Janiva Magness draws strength from turmoil

Overcoming adversity lightens blues singer's hue

Janiva Magness is singing
Scott Hutchings | Boulder Weekly

When listening to blues vocalist Janiva Magness, there are a lot of words that come to mind that could describe her sultry and lilting interpretations. Whether uplifting or drifting into darkness, one word that never comes across when hearing her voice is “fake.” This girl is more real than Brazilian currency.

“The word that I hear get tossed around a lot these days is authenticity,” Magness says. “I think of it as the truth.”

Magness has been grinding out a living on the touring circuit for years with her bluesy interpretations and smoky vocals. To close your eyes and listen is like riding an emotional roller coaster about to careen off track. Opening those lids reveals problems that are still right there in front of you.

“I think life is in session, and some of that is really joyful, and some of it is just the day-in/day-out on life’s terms, and some of it is really challenging,” Magness says.

Even while covering songs by other tunesmiths, Magness brings her own baggage — good and bad — onstage with her traveling ensemble nearly 200 nights a year. With her new album, Stronger For It, now part of her repertoire, listeners gain insight into some of the tribulations that go into making it in the music business.

“Songs are like little stories or movies, at least that’s my perspective on it. And I have to be able to bring myself into that. I have to be able to tell the truth. So there isn’t really a separation between the experience of the story [and my singing],” Magness says of the original songs she wrote for the new record.

It’s a continuation of some sage advice the singer received at a tender age.

“The first time I got into really big trouble, I was 13 years old,” she says. “And my father sat me down and said to me, ‘The truth is going to set you free.’ And I thought to myself in all of my 13-yearold, hormone-enraged arrogance, ‘You old fool.’ But you know what? He was right.”

Photo by Peter Wochniak

Magness is not shy about sharing her life story, and her bio doesn’t read as one loaded with opportunity. She was sexually abused by a family member as a child. Both her parents passed away while Magness was a teenager, leading to a bohemian lifestyle in and out of foster care and psychiatric institutions. She had a baby and gave it up for adoption. Substance abuse and suicide attempts dot her calendars past like birthdays or graduations in other, more stable lives.

“The first 14 years of my life I had not had that experience of really being connected to the world,” she says of trying to understand such a harsh environment. “It took a lot of hard knocks for me to finally realize that I can’t protect myself by being hardened. Believe me, I tried. It’s an illusion. … You get hurt.”

Yet one night opened her up to a new direction, one that helped shape the long career arc that is now bearing fruits of success.

“I didn’t really even understand what happened. All I knew is whatever the fuck happened to me that night that connected me to the world,” Magness says of the night she saw legendary bluesman Otis Rush perform. “That experience with Otis like flipped me out. All I know is that I started to chase that experience. Whatever happened, I needed more of that thing.”

The process of becoming an interpreter of blues wasn’t an overnight transformation. Chasing that Rush of an experience turned into a youngster’s obsession, and eventually led to the courage and desire to follow that dream professionally. She got a break when somebody recognized her singing and encouraged Magness to follow her devotion. The reasoning is still something that puzzles the singer.

“How did that happen? I understand some of it, but I don’t understand all of it,” Magness says of her journey to becoming a musician, which at many times seemed destined to fail. 

“I quit a thousand times. There’s an element, or maybe several elements, that I cannot explain as to why I have not died. Why I didn’t stay quit. Why I kept coming back, kept trying,” Magness says. “I laughingly make the statement that there’s something wrong with me because I won’t stop. And there is a push in me, inside of me that just won’t let it be.”

That wherewithal shows in the highs and lows a Magness show provides. While astute enough to know she may not be changing lives on stage, she does enjoy the synergy between her and the audience.

“Sometimes it helps people understand that they’re not alone in whatever they’re in. Sometimes it just lifts our spirits when there’s a connection going on. I don’t want to make it heavier than it is,” Magness says. “But I do think that is the job. Sometimes it’s just a connection that happens because you’re celebrating and relating to the stories and the songs and the music.”

Decades down the line, a father’s words resonate through the trials and tribulations life has handed Magness, steeling the will of an emotional and entertaining performer.

“People seem to connect with the truth, the authenticity, and that gives me encouragement and support, and oddly and strangely, it has set me free.”

That authenticity shows in her live performances, two of which will be Oct. 23-24 at the Boulder Outlook Hotel. Magness and her band stay true to the heartstring-tugging blues emanating from the pipes of a rising siren of the genre. Connections to the sounds are inevitable.

“What you hear on the radio or when you buy the download is what you’re gonna get from the live performance. Anybody can make a record these days, but that doesn’t mean that you can pull it off live,” Magness says. “It’s a joy to work with this ensemble and to be on the road with these guys. It’s translating in the shows, and people are really digging it.”

Janiva Magness performs at the Boulder Outlook Hotel Tuesday, Oct. 23 and Wednesday, Oct. 24. Call 303-443-3322.

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