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Kevin Umlauf

Song craft

Profile image for By Lucinda Breeding
By Lucinda Breeding

Janiva Magness says she wasn’t born with the big bluesy voice that’s her bread and butter.

For the California artist, her voice is the result of work, discipline and more work.

Practice makes nearly perfect, if you measure the critical acclaim and peer support for an album. And Magness’ latest Alligator Records release, Stronger for It (2012), earned a truckload of both.

Magness doesn’t play coy when pressed about the origins of her wide-ranged, rasping voice. She didn’t stand on a coffee table at age 3 to silence a dinner party with precocious pipes like many a music diva.

“Hell, no,” Magness said. “Hell. No. I’m a really disciplined singer. I spent a lot of time developing my sound, and my voice really didn’t get big and bodacious until I was in my mid- to late 20s, really. But I always listened to Coco Taylor and Etta James, though. I listened to women like that, and admired them, because they had these huge voices. Powerful voices.”

Magness, who was born in Detroit and came of age during the golden years of Motown, has the vocal heft of Susan Tedeschi. Her projection is an enviable thing, a performance hall-filling instrument. The woodwind-like steadiness of tone — spiked with that gratifying, gravelly edge — is reminiscent of English blues prodigy Sam Brown (before a vocal cord condition cut Brown’s blues-dive wailing short for good, of course).

Magness shuts down the Denton Blues Festival this weekend, capping the two-day music festival with some standards and possibly some of her songs from Stronger for It.

Magness is watching her career with Alligator pivot in a direction that wasn’t predicted.

“I’m known as an interpreter of other people’s songs,” she said. “Songwriting is a new thing for me, and something I hope to continue.”

Magness said she’s superstitious about making records.

“I don’t want to do too much planning when I’m working on a record,” she said. “I don’t want to impede the muse, you know? I want to avail myself of the creative process and then get out of the way. It’s like planting early seeds. You put things where you feel like they should go, you take care of them and then in the spring, the flowers come up.”

She’s a little superstitious about songwriting, too. All three of her original songs — “There It Is,” “Whistling in the Dark” and “I Won’t Cry” — evolved differently.

“‘Whistling in the Dark’ came from a lyric that I wrote, for the most part. I took it to my producer, Dave Darling, and he wrote the music. I took it to Dave and told him I thought there was something here, and he agreed. With ‘I Won’t Cry,’ Dave had something. He had some music and we created something from it.

“I’m definitely more of a lyricist than I am a music writer,” she said. “But it’s something I want to keep doing.”

Magness said she felt the three tracks fit in with the mood and context of the other songs she recorded by iconic and rising artists.

“The arc of it is like a story,” she said about the record. “I think that’s one of the reasons that record has done so well. For me, a record needs to have some kind of arc.”

Stronger for It has some songs from considerable artists. Magness strips down Grace Potter’s “Ragged Company” to its essentials, and her cover turns out to be a tribute to Potter’s considerable talent as a singer and a songwriter.

“First of all, I love Grace Potter,” Magness said. “And that tune is such an intimate piece, such a beautiful piece. It’s such an intimate portrait of someone — in this case, a woman who knows that wherever she runs, there she is. It doesn’t matter how far she goes, she’s saying, ‘I’m on my own. I’m going to do this.’”

Magness had to stalk the song from a distance before she and Darling decided it had to be on the record.

“I remember thinking, ‘Oh my God, I love that song. I don’t think I can sing it. I can’t sing it. Can I?’ So, yeah, we ended up putting it on the record.”

She also handpicked the muse of many a Denton folk artist for the record: Tom Waits. She puts her own twist on Waits’ “Make It Rain.”

Magness saw a musician in a concert in Canada who covered the song.

“I heard that song and got freaked out,” she said. “I heard it and just freaked out. It was like, ‘I’ve got to sing that song.”

The track is another somebody-done-somebody-wrong tale, expressed in Waits’ simple poetry (“They sharpen their knives on my mistakes…/Without your love, without your kiss, hell can’t burn me more than this”). What feels like a beatnik’s art song is retrofitted to the blues with such aplomb that Magness makes it feel like something freed from her darkest, dustiest closet.

She also borrows from Ray Wylie Hubbard’s music for the album, and even rummaged through 1990s pop giant Matthew Sweet’s catalog of hooky confections for the record. She took his pop-rock “Thought I Knew You” and turned it to a funk number.

Magness said she’s drawn to the blues because of the way it expresses the character of the country.

“It’s really the only music that’s ever made sense for me. I think that it has to do with the fact that it’s the music of the American people,” she said. “It’s a great American art form. It’s really my experience of blues and rhythm and blues that it’s the expression of hardworking American people, and an expression of a journey through some really hard things, and coming through the other side. Sometimes people say blues is three chords and the truth.”

LUCINDA BREEDING can be reached at 940-566-6877. Her e-mail address is


What: The Denton Black Chamber of Commerce’s festival features two stages with local, regional and national blues talent.

When: 1 to 10 p.m. Saturday and Sunday

Where: Quakertown Park, 321 E. McKinney St.

Details: Admission is free. Forty vendors will sell concessions and goods.

On the Web:



Main Stage

1 p.m. — Showcase band

2:30 p.m. — Showcase band

4 p.m. — Jerry Clark

5:30 p.m. — Legacy 4

7 p.m. — Lucky Peterson

9 p.m. — Kenny Neal

Community Stage

Music starts at 1 p.m.



Michael Todd and Parlay Influence

Bone Doggie & the Hickory Street Hellraisers



Main Stage

1 p.m. — Showcase band

2:30 p.m. — Showcase band

4 p.m. — Larry Lampkin

5:30 p.m. — Elvis T. Busboy

7 p.m. — Janiva Magness

Community Stage

Music starts at 1 p.m.

Mr. LB


Alex Dowidchuk Trio