: “There was an early connection to the music. It was like the connective tissue in your body. Having that planted in me early on was beautiful, a huge gift.”
But Magness is still reticent about putting that information out there, and alludes to more that she won’t tell. What’s public knowledge now is only out there because, to her, it’s become part of the art.
“The reason I talk about it is to try to help to serve this idea of human connection,” she explained. “Because I have a story, and so does everyone else.” This story is, to her, an unexpected one: “It’s like I slipped through a wormhole, the difference between who I was and who I am today.”
It’s part of why she works so hard today. “On a day-to-day basis I don’t see myself as a winner,’” said Magness. “I just keep my nose down and work. Then life sort of headbutts me: You have to go to Memphis, you just got nominated. You have to get up, B.B. King just called your name.”
Those moments are significant — “I’m always surprised when it comes. And I’m really, really, really grateful,” she said — but that’s not what drives her.
“The point is the human connection. It’s not about anything other than that, and the music is the vehicle to do it. It’s a huge blessing to be able to do this,” Magness explained.
And, that connection to her audience is now stronger than ever, now that she’s taking the stage to sing from her own experience: “It’s my material so it’s a different level of intimacy. People are in it deeper with me. There’s nothing like singing an original song and the audience is singing along with me.”