To quote Jimmy Rogers, the blues are “nothin’ but a good man feelin’ bad.” Well, the blues aren’t limited to just men, and in singer Janiva Magness’ case, the blues aren't limited to just feeling bad: They can also mean salvation.
Once the young girl who could sing along with the radio by memory, she now sings songs of her own. Bakersfield fans will have a chance to sing along with her again when she performs at World Records on Feb. 16.
“My first influences would have been my dad and his record collection," Magness said in a phone interview from her home in Los Angeles. "He had a beautiful voice and sang and played harmonica, although he was not a professional musician. It was just something that he did.”
“But I had early exposure to some great blues artists: Otis Rush, B.B. King … the first time I saw those guys I was 14 years old. that was a real game changer for me.”
Magness' youth is well-documented but breathtaking in its adversity. By 16, she lost both of her parents to suicide within a few years of each other. She was shuffled in and out of a dozen foster homes and, by 17, was a teenage mother giving her daughter up for adoption.
She’s spent her whole life fighting in one way or another, and she's even holding a pair of boxing gloves on the cover of her 2016 Grammy-nominated album “Love Wins Again.”
“For me, blues and soul music was like a defining moment of my life and it always has been,” Magness said. “It gave me the knowledge that I was not alone in my experience; I would say very clearly it spoke to a place in me that, up to that point, had not had any words, and that’s a pretty deep spot for a lot of human beings.”
At 19, Magness started performing seriously, trying to “chase that feeling that (music) gave me." She released her debut album, "More Than Live," around 15 years later in 1991.
“Once I started to actually perform and sing, I … (felt) like I was connected to something that was greater than me and that made me feel like maybe it will be OK. Maybe this place will be OK, maybe this life will be OK, maybe this world will become tolerable if i get close enough to the music, you know?”
In 2009, the Blues Foundation awarded her the Blues Music Award for B.B King Entertainer of the Year. Magness is the only other woman besides Koko Taylor to win it.
These days though, the blues ain’t just about feeling bad. They're also about feeling scared, angry, mortified, outraged, aghast and uncertain. Magness' latest release, “Love is an Army” reflects this barrage of emotional overload. The album (her 14th, due out on Feb. 23, a week after the World Records gig), is a bit unique from the usual Americana roots/blues releases of late: Half of it is a protest album.
“My producer (Dave Darling) and I wanted to speak to what is happening in the world today,” Magness said. “Not just in our country, but in the world. Because there’s a tremendous amount of pain and a tremendous amount of concern and conflict. It is very much time for people to stand up, speak up and have our voices be heard.”
"Love is an Army" veers into more of an Americana roots sound than the usual shuffle and guitar pyrotechnics found on most blues records, especially on its elegiacally earthy first single, "Down Below." There's a soulful melancholy and defiance here that Magness' strong gritty voice is the perfect mix for.
“It (the album) speaks to the idea that we are responsible for the earth, we’re responsible for our destiny, we are responsible for our children, our children’s educations, the kind of human beings that we raise. This is on us. This isn’t up to anybody else. We need to stand up, speak up and take charge of what’s happening. Otherwise it’s just gonna to continue to spiral down into a lot more pain.”
It’s a sight all too familiar to the 61-year-old Magness who sees our current protests, political rancor, lack of personal civility and social discord as history revisiting itself — a history she witnessed firsthand in the late 1960s.
Magness said, "There’s a short saying: If you’re not upset, you’re not paying attention.”
“The greater element for me is hope because I’ve seen change happen before and it is not easy, and it is not for the faint of heart," Magness said. "We need to help each other — that’s how we do it: We hold each other up. We help each other change; we pull each other through."
"Some Kind of Love," the last song on the new album, speaks directly to these sentiments. No word if she'll be performing it at the upcoming World Records show: She'll be mostly sticking to her previous material. Most likely, she'll sneak some of the new material into the set list. For an artist as eclectic as Magness, don't expect anything less than an aversion to the typical. Guitarist Tinsley Ellis, whose album "Winning Hand" recently hit No. 1 on the Billboard Blues Chart, will perform that night as well.
"(People are going have) a butt-rocking good time. ... I think it’ll be really, really fun.”