Interview: Janiva Magness on Defining Americana, Trust, and Music as Wind in People’s Sails



Janiva Magness has a new album out Love Is An Army (Blue Elan). When Americana Highways called Magness on the phone to chat about the album, it was the weekend we as a nation had all been watching the high schoolers marching against gun violence all across the country. The news was still coming in on all channels, so we fell in right away discussing whether music has a role in helping change things. “It has everything to do with inspiring and encouraging people to move forward,” Magness offered. “What’s happening right now feels like 1968 again.   Music — bands, artists, musicians, songwriters — had a lot to do with encouraging people to move forward for change then. Clearly we need great change again now, and it isn’t just this country, by the way. It’s the world. Our actions need to wildly change in many ways.   There’s an entire path of artists certainly that have come before me, and I pray that come after me, that feel it is our responsibility to be the wind in peoples’ sails. Music is the taproot of the power of change, it’s the taproot power for things that words alone just don’t access. I believe that humanity desperately needs to remember that, to remember our heart space, to reconnect with our inner beings.”

Would you say music recalls prior times at the same time that it inspires?  “I remember Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth,” I remember when those students got shot at Kent State, I know exactly where I was when JFK got shot. I know where I was when I heard that Dr. Martin Luther King had been assassinated and Malcolm X too.   These are not things you can wash away from the mind of a young person. Great change was needed then and great change is needed now. We need to make that connection on a nonverbal level that helps us lift up, and music does that. I am so proud of our young people. What happened yesterday was so beautiful. It brings me to tears. Love and hope are so much stronger than the few people in power who’d like to stop young people from feeling empowered.”

Let’s talk about your album, Love Is An Army, a little bit. Tell us about your special guests! “I had amazing guests on the record. Charlie Musselwhite is a love machine, he is so sweet and kind and a thoughtful person; he is extremely gracious. I’ve known him for some time. He is an absolute delight.   Rusty Young (Buffalo Springfield) is a label mate of mine, he used to play in Poco. The song that he plays on, “On and On” I was initially resistant to recording.   I had been struggling with my producer, Dave Darling, about it; I kept saying I am not connecting with the song. Fortunately I trust him, so I followed his lead, and I’ll tell you the moment when it all came together; it was the moment when Rusty played his part on the track.”

‘The equipment had arrived earlier, and Rusty had arrived with an entourage, and he sat down to play the lap steel. He plinks around a little bit then he looks up, and 12-15 people are standing around. It was not very private. It was a huge ensemble. He looks up at Dave and says “This is a left-handed instrument.” Everybody stops breathing, because clearly Rusty is not left-handed. But he plunked a little bit more, then looked up and said “oh what the hell” and then he just dove in.”

“So, first of all, this guy is a total pro.   This required him to have a totally different orientation, and we’re recording, so he’s also got to do it flawlessly.  It was f-ng brilliant.   Everyone was screaming at that point. That was the moment when that song dropped into place for me. The moment crystallized the beauty of trusting deeply enough to dive in. For me it was trusting my producer, because he does hear the songs’ potentials. I’m grateful for him and Rusty for showing me how to dive in. And I love the song by the way. The song is about persistence! And it’s also about how we are so much closer to being able to effect change than we think we are. A beautiful moment.”

Delbert McClinton was another guest, on “What Could I Do?” We were thrilled that he said yes to sing this duet with me. It also happens to be a Paul Thorn song, which he had not previously released. And then Courtney Hartman is lovely and incredible talented from a band called Della Mae, she plays guitar and banjo on “Down Below” and just absolutely made that track come together. Cedric Burnside is also a dear friend, he did the duet on “Home” which is probably the most aggressive of the protest songs. Half the record is protest material. Burnside plays some of the wildest psychedelic guitar that I’ve heard in a long time.   Bryan Stephens who is also a label mate did the duet with me on the title track. He knocked it out of the park. Those are all the guests.”

How shall we define Americana music? “First of all, Americana music is not identified by any one particular thing but it is a melting pot, like a “soul stew” of elements that are all based in American roots music. So it’s not strictly straight-up folk music, it’s not strictly straight-up country elements, it’s not strictly blues-related but it does have blues elements in it, it’s not strictly soul-related but it has soul elements. It’s really a soul stew in terms of genres of music, it has elements of several different American roots based music played by actual musicians on actual instruments.   As a genre it truly represents one of the greatest things about this country; that is what this nation is based on, it is what this nation is, we are a melting pot.”

“This is what our country was founded on. Patchwork quilt, babe! The most relevant genre is Americana because it contains all those elements. It’s inclusive, not exclusive.   We not only need that more than ever as a nation, we need that as a race of human beings. This is my fourteenth album so I’ve been at this for some time, and I can say that when you watch what becomes popular, watching what strikes a chord with people over and over and over again, it’s real music, played by real musicians, on real instruments that are executing actual songs.“

“I’m not saying there’s no room for “baby, baby, baby” songs, but that’s somebody else’s job, that’s not my job. It can’t be my job. What we need is to have our heartstrings plucked by actual music played by actual musicians on actual instruments. And by the way that is one of the definitions of Americana music by the Americana Music Association AND by the recording academy – our friends at the GRAMMYs – that is the definition of Americana music, that there are not synthesized elements.”

What’s on the horizon for Janiva Magness?   “We have some shows in the month of April, we’re going to the East coast, City Winery in Nashville, TinPan in Richmond, Vienna, VA, “Live Watch” on WTMD radio in Towson, MD, ending in NYC at the Iridium, and a lot of places in between. ” Check her website for a copy of her album and more tour dates, here.



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