RR LogoJaniva Magness Is The Original and "Everything Is Alright"

Janiva Magness 2014 Photo OneJust after returning from her Yoga class Blues singer-songwriter and musician Janiva Magness seemed relaxed and eager to talk about her new album Original and her memoir, which is also being written. It was eight years ago that this writer first met the multiple Contemporary Blues Female Artist of the Year award winner in Calgary, Alberta, Canada when she sat down before one of her concerts and she was gracious enough to consent to an interview. Fast forward to 2014 and Janiva Magness is just as accessible as she was then, although one senses that she has grown even more comfortable in her own skin and the album Original may be her best recording yet. Seven of the eleven songs that comprise Original, Magness had a hand in writing.

When it came time to write the songs for Original and to head into the studio to record them, she turned to longtime friend, writer/musician/producer Dave Darling, who has worked with Stray Cats, Brian Setzer, Mötley Crüe’s Nikki Sixx and Glen Campbell. When it came to write her memoir Pulitzer Prize nominated author Gary Delsohn came onboard as a ghost writer.

The album opens with the beautiful Darling / Magness song “Let Me Breathe,” about a love now departed and the expression of the wish for a second chance. There is the scene of one final disagreement and watching the one you love walk right out the door. It is about when what just happened so overwhelms you that even to breathe hurts and you wish for one more chance, a chance that never comes. It is the fear that grips you when you realize that for the last time the sun has set on the relationship.

“This is how it works generally, Dave calls me up and says, come on we’ve got to work on songs. I say okay. I get out there and he says, check this out, I’ve got this and then he will play me something that he started or he will play me music with some lyric, but an incomplete lyric or he’ll just show me a lyric and he will say finish this and then we will put the music on it.  I will say I think I have something started. I am pretty much a lyricist, except sometimes I will get a cadence or a groove that comes with it. In the case of “Let Me Breathe,” I went out to the studio and he had some stuff that he had recorded and roughed out, some tracks and the lyric was started. It was incomplete.  He was writing about a very particular moment that I had told him about. It was a very specific moment. In hindsight it is just awful, it is just awful, it is an awful thing. You see something, as it actually slips through your hands.  The loss of someone and you realize very quickly that you blew it.  That’s really what happened.  You blew it. I had my chances and I have to face that now.  I didn’t hear the warning bell. I didn’t fucking hear it. I turned away, I turned away, I turned away too long. I blew it. It’s a very, very humbling moment.  That is where that came out of.

Dave said check this out, what do you think? He said finish the lyric, finish writing the story,” recalls Janiva Magness.  

Magness remembers how she and Dave Darling first struck up a friendship in 1987, “I met Dave when I first moved to L.A. I was working with a producer / engineer by the name of Brian Reeves and he said, you have a really amazing voice and you should try and do the songwriting thing. I was like okay, but I really didn’t want to do it. My mouth was saying okay, but everything else about me was going nah. I didn’t want to say no to Brian.  We tried to write some stuff and it really wasn’t coming together. He said to me, I have this friend and he is a little bit of a wild man, but I think that you guys come from a lot of the same places, so let me introduce you to him and maybe you guys can do some writing together.  I said I have this lyric. I have this one lyric and so let me see if I can get it finished. I met with Dave and I gave him the lyric and we put something together. He put music to the song, but it just didn’t really go anywhere. He wasn’t really producing then, he was engineering and playing. I knew him peripherally a little bit through Brian. I would be playing someplace, at some posh place in Beverly Hills with my band or at some kind of underground place in L.A. and I would look over and there Dave would be and he was hanging out. We kind of knew each other. It was a similar campus.

Eventually, he started a band called Boxing Gandhis (Funk – Soul). Just prior to Boxing Gandhis he had met Brie Howard (drummer, singer) and he asked her if she wanted to be in the band. Brie Howard was in the band and one plus one equals two and then it is Brie and Dave together and then it is Brie and Dave got married.

