When you spend some of your formative years in a place like Detroit, a couple of the city’s finer qualities are bound to rub off on you — most notably, good music and hard work. Such was the case for blues singer Janiva Magness. Originally from the Motor City Magness and her family moved around a bit when she was a kid, but she circled back to live with her grandmother during high school. And so the die was cast and a hard-working musician would soon emerge.
Early on, Magness drew connection and inspiration from her father’s record collection of Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Buck Owens and Nat King Cole. But that was just the beginning. “Then there was the British Invasion,” Magness recalled, “and, later, as a teenager, I started listening to a lot of blues. I got into blues pretty young — 13, 14 years old.” It takes an old soul to love the blues at a young age.
Once she was out of school, Magness headed west to pursue her career. Her first stop was Los Angeles, but a long-distance relationship and a nice dose of overwhelm drew her to Phoenix in short order. “When I had been in L.A. for about six months, and it was just too much and too big for me, I thought Phoenix would be the next-best thing. So I relocated there and ended up staying six years before returning to Los Angeles.” The Phoenix music scene provided a nice training ground, and Magness took full advantage of it before making another go at L.A.
Magness issued her debut album, More Than Live, in 1992 and hasn’t looked back since, with nine more releases on various small labels over the subsequent 20 years. Recently, Magness parted ways with Alligator Records and is back on her own Fathead Records for Original, which dropped last week. But independence and the blues just sort of go together. As Magness noted, “This is a genre that only touches what is considered mainstream maybe every 12 to 15 years when there is a peaked interest from a wider audience. But, generally, yeah, it’s pretty much an independent state of mind, being a blues artist. Whether you are traditional or contemporary, it does seem to be that way.”
Still, going it alone is not without its challenges. In fact, Magness said, it’s “a huge undertaking. It was simply time to make this move to my own label and be fully independent.” The timing also felt right for Magness to switch up her musical game plan. “This record is all original songs — 11 tracks and seven of which are co-writes. That’s a pretty big deal for me as well.”
The blues community loves Magness, every which way she comes. In 2009, she became the second woman ever (after Koko Taylor) to receive the B.B. King Entertainer of the Year award from the Blues Foundation. Magness is still deeply grateful for the honor and for the ongoing support of blues fans around the world. “It’s a wonderful community mostly made up of folks who are very hard-working, people who are active in the preservation and continuation of this great American art form we all love. The fans are dedicated and excellent people. The artists, I can promise you, are pretty much in it for the love, not the money. It is a wonderful community and I am grateful to be a part of it.”
Hi Hat Entertainment presents Janiva Magness on Friday, June 2, at Yolie’s, 138 W. Main St., Ventura. For more information and tickets, visit www.hihatentertainment.com.