L.A.-based blues queen Janiva Magness is pissed.
Always the expressive vocalist and performer, as well as a fascinating conversationalist, Magness has a laugh that could warm her native Detroit in January, and a sharp wit. But when our conversation turns to the subject of protest music, that her new album Love Is an Army is at least half-filled with socially and politically charged songs, her tone changes.
“If you’re not upset, you’re not paying attention,” Magness says. “There are things going on globally at a level that we haven’t seen in a very long time. The level of racism, violence, people being held hostage in their communities and governments by county, state and local legislation that is extremely prohibitive. We’ve lost the fucking plot. You don’t get to march in the streets of this country and proclaim you’re a Nazi. It’s time to stand up, speak out and have our voices be heard. Encouraging and inspiring that. I think that what’s happening in the world is a massive wake-up call for those people that have gotten lazy. It’s a very painful, very ugly slap in our faces.”
Of course, that level of awareness, that cry for justice, is integral to the DNA of blues music. From the early days of Ma Rainey and Robert Johnson, the genre has dealt head-on with the hardships faced by black people in the United States. Magness might not have ever been able to relate to that pain first-hand, but she says she connected with the blues, it moved her, from the first time she heard it.
“The turning point for me was when I was 14, in the same year that I saw B.B. King live and saw Otis Rush live,” she says. “The music connected through me and I started to chase that feeling from that point forward. I’d always been a music nut, and always been the kid who played the radio too loud, memorized all the TV theme songs and could sing all the commercials. Put on every fancy-dress outfit in the closet when I was really small, and put on shows for the cat and dog.”
That innate desire to perform, combined with a blossoming appreciation for the blues, slowly grew into a career, with Magness getting paid to sing from the age of 19. Still, she says today that she didn’t really feel comfortable thinking of herself as a professional musician until she reached her 40s.
“I always felt like it was somehow some strange mistake,” she says. “I know this is not uncommon, as I’ve spoken to other artists and read interviews. I was always waiting for an official person with an official badge and an official megaphone to show up and announce that it’s all been a huge mistake and that I need to go home now. That really was with me very prominently until I was about 40. I just kept trying in spite of it. I was very diligent, did a lot of my homework. We used to call it woodshedding. Persistence alone is omnipotent. I’m not going to deny that.”
As a child in Detroit, Magness was surrounded by blues cats with names as prestigious and beloved as Alberta Adams and Johnnie Bassett, though she says it was local radio that had the greatest impact on her, as she hid at night in her rudimentary fort from her parents, listening through a single earbud.
“I had a little green transistor radio, a handheld thing, and I would wait until my father was well down the hall after I pretended I was asleep, and take the flashlight out from under the bed,” she says. “I would just obsessively listen to music.”
In the early 1980s, Magness lived in Phoenix for six years; she moved to L.A. in 1986. She felt that she had achieved all she could in Arizona, and she needed to be where the action is. With a whole lot of California friends urging her, she made the move and has never looked back.
“It seems to have stuck — I’m still here,” she says. “I seemed to want to continue to follow the obsession. I was 29 years old and I figured if I didn’t make this jump, I never would. I wanted to be in a bigger pool of more musicians, more talent and more opportunity.”
As happy as Magness is in Los Angeles today, she does look back with both fond and sad eyes on the local blues scene of the past, when bands and musicians could perform seven nights a week. The industry has changed, of course, and it’s much rougher on the artists. But still, Magness keeps working, and she’s retained her warm glow when discussing her music. She’s as fiercely ambitious and creatively driven as she ever has been.
“I never want to make the same record twice,” she says. “I look over my shoulder at what I’ve done, and I see that there’s been a continuum. When I’m in the moment of making records, I just feel like I’m doing what’s in front of me. I’m going where I’m being lead. But as I look over my shoulder, historically, I can see that there’s an absolute continuum.”
That brings us back to her new album, Love Is an Army, which drops on Feb. 23. The record is her 14th and, unlike previous full-lengthers, Magness hasn’t grown tired of listening to it after finishing work on it.
“I’m not saying I’ve fallen in love with myself after all these years, because that’s certainly not the case,” she says. “What I’m saying is, I love the way this sounds, and I love the statement. I love the songs, and the performances by the ensemble. This one feels, sonically, like a lovely warm bath to me. Even though half the record is protest material.”
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Magness will be performing the new album at McCabe’s in Santa Monica on Feb. 24, and at the downtown Los Angeles Public Library the next day (the latter is a free show). The singer says she loves to play hometown gigs, and she’s excited about these two. She hints at a special surprise at the library but won’t give away more. After that, she’s back out on the road, touring the new record and even performing at SXSW for the first time.
“It’s been on my ‘I gotta do that’ list for so long, I decided a couple of years ago it’s not happening so I’m taking it off the list,” Magness says. “‘Stop torturing yourself, Janiva, it’s not happening.’ I’m super-excited.”
Even after three decades of playing the blues, life is full of surprises.
Janiva Magness plays at 8 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 24, at McCabe’s Guitar Shop; also at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 25, at Los Angeles Central Library's Mark Taper Auditorium.