Right after I got signed to Alligator (Records) in 2007, I went back to Dave and I said hey man, I know you are producing records now and he said, yeah what are you doing? I said, I just got signed to Alligator and I wonder whether or not you would talk to me about making a record with me. Would you come down to my level? He was doing some pretty high level stuff at that point. If you look at All Music Guide you can see the kind of budgets he was dealing with.  We were good friends and he was married to my good friend Brie. We had a meeting and he decided yeah, I’m in, let’s do this, it will be a blast. That is what started the producer, artist relationship. He called me in to sing on different projects here and there and to do backgrounds. I was in a choir on one of the Brian Setzer Christmas records and things like that. He was in Nashville making one of the Brian Setzer big band records and I was on tour on another CD release I think for Do I Move You. I was playing a little joint in Nashville and while my band is playing I hear these guys in the balcony just yelling, Whooo. I am thinking oh my God they have had too much to drink and then all of a sudden I look up about halfway through the show and I see Dave’s mug grinning at me from over the railing of the balcony. I realized it was Dave and his friend that were up there. They had taken the night off from working on a record. (He was with) one of the other techs or one of the other people that played in Setzer’s band and they just went out to hear some live music. It happened to be me.” Janiva Magness Photo 2014

Our conversation drifts back to the current album, “There are some pieces of songs that were started way before this record was started. There were songs that were begun while I was still touring Stronger For It, but they were not finished. Did we make up ideas of stuff to write about? No I don’t think I am ever going to be that person.  Some writers are like that, hey I’ve got a great idea. Let’s write a song about this thing over here. I think I am going to be this person and be this creative person regardless of where I point it, whatever platform I decide that I am given to push it through. I think I can only write what I know and so that’s where the songs came from. That is where the idea of those songs came from. Fortunately for me there is so much beauty in finding someone that I can trust, because I am telling you I don’t do it very easy. 

(You have been through a lot in your lifetime Janiva.) Yes, a lot of people have a story and I am not trying to minimize it, but I don’t think that I am necessarily unique. I have a girlfriend and I swear she has the worst story that I have ever heard and she swears to God that I have the worst story that she has ever heard. We have had this laughable ongoing argument for years. Oh really she says, well your parents killed themselves and you were tossed around like you were nothing and you were molested when you were a kid. That’s a nightmare and the worst thing that I have ever heard. I go, no yours is the worst story I have ever heard, mom was a serial killer and she murdered your dad. She murdered the guy next door. She went to prison for it and she got pregnant in prison. All of this was at the mercy of a very, very high profile murder story in L.A. in the sixties. Everything was on the front page of the L.A. Times and you were going though it when you were a kid. That’s the worst shit I have ever heard in my life.  Then some author gets hold of the story and has a record breaking, career breaking (book) and he writes the story and it blows up her career. There is my friend’s whole family and whole life one more time all over the place in public. That’s the worst shit I’ve ever heard in my life. They didn’t find out until after mom was dead that she was a serial killer and she killed a bunch of guys.  It’s awful man. We have this ongoing joke, yours is worse. No yours is worse.

Yes it’s my story, but I can only write what I know and so the songs are born of that. It’s not just ancient experience, but it’s also stuff from the last few years.

Let’s talk about “Mountain,” which Dave wrote. It really had to do with a very specific series of events that I was going through four years ago. He knows me well. It is the beauty of that trust, of finding somebody I can trust, really trust. I trust him.  I know there is no question that this guy has got my back and he is my friend and there is no monkey business going on there. There is no trading trust for sex. None of that is going on. We really are friends.  It is so rare. He can channel that stuff.  He channels that, which is part of what makes the relationship work so well,” says Janiva Magness.

Janiva Magness has described Original as an album on which she is at her most vulnerable moments. The songs are raw and unrestrained.

Laughing she says, “I don’t know what more there is to say about it. I guess I can talk about the why of that. I never really wanted to be in the songwriting circle. I didn’t want to do it for the longest time and I really had my heels dug in on it. On the previous release it became necessary to let go of that a little bit and it was manifested in three songs that I co-wrote with my producer for the release on Alligator Records, Stronger For It. It turned out that those three songs were the most coveted, the most embraced, the most popular material with the audience, the listeners, with the press and that was the stuff that really resonated with people.

In fact, one of the original songs “I Won’t Cry,” won song of the year in separate arenas, the largest one being the Blues Music Award Song of the Year. It was absolutely shocking to me and really a happy shock not a bad shock. That is my preface. Clearly all of the arrows were pointing in this direction for this record, meaning that I needed to put both feet into the songwriter circle and that is frightening on a personal level. I have always had, I guess a very high standard of…I hold my own feet over the fire a lot. I always have and it is the nature of who I am. Do better, be better, be better.  Be the best you can. Really that’s not your best.  How about this? It is the nature of who I am. I have ten records out under my name and this is the 11 th release and on all ten previous records I held myself to that same standard, but until Stronger For It, it didn’t really involve the songwriting aspect. 

