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Janiva Magness: A true original

Janiva Magness
Jeff Dunas

When Janiva Magness takes the stage tonight at the Iridium in New York City, you may very well hear the following by way of introduction:

“I’m originally from Detroit, where the standard greeting is ‘Okay, let’s take it outside.’”

That line is usually greeted by laughs, and if it’s not, it’s met by knowing nods by those who realize that coming from the Motor City will say a couple things about you:

You’re tougher than most.

No really, you’re tougher than most.

It’s why, at 57, after living more lifetimes than you can imagine, Magness is still standing, a fact reflected in the closing track of her forthcoming album Original, the appropriately titled “Standing.” It’s a song that no one else could sing, simply because no one has lived the life she has.

“I’m still here,” she said. “It still confuses me sometimes, but I’m still standing.”

Few would be able to make that claim after what she’s gone through, a series of events that include the loss of both her parents to suicide, a seemingly endless number of stays in foster homes, and a pregnancy at the age of 17. Today though, there are seemingly no clouds on the horizon.

“I am a very, very lucky woman,” she said. “I really believe that to my core. Life on life’s terms can be absolutely stunning, it can be glorious, and it can be really ‘what the f**k? You’re kidding me, right?’ You’re waiting for the Candid Camera to go ‘hey, guess what, it’s a joke.’ So what keeps me going is often the music and the connection that it provides for me. It’s like a warmth, it is a comfort, and it is a source of something I sorely need – of connection, of intimacy; with myself and, as it turns out, with the audience. Because when I’m doing my job, there’s a connection that occurs. Sometimes it’s even visible. There’s such a beauty to that, such a healing that’s possible in the moment.”

It’s a moment she felt over 40 years ago in Minneapolis, as she watched blues legend Otis Rush take the stage.

“I remember that show, even though it was a hundred years ago, even though I was drinking, and I was probably high,” she said. “I was only 14, but I was in a hurry. (Laughs) I think in pictures, really visual. My brain seems to store a lot of data in pictures. So I remember that night very clearly. It’s right there. That stinky hole of a club, filled with cigarette smoke and people that were way past their BAC - blood alcohol content - on a Tuesday night in December in Minneapolis in the middle of a whiteout snowstorm.”

She didn’t know it then, but that was the start of a musical career that would take her through 10 albums (Original is her 11th) and win her acclaim for her bluesy and soulful vocal stylings. Perhaps even more importantly, it gave her hope and made her a symbol of perseverance against the odds. That’s Detroit right there.

“I have a great pride in being a Michigander and a great pride in being from the Detroit area, and I feel that attachment and deep affection for the music that has come out of that town,” she said. “Detroit’s a tough place and there is a toughness, but there’s something about it, and I would like to think that maybe I got a little piece of that from being a native.”

Yet everything can always be traced back to that night in Minneapolis.

“I know for a fact that we never know how we are going to affect another person,” she said. “We never know how a simple act of kindness or grace will resonate in the life of another human being.”

She even remembered the now 79-year-old Rush’s birthday. Then she laughs, knowing that affecting the future of a teenager probably wasn’t foremost on the Mississippi bluesman’s mind that night.

“Did he change my life?” asks Magness. “I think so. Is that what he was intending to do? He was on tour on a Tuesday night in Minneapolis. He just wants to play the gig and get his money.”

She laughs, but when asked where she would be if not for that concert, she pauses.

“I don’t know.”

Luckily, for her and for us, she hitchhiked her way to that club, got her eyes opened to the possibilities that music held, and decades later, she made it out the other side. As for Original, it just confirms what her longtime listeners knew all along – that there are blues and soul singers, and there’s Janiva Magness, a lady in a class of her own.

“I’m happy with the record and I believe it’s some of the best work I’ve ever done over the course of my career, and that pleases me,” she said. “And I’m shocked and proud that I’ve got seven co-writes on this thing. I’ve made an entire career out of interpreting other people’s songs, which is wonderful and glorious and a lot of singers are interpreters. But the new record is a whole other level.”

There’s no argument there, and if there is, you can just take it outside with Janiva.

Janiva Magness plays the Iridium in New York City tonight, May 16. For tickets, click here

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