Janiva Magness on the art of passion and foster care
Blues music is the balm for the broken-hearted, and Janiva Magness sure has the magic touch for healing a broken heart. With her new Stronger for It, the accomplished singer reveals an album that is milky, nourishing, and intimately comforting -- all while acknowledging the transience of life and the importance of closeness and maturing.
Touring in support of the album, Magness will be at the Dakota Jazz Club on Friday to bring a new interpretation on being "stronger for it."
Why do you call yourself a musical interpreter?
Actually, I don't. Others call me that and some other choice words from time to time. I call myself a recording artist. I believe it's a huge blessing, really.
How do you come to choosing the songs/artists that you cover, and how do you make it your own?
I make song choices based mostly on what moves me, the stories I connect with. Songs are like little moments in time, little stories or little movies -- at least that is how I relate to them -- and so I choose what I connect with.
As far as making it my own, that is about the two basic elements. One is to bring myself to sing -- to be able to connect with the story -- then tell the truth the way I do: by speaking the truth, and I believe that is what people connect with anyway that makes them feel the song or want to hear it or "enjoy the ride," so to speak.
The other thing is to use players and instruments that make sense to me. In other words, I would not use a bunch of fake synthesizer pads and fake horns to accompany me any more than I would work with a producer that makes those kind of choices. Working with a real producer that has similar sensibilities. Real musicians playing real instruments in a real human way, that is all part of it as well.
What did you grow up listening to that drew you to blues music?
I believe that this music -- blues -- chose me, I didn't choose it. It chose me. Now that may be because of some difficult early life experiences that connected me to the basic humanity in this great American art form we know and love -- people singing and playing songs/stories about struggling in life and getting through the other side of that struggle -- surviving sometimes with a vengeance or even simple sorrow, or celebrating their survival or simply celebrating great joy. Who wouldn't be drawn to that? I certainly was. It's the only music that ever made sense to me.
It may also have to do with my father having a really nice record collection, and he played them very loud on Sundays. Usually it was Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Buck Owens, Bull Moose Jackson, Nat King Cole -- great stuff. Love that music, and early country music is deeply steeped in the blues as we know.
Then along came the Beatles and the Stones. We know what their music was based on: blues. Of course, Little Richard and James Brown and all of the Detroit R&B music on the airwaves. I loved the radio when I was young, just loved it.
You talk a lot about vulnerability on this album. Do you feel you matured a lot while making Stronger for It?
I do, actually. I'm pretty mature but sometimes life happens in such a way that we are forced to let go, and it becomes, "Can I do this with grace or kicking and screaming?"
I prefer grace, even though kicking and screaming sounds like a good idea from time to time. Grace is the better choice. Sometimes that means behaving better than I feel, and I try to, but I believe that is always the wise choice.
Have you had to grow a thicker skin to be in this business?
You say that "the more vulnerable I allow myself to be, the more strength I draw from that vulnerability." Was there a particular song on this album that pertains to this?
It was really the entire collection. There is a theme here; if you listen closely, you will hear it. Life (on life's terms), death, rebirth, and all the nuances in between.
How did you meet Dave Darling, and how did you choose him to work with on this latest album?
Dave and I have been friends a very long time. I met him shortly after I moved to L.A. through another songwriter/producer I was working with, Brian Reeves. Brian brought Dave in to write some songs with me. We have known each other 24-plus years now. He is wickedly talented and a highly respected producer, engineer, singer, songwriter, and player. I am blessed to work with him and feel terribly lucky. This is the third release Dave and I have worked together on. I think it's a perfect fit. I am very happy.
Can you tell me a little more about the Casey Family Programs that you participate in?
I am a spokesperson for National Foster Care Month and the ambassador for Foster Care Alumni of America. Both are huge honors and both are daunting responsibilities. I do a fair amount of public speaking on the topic of the foster care system and today I am considered a success story. Something we don't hear enough about.
There are many success stories, so as a former youth in care (we call that alumni), I can share my experience and strength to help encourage and inspire more good people to step forward for youth at risk in this nation.
I also share my experience to encourage youth still in the system, and perhaps struggling with what their lives have been or what their future holds, to keep moving forward. It's so important to hear positive, experienced voices. You can never underestimate the power of encouragement for youth, for social workers, and judiciaries, or for anyone working to help youth come through or transition out of foster care.
We all need to know there are people that were on the road before us who have found their way, and how they did that. That is so important and is basically my job as spokesperson for National Foster Care Month, which is May of each year, although I celebrate this cause all year long, and as ambassador for Foster Care Alumni of America, similarly.
Why are you so passionate about this cause?
Because I have been there and been through this system and come out the other side, and I know what worked and what did not work for me. I got very, very lucky when I found the right foster parent fit -- and that fit changed everything for me, not just one thing. It changed everything, and that is not only worth shouting about from every mountain top I can find.
It is important to pay it forward. It is the debt I can never repay, you see. You never know when a simple act of kindness will change an entire lifetime for youth at risk, and because we really are worth it.
What can we expect at the show at the Dakota Jazz Club?
You will hear my stellar road band of handsome guys, which is the same band used to record Stronger for It. We are touring in support of the new release and playing the entire record. I'd say come prepared to have a great time!
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