This is a whole other wheelhouse of intimacy. I am not interpreting a song that someone else has penned, someone else has authored, someone else has written and that I really didn’t connect with and that is why it goes on my record, because most of my career I have been an interpreter of other people’s material.  Stepping into the songwriters circle, stepping into this arena, it requires, it demands a whole other level of intimacy and of vulnerability. There is no interpreting, because my producer and I wrote it. It just requires more of me personally and that is because the career that I am in is a very public one. Lots of people don’t like me or don’t like this much of me. I’m not any different than anybody else in terms of being any more or any less of a human being.  I suffer insecurity. I suffer that.  Of course I do.  I just don’t let it stop me (she laughs).”

We wondered if songwriting comes a little easier these days to Janiva Magness, now that she has got over that first big hurdle.

“I don’t think it is ever going to be easy for me, because I am not the kind of person who is wired (that way). I am not a bloated person. I am not somebody who thinks I’ve got it handled and this is going to be a cakewalk.  It is not who I am.  My shrink assures me that I am never going to have the problem when my head is going to be too big to get through the doorway.  I might have other challenges, but that’s not going to be one of them. At this point in the curve, I think she is probably right about that.  It is not easy for me (songwriting). It is not easy for me (she repeats the sentence). I am willing now and I wasn’t willing before. To be willing is such a powerful place to be and a powerful platform to operate from. I am willing to work and I am willing to try and I am willing to bleed, which is kind of what songwriting is for me, it is like bleeding.  Some of it is happy bleeding, some of it is angry bleeding and some of it is terribly, terribly sad. It is all very personal. 

Is it easier than it was?  Yes it is easier than it was for me to approach. I am more willing to pay attention to the ideas that come to me. Instead of I’ll get to it later and I will blow it off or that doesn’t make any sense, that’s just not really good, I am willing to concede that I should stop what I am doing and write it down. As a creative person, there’s a crack, the light comes through and then it slams shut. (She repeats the sentence) There’s a crack, the light comes through and then it slams shut. It is not open all of the time constantly in that sort of flowing sense for me. Maybe there are some other people who have that, but I guess, but I am not one of them.  I am willing to pay attention, when she calls my name. I am really willing. Who is she? The muse and I believe in her and I am rather superstitious at this point about her.  I believe that she is very real. When she calls my name, I go (she gasps) okay.  It happened yesterday when I was driving around. No matter what you tell yourself about how you will remember that, no, no, no. If you snooze you lose,” she says and she talks about how she pulled off the road to write down the thoughts that came to her.

The songs that comprise the album Original may represent the broadest musical influences evidenced on any of Janiva Magness’ records. Janiva Magness 2014 Photo Two

“It might be true. It might be true. I never want to make the same record twice. I am just not that kind of person. Some people have entire careers where they do that and it works, but it is not my thing and it never has been. I don’t think it will ever be. I believe it is for me a forward motion. I am the thread that runs through the center of all of those songs.  

You know who I really love? I love Mavis and Bettye Lavette. I love Mavis Staples. Those ladies right there, they do songs that they damn well please and it doesn’t really matter what genre it was originally introduced as. Mavis is going to do Mavis on it and Bettye is going to do Bettye on it.  That is like a beacon and that is like an inspiration to me. I am not trying to put myself in that category with either one of those amazing artists. I am simply saying that is inspirational to me.  That is a beacon of light to me. I want to…I’m looking at that. Mavis says keep your eye on the prize. I am trying to bring myself to everything that I do.  I think this record is more me than ever,” she says.

Musicians who appear on this album are, Matt Tecu (drums), Gary Davenport (bass), Hammond B3 and pianist Jim Alfredson, guitarist Zach Zunis, Doug Livingston (slide guitar), Carl Sealove (upright bass), Brie Darling (drums) and Arlan Oscar also played a bit of Hammond B3 and piano. Dan Navarro performs a duet with Janiva Magness on the song “With Love,” and he contributes background vocals on a couple of other songs.

