CEDAR RAPIDS – Janiva Magness, this year’s Bluesmore headliner, sings the blues because she’s lived the blues. Music has saved her life.
After losing both parents to suicide by the time she turned 16, Magness was living on the streets, revolving through foster homes. Pregnant at 17, she gave up her baby for adoption. The Detroit native gravitated to Minneapolis, where still underage, she sneaked into a club to see blues giant Otis Rush.
And she was home.
“I tried really, really, really hard to curl up and die, and I couldn’t affect that,” she says by phone from Los Angeles, where Magness, now 55, has lived since 1986. She’ll share more of the difficult, intimate details in her forthcoming memoir. But for now, the singer who inherited a family name pronounced JAN-uh-vuh, stemming from her French roots and passed through the generations, bares her soul through music.
She’ll bring her passion born of pathos to the Bluesmore stage on the sweeping front lawn at Brucemore in Cedar Rapids on Saturday. Gates open at 3 p.m. for the 19th annual event, presented by the Linn County Blues Society and Brucemore.
The music starts at 4 p.m., with BF Burt and the Instigators from Coralville, followed by the award-winning Chris Beard Band from Rochester, N.Y., then Magness, winner of the prestigious B.B. King Entertainer of the Year award in 2009 and three-time Contemporary Blues Female Artist of the Year.
- Bluesmore runs 4 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Saturday; gates open 3 p.m. at Brucemore estate, 2160 Linden Dr. SE., Cedar Rapids
- COST: $13 adults, $12 students, Brucemore and Linn County Blues Society members in advance; $15 at the gate; free ages 10 and under with adult; Brucemore.org
- WHO: Mainstage: BF Burt and The Instigators, The Chris Beard Band, Janiva Magness; Back Porch Stage: Tommy Bruner and D.J. Johnson with student musicians
- EXTRAS: Only handicapped parking on the grounds via Dows Lane; food and drink vendors on site, no pets, coolers or outside food allowed; bring seating
- DETAILS: Brucemore.org, lcbs.org
Her latest release, “Stronger for It,” continues her catharsis through music, with cover tunes by Tom Waits, Shelby Lynne, Matthew Sweet and others, as well as three songs from her first foray into writing what’s in her heart: “Whistling in the Dark,” “I Won’t Cry” and “There It Is.”
She says “it was just time” to dip into songwriting, but proclaims the process “terrifying, exhilarating, horrific, magnificent and everything in between — really fun and really scary.”
Her Cedar Rapids concert, one of about 150 to 180 gigs she does each year, will draw largely from her new disc, released in March. She admits her schedule is “pretty intense,” but she says she loves to work and enjoys the way live performances let her connect directly with her listeners.
“I get to make that magnificent sort of ethereal exchange with the audience,” she says. “I get to watch the expression on their faces as we make the connection. Concerts are like little stories, little movies, vignettes, and I get to witness that. I talk to fans after the show, sign CDs and talk about foster care. It’s pretty exciting. I love live performances.”
She’s no stranger to Eastern Iowa, having played in Davenport, Des Moines and many times in Iowa City. The baby girl she gave up for adoption all those years ago, Jacqueline Krain, grew up in Bode in north-central Iowa, sang with Iowa City band The Tornadoes and owned The Siren on South Dubuque Street.
“I did a regular swing through there,” Magness says. “That worked out nice; we could usually at least have a short visit.”
The Iowa City nightclub closed in 2005, and Krain, who was 18 when she met her birth mother, has moved to the East Coast. Magness is excited about coming to Cedar Rapids.
“One of the great things about playing Iowa — and really, the Midwest — people really ‘get’ the music.”
Her music is her life and her life is her music, sung with gutsy raw power. The turbulence of her youth “has everything to do” with the person and musician she’s become.
“There is not a separation,” she says. “In this case, there’s no separation of church and state. It completely has shaped my craft, totally informed my life experiences and completely informed my craft.”
The dark days after her parents’ deaths gave her dark thoughts, as well.
“I really didn’t want to be here, and that was an idea that I had most of my life,” she says. Music became one of her lifelines, her salvation.
“When a child is drowning and somebody tosses the rope, there’s not really a thought process that occurs there, you just grab the rope. One of the ropes for me was music, because it connected me to life in a way that up until that point I was not truly connected. It tethered me. Up until that point, I was untethered, which is not an uncommon experience of a foster child. It is excruciating to be in the world and be untethered. I was one of those kids,” she says.
She actually grew up listening to a cross-section of music through her father’s record collection, leaning toward the country classics of Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Kitty Wells, Buck Owens and the Buckaroos, as well as the smooth sounds of Nat King Cole. Then she discovered the blues, which has buoyed her ever since.
She’s coming off one of her darkest adult years, but now she’s able to call even that journey “remarkable,” largely because of the aptly titled “Stronger For It” album.
“The short version” of what she’s communicating through the collection, she says, is that “no matter what difficulties life may be presenting us with, keep trudging through and we do come out on the other side, and in my case, I came out stronger for it,” she says.
“2011, which is when the record was made, was an amazing year — it was a remarkable year,” she says. “I had the best touring year I’ve ever had thus far. I buried eight people very dear to me, including my brother and the only mother I ever really knew. My cat died the week before Christmas and I lost a 17-year marriage.
“But I made a record. And I take my work very personally, so it came out on the record,” she says. “It isn’t just about the loss of a long-term marriage. It isn’t just about the loss of my oldest brother. It’s not about any one thing. It’s about (how) everybody gets their turn in the pan. We all know that, and a lot of people were in the frying pan in 2011, and that pan was turned up to 10. I was one of those people. It was the most extreme high and lowest of lows. It was intense. It was schizophrenic. It was loud.”
She is recovering from that year and all the other years.
“I’m still climbing out,” she says. “The truth is, mostly I have good days. Most days my heart is open, and that is nothing short of a miracle. I do feel, and I do truly believe, that I’m a very, very, very lucky woman.”
She gives much credit to another of her lifelines, the foster mother who died in November and the reason Magness is an ambassador for foster care.
“To have been struck at such a young age and tethered to music and to be given the gift of having someone stand up for me when I was so young and in such trouble — when I couldn’t stand up for myself — that’s where I’m talking about foster care,” Magness says.
“Finding the right placement, finding the right fit, what a game-changer that was. To change one thing in the life of a kid who was in trouble changed everything.”
— Diana Nollen