STORY WRITTEN BY FERN BRODKIN
For Digital First Media
Janiva Magness had already established herself as one of the premier blues vocalists of today before releasing “Original” (Fathead Records, 2014), her 11th album. She has received 22 Blues Music Award nominations to date. She won the Blues Music Awards’ coveted B.B. King Entertainer of the Year award in 2013 (only the second woman to ever win this) and also won Contemporary Blues Female Artist of the Year in 2006, 2007, 2009 and 2013.
Yet Magness knew that she had to delve into unknown territory. She decided that it was time to graduate from being a blues music interpreter to becoming a songwriter and performing her own material. Along with producer and writing partner Dave Darling, she took the risk of opening up in her songs and also the risk of leaving the safety and security of powerhouse Alligator Records to start her own label. The aptly named “Original” is her first release on Fathead. So far the changes are paying off.
In an interview from her home in California, Magness discussed how she arrived at the decision to focus on songwriting as well as start her own label.
“Most of my career has been carved out as an interpreter,” said Magness, “and my qualification for choosing a song (of someone else’s) to interpret has always been… how it resonates with me, how I connect with the song. I have to be able to bring myself to the song. If I can’t do that there’s no point in performing the song, as far as I’m concerned.
“Moving into actually writing the material brings it to a whole other wheelhouse of intimacy, a whole other wheelhouse of personal. A different level of autobiographical, if you will.”
Magness continued by saying “I never really wanted to be a writer… I just didn’t want to take those kinds of risks that are required of writing anything that (has) any sort of depth or weight to it. I just didn’t want to go there for a thousand reasons. And it became necessary to change my thinking in that regard. So on what would turn out to be (my) last release for Alligator [“Stronger for It,” 2012], the third release I did for Alligator… very reluctantly, very nervously, I co-wrote 3 songs with my producer.
“Those 3 songs turned out to be the material that resonated with my fan base stronger than any of the other songs. Those 3 songs turned out to be the 3 songs that got far and away more airplay on the radio than any of the other songs on that particular release. And in performance when I would step out onto the stage to do those songs live, the fans would be singing along with me from the very first word, from the very first note.”
In addition, Magness and Darling were further rewarded for the effort; they won the Blues Music Award for Song of the Year for “I Won’t Cry.”
“It’s definitely a really loud, fat ‘yes’ from the universe, and so that sort of became the green light for me personally to really go ahead and do more writing.”
But why leave Alligator Records?
“I didn’t just make the decision to leave Alligator and walk away. I made the decision to make this record,” explained Magness, “and I knew that in order for me to make this record of all original songs, I needed to make these songs without anyone else’s agenda, without anyone else’s input. And in order to do that I was going to have to do (it) as a fully independent person, as a fully independent artist. So that required that I step away from Alligator.”
Magness added: “That was not an easy decision. It was not a simple decision. I had 6 years with Alligator, doing 3 records over the course of 6 years. I think that (had) gone very, very well. And Alligator is a great team, and it is very, very safe, so to speak. There is a safety in being with the largest blues label in the world.”
What made Magness’ leap into independence successful is her understanding of the business in addition to her talent.
“I think you have to have a great deal of business acumen to survive as an artist. You’re either a successful artist and a business person, or you’re just not. It’s exhausting, but in my opinion if you don’t have the willingness and the capacity to approach (the business aspects) as well as the art and the craft, you’re just going to be in trouble.”
As if Magness didn’t have enough on her plate with her career, she is also a very vocal advocate for alumni of the foster care system. Magness herself lived in 11 foster homes before she was fortunate enough to find the right fit and get the support she needed in the twelfth home.
“I am an ambassador for Foster Care Alumni of America. (There are) well over 7 million alumni of the foster care system in this country. I am a spokesperson for National Foster Care Month, which is technically in the month of May and we celebrate it all year long. I am an ambassador for Child Welfare League of America, which is a key organization based out of Washington, D.C. (These) agencies concern themselves with youth at risk. What I advocate for is more good people to step forward for youth at risk — there are many, many, many ways of doing that (and) fostering is one of them.”
For more information and to support this effort, go to Foster Care Month at www.childwelfare.gov and Foster Care Alumni of America at www.fostercarealumni.org.
Although Magness said that touring is tiring and that she’d rather be home more, she relishes the time that she is able to perform and connect with her fans.
“I’m really looking forward to coming back to Sellersville. What people at Sellersville can expect is what I hope will be a deeply connecting experience with the music and the band and pretty much a butt-rocking good time, as we like to say.”
IF YOU GO
What: Janiva Magness with Jessi Teich
When: Wednesday, June 24. 8 p.m. show; doors open at 7:30.
Where: Sellersville Theater 1894, 24 W. Temple Ave., Sellersville.
Tickets: $19.50 –$30.
Info.: Check www.st94.com or call (215) 257-5808.
Artist’s website: www.janivamagness.com