Blueswomen Magness Takes On…. Herself
Janiva Magness — Hard to Kill
There is a special thrill in listening to an album you have never heard before, especially from an artist you have never really listened to. And whole other, higher, level of thrill when the album turns out to be as strong as Janiva Magness’ Hard to Kill.
I think I was unfamiliar with Magness because she comes out of a musical tradition – the blues – which, although closely related to the folk/country/Americana music I typically listen to, has its own culture. Hard to Kill is a powerful reminder that, when it comes to music, labels often hide as much as they reveal.
In the world of contemporary blues, Magness is a star – a seven-time Blues Music Awards recipient (and the 2009 B.B. King Entertainer of the Year, the Blues Foundation’s highest honor) and 2016 Grammy Award nominee. But her music, and especially this new album, hits themes that will resonate much more broadly and offers music that is not just accessible to non-blues listeners, but inspiring.
Magness, who co-wrote four of the dozen new compositions on Hard to Kill, says of her new collection of songs, “I feel like it’s a retrospective — not just of my musical life, but of my life. At this point, with what I’ve been through in my life, top to bottom, you know what, the gloves are off, and the rules are, there really aren’t any rules.”
That “no rules” attitude is all over Hard to Kill, both lyrically and musically. Magness is undisputedly rooted in the blues, but she’s not a blues purist. Here, she takes the power and pathos of the blues in other directions.
Hard to Kill kicks off with “Hard as Steel,” a rocking statement of purpose:
I went right off that cliff — And I landed in a tree
I been so used to losing — There ain’t nobody more surprised than me
I turned and faced my fire that’s been burning there forever
And let it burn all the way singin ‘amazing grace
Left my heart light as a feather
And made me strong as steel.
“Closer” could also be thought of as a mission statement. Over the silky guitar playing of Zack Zunis and Dave Darling, and with a chorus as catchy has anything a roomful of Nashville songwriters could conjure up, Magness explains “Well I finally laid my youth to rest/Put away my pride and childish whim/I have traveled far to get to this place/Earned the grey’s in my hair/And the lines on my face.”
The biggest emotional gut punch is the album’s closer, “Oh Pearl,” written as an open letter to the singer’s daughter, whom she gave up for adoption as a 17-year-old unwed mother. Its power will hit hard for anyone who has wrestled, or is wrestling, with their own challenging past. (Which very well might be all of us.)
Darling, a longtime Magness producer, guitarist, and friend produced Hard to Kill. The album is a sonic powerhouse – lots of guitars mixing it up with the distinctive sound of the Hammond B3 organ (expertly played by Jim Alfredson). Magness’ vocals are always front and center – exactly where they belong.
Hard to Kill is a companion piece, of sorts, to Magness’ recent memoir “Weeds Like Us,” which is now being released as an audiobook (read by Magness herself). They cover the same themes, focusing on Magness’ personal story by, as one reviewer put it, “carrying us with her through her own hells and back to the other side.”
When describing Hard to Kill, it sounds like a hard listen. It’s not. It’s filled with joy and energy. As rough as Magness can be on herself, she never loses track of her audience, and consistently serves up songs which are not only meaningful but have a groove that will stay with you long after your first listen.
“Hard to Kill” is available from Magness’ web store, or wherever you buy, stream, or download music. Magness’ memoir, “Weeds Like Us” is now available as both a paperback and audiobook. She also has upcoming tour dates. https://www.janivamagness.com
Enjoy our earlier interview with Janiva Magness here: Interview: Janiva Magness on Defining Americana, Trust, and Music as Wind in People’s Sails