Magness describes the song “When You Were My King,” as being a pretty raw song and one that she was tricked into co-writing.

Laughing, she says about Dave Darling, “He knows me so well. If he had called me up and said, hey I have these friends here in town from Australia and they are songwriters, they are great, come on out and we’ll see what we can do, I would have gone, I’ve got these appointments and I am so jammed up that it would have been hard for me to not backpedal. I am a scardey cat. Dave knew that, so he said we’ve got some stuff that we have to work on. We have deadlines, so get out here.  I was like okay, so I got in my little car and I drove to his place. I walk in and there is this guy and this gal. (Dave says) hey this is Andrew and Lauren and they are in town from Sydney and they are songwriters. We were doing a little bit of stuff and I told them a little bit about you, so start writing. I go what? Start writing, get to work. I went ah and they are like ya’ we’ve got some ideas and we just think their fantastic and (she does a mock, badly mocked Australian accent) and we just blah blah blah. I was like oh my God. It was either right there and right now. Right now you dance or you are leaving the dance hall right now and so I danced. They were somehow so tuned into me and I guess that is how some songwriting teams are, but they were so weirdly tuned into me. We started with “When You Were My King,” that was the first one and “Standing,” was the second one. We actually wrote four songs and two of them ended up on the record and we held back two. We started on “When You Were My King,” and I just went, wait a minute, when did Dave…and they said, oh just last night. I said did you just go on the internet and read everything that there was about me? They said we did a little bit of research, but not that much. We didn’t have time. I was like, you guys are reading my mail here.  That is what it felt like. I felt like they were two Australian spies.

What is super weird is “Standing,” was also very much the same kind of experience. I had just, just, I am trying to think of how to articulate this. I was going somewhere that afternoon when we wrote “Standing,” and I only had a limited amount of time. It was, I have to go. I have to be at this place. Someone who I had a great deal of pain over I was assured wasn’t going to be at this event and then he was. It is a public life and it is a public thing and when I run the world it is going to be a very different place, but I don’t run the world, so there you have it. (She pauses, weighing her words carefully, before continuing) It just helped me to finish the song. (She laughs loudly) How about that? I came away from that event and I cried all the way home in my car. I was driving and crying. I thought…holy, I came from working with Lauren and Andrew and I went into that situation and then I came out of that and I literally cried for forty-five minutes, while I was driving my car all of the way home. I knew what the rest of the song was going to be and I knew the rest of the lyric, it was right there. It was almost as if the muse took me and cut me right up the middle and then went okay, give it to me and I bled. That is what you hear on that song. Sorry that’s a little heavy.”

The conversation turns to Dan Navarro’s contributions to the album Original.

“(In addition to the duet) he sings background on “Breathe,” and he is also what sounds almost like Benedictine monks on “Standing.” It is really funny, because Dan and I met last December on Christmas day at night. A girlfriend of mine messages me and says, look we’re just going to have Chinese food. Do you want to meet us? I was like, I’m in. She says, do you mind if a friend of mine comes along, he is also a musician, but he knows your work and he just loves your work. He is dying to meet you. I said, sure, I don’t care, whatever. I had been in downtown L.A. feeding homeless people for half of the day. It had tended to be a really bumpy time for me and there is one guaranteed, quick fix for that and that is you go help somebody else that is a lot worse off than you are. I was in downtown L.A. feeding a few thousand homeless friends and she says Chinese food and I’m like, yeah, perfect, fine, I can go home and clean up and I will meet you there. It was a completely impromptu surprise and that is where Dan and I met. We just instantly hit it off. We have become good friends and I just sang on his record. His new record is called Shed My Skin and the song that I did a duet with him on is actually a Tom Wilson song. The song is called, “I’m Going To Stay That Way.” (She sings a couple of lines) “You drove me crazy / I’m going to stay that way.” I think that is a duet that Tom originally covered with Margo Timmins from Cowboy Junkies and Tom is from Blackie and the Rodeo Kings. We basically traded. Dan is fantastic and I just adore him. He is so talented. I am so pleased that he was gracious enough to come and sing on this with me. It is really cool,” she says.

Keys and Hammond B3 introduce the beautiful “Everything Is Alright,” an incredibly beautiful song about making your way back from heartbreak. Janiva Magess’ vocals demonstrate why USA Today has referred to her as a star and why she has drawn accolades from the iconic Mavis Staples.  

