Little could we have suspected it when last we encountered her, which was at the 2011 Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues Festival here in Bloomington.
But Janiva Magness was smack in the middle of one of the most remarkable years of her frankly remarkable life.
As in: remarkably good and remarkably awful.
“It was a stellar year for me,” she confesses in preparation for her third Twin Cities show in four years, at 7:45 p.m. Wednesday in Bloomington’s Castle Theatre (her first show under a roof after two outdoor blues fests).
The interview is taking place on the same day that she has just received word of the passing of a dear friend, which — as if she needs to be reminded — reinforces a key conviction: namely, that you better darned well make the best of the moment at hand, and treat everyone you care about accordingly.
The interview goes on, but the toll the heartbreaking news has taken is audible at the other end of the phone.
“In terms of my career, it was an amazing year when it all came together — the best touring year I’ve ever had. It was great for work.”
Not to mention recognition: Nominated for four 2011 Blues Music Awards (B.B. King Entertainer of the Year, Album of the Year for “The Devil Is an Angel, Too,” Contemporary Blues Female Artist of the Year and Contemporary Blues Album of the Year).
Two years earlier, she’d become only the second woman, after Koko Taylor, to ever win the B.B. King award.
Great times, musically; great rewards, professionally.
“On a personal level, it was … pretty challenging,” says the singer, who’s life and times are almost a working definition for those latter two words.
“I buried eight people in 2011, including my oldest brother and the woman who was the only mother I ever really knew (her real mother took her life before Janiva was 13). I lost my 17-year marriage. And my cat died the week before Christmas … and I made a record and I had the best touring year I ever had.”
So why WOULDN’T you christen the album that was being made through all of this “Stronger For It”?
“It was the lowest of the lows, and to just say that I felt insane or schizophrenic is to miss the personal experience,” she says. “So I made a record where every current of that year comes through it.”
The album’s dedication puts it up front: “This CD is dedicated to some of my deepest losses and uglier crossroads … teaching me lessons I never wanted to learn … which, as it turns out, begat some of the greatest gifts of my life … yeah, go figure.”
In a nutshell that deserves a memoir, prior to 2011, Janiva (pronounced JAN-iva) Magness lost both of her parents to suicide by the time she was 16; wound up fending for herself on the streets of Detroit at 13; bounced through a dozen foster homes; began suffering post-traumatic stress disorder; became a teen mother; gave away her baby for adoption; and was left contemplating suicide herself.
“I don’t mind talking about my history as long it serves a purpose,” she says of this traumatic beginning.
“Everybody’s got a story … it’s just that some people have more drama and some have less drama.” Bottom line: “My story is pretty dramatic.”
Her savior was a single mom with five kids who worked as a drug and alcohol counselor, and who helped an 18-year-old Janiva find her way back from the brink.
“Did I turn around on a dime? No.” But it was a beginning.
Accordingly, she is in her sixth consecutive year as national spokeswoman for Casey Family Programs, promoting National Foster Care Month and an Ambassador for Foster Care Alumni of America.
Then along came the music.
“As a little girl, I was always the one who knew all the words to all of the songs to all of the commercials on radio and TV,” Magness recalled in her first GO! interview in 2008. “And I never had a problem understanding the words to the songs of the Stones and James Brown. I just got it.”
The turning point was a concert she attended featuring blues great Otis Rush.
“I’ll never forget that he was so riveting, so fully committed to his craft, to the music, to every note on the guitar, to every word that he sang. There was rage … desperation ... tremendous joy … all of it, all night long.”
More than 30 years later, the 55-year-old singer knows the battle of life never ends, no matter how much of it you try to put behind you.
Witness 2011: the best of times, the worst of times.
“Thank God I have the benefit of having been through some of these things in my life already, because I don’t think I would have been able to traverse what happened last year without that skill,” she says.
Magness makes it clear she’s not alone traversing this particular road.
“A lot of people were in the frying pan in 2011,” she says. “I wasn’t the only one. I know a lot of people who were saying ‘what the hell is going on — this is insane!’ And I didn’t take comfort in their pain, and I didn’t take comfort in knowing I wasn’t alone — that I wasn’t the only one being picked on by the universe.”
Magness embraced her musical being to make sense of it all, even to the point of attempting something she’d never dared in her 35 years as a singer: writing her own songs.
“Oh my god, the reaction — it’s been so strong … people really seem to dig them … and when the people at Alligator (Records, her label) freaked out after hearing them, I got really excited.”
There you go, then: part of what made 2011 as euphoric as it was awful.
Until this week of 2012, when another loss has hit Janiva Magness between the eyes and left her still reeling, “it’s been an interesting year, with its ups and downs. But I am getting older, and life does have a beginning, a middle and an end. I know I’m in the end game right now, and that makes me acutely aware that life is very fragile.”
If she can pass along only one piece of advice to anyone listening, it is this: “These things happen to us not when we plan them. I’m not saying we need to be walking around thinking about death all the freaking time … but, for God’s sake, walk more carefully … treat people with more kindness than you might be inclined.
“Because I promise you, you’ll never know when it’s the last time you get to say ‘hello’ or ‘I love you’ to someone you care about.”
Janiva Magness has learned that lesson the hard way and is stronger for it — but what price strength?
At a glance
What: Janiva Magness
When: 7:45 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Castle Theatre, 209 W. Washington St., Bloomington
Tickets: $14 to $17
Box office: 309-820-0352
A hard road
Blues singer Janiva Magness has endured, and triumphed over, more adversity in her 55 years than any of us would want to experience. Before she reached the age of 18, that hard road included these obstacles:
- When she was 13, her mother committed suicide.
- She ran away from home that year, fending for herself on the mean streets of Detroit.
- Over the next two years, she bounced through a dozen foster homes.
- She became hooked on drugs and alcohol.
- She checked into three psychiatric centers.
- Before she was 16, she became pregnant and gave away her baby.
- Following her mother’s suicide several years before, her father took his life.
- Janiva was tempted to follow suit: "I wasn't so sure I wanted to be around; I mean, why would I?"
va was tempted to follow suit: “I wasn’t so sure I wanted to be around; I mean, why would I?”