Honest and unapologetic, Janiva Magness proves 'Hard to Kill'
KNKX All Blues host John Kessler reviews "Hard to Kill," the latest album by singer-songwriter Janiva Magness.
Back in 2003, Janiva Magness was virtually unknown when she did a show for about 12 people in a tiny venue in Seattle. Her albums “Blues Ain’t Pretty” and “Use What You Got” were getting air play on KNKX's All Blues program.
For those who heard her, it felt like a mystery as to why she wasn’t already a world-famous blues singer. But at the time, no one knew of her personal struggles.
Here’s the thing about Magness: she makes you feel like you do know her, even if you’ve never met. Just listen to her music. She has the capacity to receive, internalize and channel emotion in a way that would likely destroy most humans.
It was true in 2003 and it’s even more evident now, with the release of her latest album. "Hard to Kill" is an honest, unapologetic statement of a singer unburdened by the need to please or succeed.
Inspired at least in part by her heart-breaking 2019 memoir "Weeds Like Us", the new album is a roller coaster of emotion. In her memoir and her music, she owns her story, sharing the struggles of her life — physical and sexual abuse, the suicides of both her parents, years in foster care, drug addiction and alcoholism, teenage pregnancy and motherhood. These are certainly part of her story, but her persistence in the face of adversity is the bigger story.
The angry, driving beat of the album’s opener “Strong as Steel” invokes icon Tina Turner, who famously triumphed over her abusive husband and manager to become mistress of her own fate. In the more reflective bridge of the song, Janiva marvels that not only did she live past her 21st birthday, but that by facing her struggles, she is stronger than her own weaknesses and stronger than her abusers.
“The Last Time,” written by John Hiatt, is another angry story of moving past a failed relationship, destroyed by betrayal.
The anger is balanced by songs like “Comes Around,” a tender ballad with the unambiguous line: “Don’t say a heart can never mend, love finds a sun to grow again.” And the love song “You and Me” declares, “broken hearts can be mended.”
Magness may be surprised by her own successes, but with songs like “I’m Still Here” and “Closer” she acknowledges and accepts the wisdom that has come from a lifetime of struggle.
The most moving song is the album’s closer, “Pearl" — a message to the daughter Magness gave up for adoption. She sings, “Don’t be mad that you’re a lot like me…My mother failed me, too…I hope your dreams come true.”
Magness gets stellar support from her band, who have been with her for many years.
Guitarist Zach Zunis plays with the soul of Steve Cropper, but with the dark tones of Keith Richards, echoing the emotional content of her lyrics. Bass player Gary Davenport mind-melds with drummer Matt Tecu, laying down intricate and melodic bass lines that are steeped in the soul of James Jamerson and Bob Babbit, two of Motown’s best bassists.
Strong and supportive keyboard work from Jim Alfredson provides another layer of complexity; there's nothing like a Hammond organ to evoke melancholy and mystery. Longtime producer Dave Darling has been intricately involved in Magness's recent success, finding just the right tones and accompaniment.
Magness left Alligator Records, the world’s biggest blues label, to start her own record company, Fathead Records. So far, the response to this first album on the new label has been overwhelmingly positive.
By rejecting the traditional success models and doing it her own way, Magness's "Hard to Kill" landed in the Billboard Top Ten Blues chart one week after it released, and was listed as the #1 blues album in the country on the Roots Music Report.
Listen for songs from Janiva Magness's "Hard to Kill" on KNKX All Blues this weekend.