Janiva Magness to Play CD Preview Show at the Iridium, 5/16
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 Magnessalso 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."