“That (“Everything Is Alright”) is what Dave refers to as first blood. We were at my house in my office, which is where I am sitting right now. He was here, because I was waiting for somebody to arrive who was late for a business meeting here. He had his guitar and we were just screwing around. We were just playing around and he started to play something. He goes, hey check this out and I started to sing a melody with nonsensical words. He said, get the tape machine. I grabbed my iPhone and we started to record it and that became “Everything Is Alright.” The chorus came out first (she sings) “Don’t you worry about when the rain…” Later we wrote the lyric to it. That was actually the first song that was finished for the new record,” she says.

For a few moments we reflect upon the book that Janiva Magness is writing.

“I am working on a memoir. I actually have traction on that and I am very excited about it. One of the top three literary agents in New York has taken the project and he is shopping it to publishers right now. I am pretty excited about that.

When you do a book proposal it is about half the book or a little more than half the book. It is pretty close to done.

She (the muse) has been bothering me for years. She is relentless. Go away, no I don’t want to write a book. You need to write a book. I don’t want to. It is nobody’s business. Well, this needs to be written down. Literally that conversation with her, with me, has been going on for thirty years.  Fast forward, a couple of years ago when I was on tour and Stronger For It had just come out and I am playing a gig at the Palms Playhouse in Winters, California. I was talking about foster care and of being an alumni of the foster care system and I probably said something about having a bunch of Jerry Springer stories, but you are going to have to wait for the book to hear about those, ha, ha, ha. The point is, somebody stood up for me when I couldn’t stand up for myself. This guy comes up to me after the show and he waits in the long merch line. He hands me his business card and he says, I want you to know that my wife and I have never seen you before and in fact we have never even heard of you. We just like the venue and so I looked online, because we wanted to go out tonight, we saw you were here, we looked you up, we bought tickets and we came. You completely blew our minds. I am so thrilled. I want you to know that I am a professional writer and if you ever decide to write that book I would love to help you in any way that I can. That guy was Gary Delsohn, who happens to be a Pulitzer nominated author and that begat some dialogue and some conversation. I just felt like it was very, very kismet and very, very cosmic that he was there that night and that he did that and he said that.

Eventually, when I got off the road long enough to catch my breath we began talking and that begat (the book). He is my ghostwriter. He is working with me to get everything written down properly, to get it linear. When you write a memoir, things need to be presented in a linear fashion. I am extremely challenged in that arena, because I have post traumatic stress disorder, PTSD. Most foster kids have PTSD. Two of out every three do. We suffer post traumatic stress disorder at twice the rate of combat veterans. Just do the numbers, over twelve million alumni and 420,000 youth in the U.S. who are still in care. You are talking about a large demographic of posttraumatic stress disorder individuals. It is an imprint that doesn’t really go away and you can learn to navigate it and if you are lucky and you work your ass off you can learn ways to not make it so loud. It is an imprint. It is a tattoo that doesn’t go away. It is a stain.

One of the functions of PTSD is to fragment memories in order to survive. That is how it physically works. How it actually works in the brain is you can’t remember things in a linear fashion, because if you could, you would go completely mad. It fragments the memory. It takes this event that happened in 1962 and it shoves it over there and then it takes the other half of the same event and it shoves it down there. That is part of how it manifests for me. I have all the memories in excruciating detail, but I don’t have the timeline. I can’t… He (Delsohn) is really helping me to get it in line. That has been very challenging and painfully enlightening. I don’t get it. I don’t get it. That’s just where it is at man, I don’t get it. I don’t get what I am doing here. I don’t get why I am here. I don’t get it. The memoir is my story. It is not just the hard part, but the beauty now, the transcendent experience. Winston Churchill said, if you are going through hell, keep going. Don't stop there,” she says.

Janiva Magness has experienced more of hell than anyone should during their lifetime, but in her new songs from the brand new album Original, you will hear a whole lot of beauty that shines through, from someone this writer has been proud to get to know, just a bit over the years.  Visit her website, buy the album and support a singer-songwriter who has a lot of important things to tell the world.      Return to our Front Page

Interview Published June 14, 2014, All photos property of Janiva Magness and are protected by copyright © All Rights Reserved Middle Photo by Jeff Dunas

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