Gary James' Interview With
Janiva Magness

The Blues Foundation named her the B.B. King Entertainer Of The Year in 2009. That same year she was named the Contemporary Blues Female Artist Of The Year, an honor she had previously been awarded in 2006 and 2007. We are talking about Janiva Magness.

Q - Janiva, do you have to have the blues to sing the Blues?

A - (laughs) You know, here's my take on that idea. I think that the Blues as a genre, old music as a genre, in and of itself is one of the greatest American art forms that exists, period. I believe that those people, that those of us that are tap rooted there, are drawn to it usually out of great struggle. It's the thing that makes sense because it's like salve to a wound. Music in itself is such a powerful force. It's a healing thing. We are drawn to it or as in my case which is more accurately to say I was taken hostage by it, in every good way possible. It took me. It just took me. And that turned out to be a really good thing.

Q - Would you classify yourself as a Blues singer?

A - I would actually. That's where my home has been for so very, very long. It's not a one dimensional genre. It never has been. It's not a one dimensional situation if you will. I'm definitely categorized by the Blues Foundation in Memphis, Tennessee as a Contemporary Blues artist. I think that's accurate. I think with the framework of Americana, which is I guess our multi-syllable word for Folk music. (laughs) Folk has never been a four letter word to me. If you look at the accurate definition of it, it's going to include Blues. Blues is Folk music. So, in the very beginning of it, in the Sun House, in the early roots of it, yeah. The music business requires that we have a place to put things.

Q - I would imagine there's not a lot of women out there singing the material you're singing. Would I be correct?

A - There's a lot of female Blues artists these days. There's a tremendous amount of talent, but there aren't a lot of singer / songwriters, which apparently I'm turning into. I think there are fewer of us, in the Traditional Contemporary Blues genre.

Q - I would say in the last fifty years a singer more or less had to write their own material and probably a little more.

A - Well, I'm not sure I would agree with that, but I think it has to do with longevity. I understand what your point is, but I've had almost an entire career carved out of interpreting other people's songs. I don't think I'm in the same category as Billie Holiday and many, many other artists that are now heralded and held up very high interpreting other people's material. Billie wrote a little bit, but not a lot. She considered herself a Blues singer who was singing popular music. I see what you're saying and for longevity that's probably true. If you want to sustain yourself as an artist, the reality is in order to be a participant in your own destiny, you gotta be hands and feet in the game and part of that these days is writing.

Q - Do you believe, as Mick Jagger said, "It's hard to write a good Blues song"?

A - Absolutely. I think it's hard to write any kind of good song. I think it's what my producer says, "Song writing is really easy. You take a blank piece of paper, put it in on the desk in front of you and you stare at it 'til blood comes out of your forehead."

Q - That's contrary to what I've been told by singer / songwriters who are able to write a hit song in say five minutes.

A - It happens for some people. A "hit" means it's popular. It doesn't necessarily mean it's a well-crafted song. A lot of them are, but not all of them. We all know that. A bunch of songs on the new release have a lot of chart activity and that's really been a happy and wonderful and beautiful surprise to me, but the number one Blues song for three weeks in a row was an original. The track was called "I Need A Man", track number four, the number one Blues song for three weeks in a row. I wrote the lyric. Dave wrote the music. He gave it to me and he goes, "Go home, write this." And I just sat there and sat there and sat there and sat there. I was so exhausted from touring and trying to get things done at the studio. It was really, really intense and then it started to come and I got a couple of lines. It took me a couple of days. Then it all came. And that was the lyric. It's happened for me before a couple of times, but it's not the norm.

Q - When you see a Miley Cyrus or Jennifer Lopez getting all of this attention, what goes through your mind? A - I'm happy for them. I'm happy to see women get recognition. I like J-Lo actually quite a bit.

Q - She doesn't sing like you.

A - Of course not.

Q - Miley Cyrus doesn't sing like you.

A - Of course not. They don't sing like me. Do I wish that they were doing something different? I don't know. What they do is not what I do. They're serving a different master shall we say. I don't like that word, but I'm not sure what the right word is. They're serving a different path than I am. I believe very deeply in this idea of the muse. I believe in her. I'm quite superstitious of her. I'm quite superstitious about making records and the pre-production and planning and all of that. I don't want to impede. I want to do what I can do as much as I can to be in the flow of her, but I don't want to get in the way.

Q - You have to be in the right place at the right time.

A - I try. I try to get as much of myself out of the way to serve the process, to serve the song, to have it kind of come through me. I learned a while ago that really the job, the actual job is about connection and that the vehicle is music. If I'm doing my job, a connection is going to occur with me and the audience whether that's somebody listening to a record or present at a 'live' show. I gotta do everything that I can to get out of the way of that, to not have my ego or horse shit in the way, the chatter in my head, you know? Get out of my way and give myself to it if you will. When I'm able to do that, it's really wonderful. It's really beautiful. That's what I'm trying to serve.

Q - You record for two labels, Northern Blues and Alligator. How much promotion do they give you?

A - Well, I was on Northern for two records. I was on Alligator for three. I was on Blues Leaf, which is another very small label out of New Jersey, prior to Northern and then I had a couple of my own releases prior to that. Northern did pretty well in the publicity department. They hired a publicist. They did pretty good. Alligator has an entire staff, in-house publicity and house radio people. So, they do pretty good within the framework of certain perimeters.

