The ferocious emotional commitment of Janiva Magness’ singing has made her one of the most celebrated performers in the contemporary blues world for many years running, and her soulful approach is now earning her fans among the Americana crowd.
But it’s a really new thing for her to express herself through songwriting. In fact, her aptly-named album Original marks the first time she’s ever had a hand in writing a majority of the songs.
Before she made her way to music, Magness had to overcome losing both her parents, being shuffled from one foster home to another and becoming a teen mom. And leading up to this new collection, she dealt with the demise of her 17-year marriage, the deaths of several loved ones and temporarily debilitating throat surgery.
Some of those experiences lend lived-in texture to her lyrics. From all of them, she’s drawn profound urgency and supple strength. In our phone interview, her responses are every bit as vivid and vigorous as you’d expect — peppered with dramatic pauses, intimate asides and emphatic recollections.
CMT Edge: For all I’ve read that you’ve been through in recent years, there sure are a lot of songs of encouragement and empowerment on the new album. Were those things that you needed to hear or that you were directing outward?
Magness: [laughs] Both. I’m sure that it’s both. I’m pretty new to the songwriter’s circle, so it’s pretty delicate for me just in terms of the internal experience of being that raw and that vulnerable at that level. Because that’s what it is to me. It is a different wheelhouse of vulnerability.
Right now, I often cry when I listen to “Twice as Strong.” I often cry when I hear “Everything Is Alright” because, Lord knows, I really need to hear that from somebody.
You’re in an interesting place with songwriting, sinking your teeth into it for the first time this far into your career. In the past, you’ve focused on song interpretation, recording songs from your ex and many other sources. What kept songwriting off the table for you all that time?
Most of my career up to this point has been as an interpreter of other people’s material. And I’ve been fine with that. I’ve really been more than fine with that. I expressly did not want to be a songwriter. A couple of big reasons: What if I sucked? And then, what if I didn’t? …
If I sucked [at songwriting], that would just be unbearable because nobody wants to suck. If I didn’t suck, then what would that mean, and what would I have to do? Then at that point, I was married to a very talented, very prolific songwriter, and I did not want that to be on the table between us, if I didn’t suck. … Marriage is a delicate ecosystem.
Especially when it comes to artistic ventures.
Yeah. Two artists that are possessed with whatever their craft is and tortured by whatever their craft is … there’s a certain amount of blood that has to be on the paper. I just did not want that to be something between us. That was a compromise.
You’ve said you noticed a response to your original songs when you started touring in support of your previous album, Stronger for It. Had you expected it to make a difference to your audience that you were starting to sing songs that you’d written?
It frightened me — in the best way ever. I got on the bandstand and opened my mouth and sang the first song, an original song, “I Won’t Cry,” and had everybody in my view in a packed house — to see them sing along from the first word was shocking to me. Beautiful but shocking.
How do you see your turn toward songwriting changing the way people think about what you do and what music scenes you belong in?
I’m kind of a late bloomer because I came to the party really shut down. … So much of it has been a process of opening, opening, opening. That is so much part of the taproot of what music has done for me. It’s opened me, and that’s been a glorious thing because I needed that desperately. … Does [songwriting] expand my listenership? I think that it does. … Are there radio programs that will play me that wouldn’t play me before? Apparently.
A singer-songwriter is a very familiar type of performer in the roots/Americana scene. In the blues scene, it doesn’t seem like there’s an established model for a formidable female singer who’s not known as an instrumentalist but writes her own songs.
You’re right. There’s not. And it’s not that there aren’t other women artists within the contemporary blues area that are writing. The fact that my co-writer and producer Dave Darling and I won song of the year [at the Blues Music Awards] last year blew my mind. “I Won’t Cry,” that song, apparently really resonated with a lot of people. …
But you’re right. There are not a lot of us in the blues arena. I’ve gotta say this: Americana as a defined genre, I don’t know how well-defined it is. It seems to have a mixture of a lot of different elements that are wonderful to me.
You’re right that it’s an elastic term. One of the interesting things about it is that emphasizing original songwriting can be a way in. Plus, it’s clear from albums you’ve made in the past that roots songwriters resonate with you. You’ve covered Buddy and Julie Miller, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Shelby Lynne and Delbert McClinton. I’ve always thought you had broader taste than your blues classification suggested.
You know who I really admire in that regard? Bettye LaVette and Mavis Staples. There’s the obvious reason: Those women are complete icons and so talented and such amazing women, with strength that is beyond formidable. And they just don’t care where a song comes from. The question is, does it resonate with them? Can they bring themselves to it? …
Now, I’ve been largely an interpreter of other people’s material, and I’ve really admired and tried to embrace that approach. … I don’t really care where it comes from because I’m gonna try to bring myself to it. So that’s gonna make it Janiva Magness.