Detroit-born, Grammy-nominated blues star Janiva Magness has a voice like warm suede. It's smooth when it needs to be—gentle and calming. But when necessary, it will rough you up. She can move around a syllable like it's a dance partner, manipulating it like silly putty. She's frankly wonderful, and also startlingly prolific. Her Blue Again album is out this year, and her subsequent tour sees her stop off in Tucson. We spoke to her about the five albums that shaped her career.
With Diunna Greenleaf on Friday, Sept. 29, at 7:30 p.m., 191 Toole, 191 East Toole, $20-$25, 21+.
Rocks the House
This album, which is an early live recording of her, without a doubt did everything to lead me to see Etta James in a live performance during the early 1980's in Phoenix, AZ, where I lived at the time. That led me to race to buy tickets when she came to town in a three-way package where she opened for Martha Reeves. That was an unbelievable show and her performance gave me a much deeper understanding of what to reach for as a singer and performer. I had a lot of work to do.
Most especially the first track for that album, "I Smell a Rat," was so devastating a performance. It was spellbinding and remains so every time I have heard it since. This is the album that really turned me on to Buddy Guy.
This impacted me in the very same way that the Etta recording drove me to be first in line to buy tickets, and see a live performance of Koko Taylor. I loved that record and played it incessantly. Learning every nuance, cry and growl as best I could. That was also in the '80s in Phoenix. It was a club called Chuy's back then and it was a fantastic cavalcade of blues and jazz performers. A great time to be in the wake of the current of touring blues artists. So Koko Taylor and Her Blues Machine came to town and tore it up from end to end. Inspirational performances by a head-cutting band that left me exhilarated and exhausted.
I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You
Lord have mercy. I had always stopped dead in my tracks and reached to turn up anything on the radio if I heard Aretha singing. But this album I wore out. Trying to sing along, learning every curl and turn and subtitle she sang as best as I could. The proverbial meditations in music so to speak always applied to me. That was how I learned songs. That was my woodshed. But Aretha required a new level of work entirely. Her command of her instrument—the quality of her voice—and true emoting were incomparable. If I could find even a nugget of that for myself, then I was doing great—that is what I decided. So I got to work.
Blood on the Tracks
When I was a young girl, my brothers listened to Bob Dylan in the 1960s and I thought, "Why is he so whiney?" The level of personal for me with this collection of Dylan songs is impossibly beautiful. I listened obsessively to this when it came out and still do. It got me through a very dark period of my life. Somehow he gave permission to me, through this music, at that time, to be perfectly human, perfectly broken and it helped me to keep walking in spite of all my humanness. It can make me melancholy, sad and very nostalgic.