It's almost a cliché that people who've suffered the most pain are also able to find solace — and even careers — in the blues. But in the case of Janiva Magness, it also happens to be true.
A Detroit-born artist who won the 2009 Blues Music Award for B.B. King Entertainer of the Year, Magness has made no secret of her early traumas: Both her parents committed suicide by the time she was 16. She also lived on the street and, as a teenage mother, gave her daughter up for adoption.
But music provided a decidedly more hopeful experience, whether listening to her dad's Patsy Cline and Bull Moose Jackson albums or sneaking into a club to see Otis Rush.
"Understanding has only come after the fact," says Magness in regard to those early years. "After somehow getting through those events, some of which were horrific, I truly feel many days like the luckiest woman alive, to have been given so many gifts through this music and the need for it."
Magness' new album, The Devil Is an Angel Too, was released in April on Alligator Records. It's a diverse collection, ranging from Memphis soulwoman Ann Peebles' signature "I'm Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down" to the poetic, Delta-inspired "Weeds Like Us."
The latter, written by Magness' husband and frequent collaborator Jeff Turmes, includes the memorable refrain, "Every day is an act of will / Weeds like us are hard to kill." With its swampy, stripped-down arrangement, the song could easily stand alongside the best tracks on a Tony Joe White album.
"I never want to make the same record twice," explains Magness, who's recorded eight of them over the last decade. "A lot of folks do that, and it's fine for them. But since I seem to be evolving, I would like to reflect that. I want to choose the songs that best serve my current truth."
All that truth-telling, the Los Angeles resident believes, has helped others in their own struggle. For the past four years, she's been a national spokesperson for Casey Family Programs, an organization that advocates on behalf of foster care and improving the child welfare system. She's also a devoted grandmother, having managed to reconnect with the daughter she had to let go of as a teenage mother.
And then there was the trip to Iraq and Afghanistan, where she performed for the troops. "I remembering standing on an airstrip in Iraq," she says, "talking with one soldier who was about to be discharged due to PTSD, which I also suffer from." Being able to reassure him that he'd pull through was, for Magness, analogous to the connection she makes through her music.
"If I can bring myself to be honest about my experiences — even the terribly difficult and painful ones — it helps someone else understand that they, too, will get through. And that also helps me to heal."
Which is not to imply that it's an easy path: "I can be a very slow learner," says Magness. "I am profoundly grateful to have been wrong about what I was sure was gonna happen to me in the end. It's very good to be wrong, very good. It leaves a wide berth for my destiny, which appears to have much to do with this great American art form and helping other folks in their struggle. How cool is that?"