Q - Do those labels offer tour support to someone like yourself?

A - What is that? What does that mean anymore?

Q - I'll tell you what it means.

A - Okay.

Q - When someone like yourself goes on tour on the road, someone has to pay for a bus, musicians' salary, their meals, their hotel.

A - (laughs)

Q - You have to have an agent, a manager, a road manager, maybe a tour manager. The expense of putting an act on the road. Where does that money come from?

A - You don't have to have all of that. If I was a big Rock show, I would have to have all of that. I'm not a big Rock show. I'm a very independent artist that has been blessed with some wonderful recognition. The bus is a short bus. I own it. When I say a short bus I'm talking about a fifteen passenger van. I own it. I do have a booking agent. I'd love to have a manager, but it's real hard to find one that makes sense 'cause a lot of people call themselves that word, but they're not really those people. The upper echelon of those people don't really show up until they smell enough money to make it make sense. Okay? I have a great agency, booking agent. My tour manager is one of the people that's been in my band for over twelve years who pretty much can read the wrinkle on the left side of my cheek. He can read me like a book and he pretty much knows where all the bodies are buried. The short answer is, that all comes out of my pocket. Sometimes touring makes money. It's the cost of doing business.

Q - How do you make that money up? Do you have merchandising?

A - A little bit of merchandise, yeah.

Q - Hats?

A - No hats. There's a point where if you have your staff you can increase the options for revenue. When the staff is small as in my case, drum space, guitar, Hammond B-3 and me and then the road manager is in house, then there's only so much you can do. We have to be able to do the show. That's the point is the show. That's the point of all of these shenanigans. (laughs) Is it for the faint of heart? Absolutely not. Is it a blessing? Completely. The level that I operate on is very much independent artist, smaller. Sometimes I make money. Sometimes I don't. That's just the short version of it. My accountant at the end of the year is not always jumping for joy. Let's put it that way. So now, I'm the record company. To answer your original question, which is tour support, it doesn't really exist anymore. It doesn't happen anymore. That's just not the reality for the majority of touring artists. I suppose for The Stones it might be, but aren't they their own label anyway?

Q - I don't know the answer to that, but I don't think they have to worry anymore.

A - Okay. And Jimmy Buffett, he doesn't have to worry about it anymore either. He's one of the smartest businessmen out there. But there are also very hands and feet in the business. They have enough success where they can hire the proper infrastructure. So, outside of that, this concept that used to be a reality, tour support doesn't exist anymore. It's not real. So, Alligator didn't really do that. Northern Blues didn't really do that. They fulfilled a contract, which means I'm going to make a record for you, I'm going to commit to touring and driving from Hell to breakfast for a certain period of time. I'm going to give you a certain amount of control and you're going to give me a loan to make a record. Then we're going to make the record and then I'm going to spend a year or more beating the crap out of myself driving from Hell to breakfast to try and pay back the loan, pennies at a time. That's just Music Business 101 and what it is right now.

Q - When you say you drive, are you getting behind the wheel of that fifteen seat passenger van at the end of the gig?

A - No. We don't do the night drive thing. I won't do that. It's too dangerous. I don't have like a separate driver. I've done that before, but we're a pretty efficient machine. I don't drive because I spend a lot of time sleeping or I'm on the phone doing interviews. But the guys all drive. It's a pretty finely tuned machine in terms of how we operate in business and how we are on the bandstand. So yeah, this idea of tour support doesn't exist anymore. But now I'm the record company, so now I have all the control and I have all of the worry. (laughs) It comes back to me.

Q - And, if everything goes right, you make the money!

A - In theory, yeah. And it was time. It was time for me to do that. This record of original songs, it wasn't going to get made any other way. I had to completely take the reins. I had to cut the ties and say, "Thank you very much. It's been wonderful and now I've got to go." I'm really, really happy that I took that leap, as terrifying as it was, it's turned out to be the right move.

Q - What is the market place like for your music? Do you perform in bars?

A - Little bit. I played a bar last night. I do a lot of theatre type settings. Festivals. I played at this place last night and we've been playing there for years, Wednesday night, Lincoln, Nebraska. It was called The Zoo Bar and it's pretty aptly named. It's the right name for the joint. I just love The Zoo Bar. That place is notorious. It's been there since 1973. Here's the thing; The market for strictly Blues has been shrinking at a frighteningly rapid pace for a long time. So, in order to survive and still be a vital artist that is able to tour, it forces us as touring Blues musicians, contemporary or otherwise, traditional or otherwise, to push the envelope to try and break out into other kinds of venues. I've done pretty well at that. Intrepid Artists, my booking agency, has done a pretty good job at that, pushing out into other kinds of venues, Jazz clubs, places like that. It doesn't mean I change what I do. I just do what I do. It's kind of Popeye The Sailor Man. I am what I am. But the places I present the show have had to grow, and I've grown that. And I'm grateful for that. It's grown my audience. It's grown my market.

Q - What is it that you'd like to achieve down the road?

A - (laughs) I was gonna say break even. What I'm looking to achieve that I haven't already done? I'd like to write some more songs. I'd like to work less and make more money so that I don't have to work quite so hard. I'm working on ways to try and create ways of doing that.

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