Janiva Magness’ new album Original stretches the artistic boundaries of roots, rock and soul music. Its 11 songs seamlessly weave all three genres into a highly original approach defined by nakedly honest storytelling and the live-wire emotionalism of Magness’ two-and-a-half octave range, buoyed by arrangements that effortlessly blend traditional sounds with edgy experimentation.
“Let Me Breathe” opens Original with the amplified chunk of an electric guitar and the chime of a glockenspiel followed by the confessional lines, “Nobody’s perfect/Nobody knows that more than me,” setting a tone of frank self-assessment that resonates throughout the entire set, from the Stax-influenced celebration of dignity “Mountain” to the wanton “I Need A Man” to the concluding “Standing,” which confronts insecurity with true survivor’s resolve.
Magness had much to overcome in making this adventurous album. Since 2010 she’s endured the dissolution of a 17-year marriage, the deaths of eight friends and relatives including her foster mother, and an operation for a serious neck injury that could have ended her accolade-filled career. But Original finds the Los Angeles-based artist undefeated — turning in her finest recorded vocal performances, co-writing a majority of tracks for the first time and testing herself by taking risks along with her production foil Dave Darling, whose credits include Glen Campbell, Brian Setzer, Mötley Crüe’s Nikki Sixx and Stray Cats, and whose instincts compelled Magness to tap her deepest creative powers and led the songs to sonically unpredictable places.
“I always want to push myself,” she explains, “but this album demanded a high level of vulnerability to tell the absolute truth in every song, holding nothing back. It was frightening, at times, to be so raw in public. Dave drove me and even tricked me when he needed to. This is also an album that couldn’t be made with another record company, because we needed to be able to go wherever we wanted musically to tell its stories.”
So Magness parted ways with Alligator Records after a six-year period that included 2012’s Stronger For It, 2010’s The Devil Is An Angel Too and 2008’s What Love Will Do, all produced by Darling. During her tenure on the internationally respected blues and roots imprint Magness also won her fourth Blues Music Award for “Contemporary Blues Female Artist of the Year” plus the “B.B. King Entertainer of the Year” and “Song of the Year” (for “I Won’t Cry,” co-written with Darling) awards, even as she became a fixture of the Americana music scene alongside such similar tough ’n’ edgy roots-based artists as Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings and St. Paul and the Broken Bones.
It’s hard, indeed, to pigeonhole Magness, who kick starts Original’s transcendent creative centerpiece “When You Were My King” with her voice alone — albeit bathed in a psychedelic pool of reverb, then accompanied by a jingling moth larva shaker and a snare drum that sounds snatched from a contemporary R&B hit, which in turn relents to the soulful call of Darling’s reverb soaked blues guitar. The song goes on to build an organic electric and acoustic framework around Magness’ warm-blooded, hook-heavy vocal melody, ultimately conjuring the regret and lost magic of a disintegrated relationship with breathless passion.
Magness says that tune might not have happened if Darling hadn’t lured her to his studio to “work on a vocal part.” When she arrived the hit Australian songwriting team of Lauren Bliss and Andrew Lowden were lying in wait. “If Dave had said, ‘I have these people here that I want you to write with,’ I would have made an excuse and begged off,” she relates. Instead, they co-wrote “When You Were My King” and “Standing,” two of the album’s most intensely emotional and superbly crafted tunes. Magness’ friend Dan Navarro of the singer-songwriter team Lowen & Navarro also pitched in, singing on the duet “With Love” and contributing background vocals to “Standing” and “Let Me Breathe.”
Magness co-wrote seven of Original’s numbers, overcoming a longstanding phobia. “I’ve been afraid of writing songs for most of my career,” she confides. “I was worried I wouldn’t be good at it, or that I would be really good at it. I was married to a great songwriter, and I didn’t want songwriting to be an issue in any way between us.”
But after she and Jeff Turmes split in 2010, Magness began writing under Darling’s encouragement. They co-penned three tunes for Stronger For It. And this time it’s her lyrics and performances that breathe life into Original’s gripping emotional arc —a musical journey through loss and triumphant recovery that reflects her own experiences.
“I’ve always wanted life to be simpler than it is,” she offers. “When I was a young girl, and then a young woman, I really yearned for that. Now I’m a full-grown woman and I understand that life is never black and white. Losing loved ones, losing attachments and relationships, and grieving over it all are things we have to live with. If we can get through that with our souls intact, we learn how to become stronger and to move on with hope and dignity toward whatever comes next.”
For Magness, who is writing a memoir, such challenges arrived early. Her teenage years were turbulent after both of her parents took their own lives. She was placed in a series of 12 foster homes and at age 17 gave birth to a daughter who she gave up for adoption. Magness’ despair was so deep that she tried to end her life. But ultimately, inspired by the encouragement of her final foster mother and a galvanizing performance by the legendary bluesman Otis Rush, she eventually found stability and salvation in music.
Since the release of her debut album More Than Live in 1992, Magness has relentlessly pursued her craft to become one of the most beloved figures in the blues and roots world, reaching a larger and more diverse audience with each succeeding album and developing a reputation as a live entertainer that’s made her a staple of summer festivals. Her collaborations with Darling, in particular, have greatly expanded her fan base as well as her stylistic command. And she has lent her singular voice to the cause of foster care activism, becoming a spokesperson for Casey Family Programs’ National Foster Care Month and an Ambassador for Foster Care Alumni of America.
The fact that Magness’ voice was jeopardized in December 2012 by surgery that left her unable to speak for several weeks makes her performances on Original all the more impressive. In tunes like the powerful “Twice As Strong” and “Badass,” the epic “When You Were My King” and the intimate “Standing” she displays the entire scope of her vocal range — from confidential whisper to soaring declamation — on one of her own albums for the first time.
Magness thanks L.A. vocal coach and cantor Nate Lamm for teaching her how to sing in a way that provides a more sweeping command of her instrument. “I’ve pushed myself hard on vocal sessions for other people” — including Glen Campbell and R.L. Burnside — “but this is the first time I’ve been able to tap every part of my own voice for my own songs,” she attests. “They required everything I had to tell their stories and to express everything that I was feeling about theses experiences.”
“Now, I’m really looking forward to getting out and performing these songs live,” the artist continues. “When you’re on stage in front of an audience that’s singing along to your own songs, there’s no better feeling — and no place I’d rather be — in the world.”