Lady sings the blues: Janiva Magness transcends the pain of the past through music, sobriety

Janiva Magness musician in recovery
Courtesy of Paul Moore

The Almighty has a hell of a sense of humor.

The Ties That Bind UsBlues diva Janiva Magness knows that intimately. If ever she needed proof, she found it in Los Angeles, in the middle of a relapse, when she was 34 years old. She’d gotten clean nearly a decade earlier, but after moving from the Minneapolis area. She’d given the West Coast a six month tryout but found it too big and bold; Phoenix was a good compromise, she told The Ties That Bind Us recently, but it also put her in a precarious position.

“My band (the Mojomatics) had just won the Best Blues Band award from the Phoenix New Times paper; we were doing gigs locally there and had risen to a certain point, but what became more important to me was my work, not my recovery,” Magness said. “Some of the 12 Step literature refers to that curious mental twists that precedes a relapse, and I was in that, and so all it really took was a sniff, and I was down.

“And five years went by. I was still performing and still playing music, and I moved back to L.A. during that relapse, and that’s when something happened. Really, what it was, was that I was betting against God.”

Sixteen years earlier, as a frightened teenager, Magness had given birth to a baby girl and given her up for adoption. That decision gnawed at her, and while recovery eased some of that pain, her relapse had laid it bare. On top of that, a belly full of booze and a head full of sobriety made for an uncomfortable combination.

“There’s nothing worse than being loaded and having a head full of recovery — you cannot win, and there is no relief,” she said. “I knew what I needed to do. I wanted to be in recovery, but I didn’t think I could do it again. I couldn’t bear another failure. So I said to God, ‘Fine, you son of a bitch, you prove to me my daughter is OK. If you prove it to me, then on the day I know she’s OK, I will try this again. Until then, f--- off.

“And the universe delivered, seemingly out of the blue. Out of nowhere came the proof, and I was stunned. I had an opportunity to connect with my daughter, and so I came back to recovery.”

That was in 1991, and while her relationship with a Higher Power is, like it is for many recovering addicts and alcoholics, a relationship that goes through growing pains, it’s a lifeline for Magness that has provided her with more days of beauty than pain.

“Here’s what’s beautiful today — my relationship with that power greater than myself is big enough to take all of my anger, all of my rage, all of my sorrow. And that sorrow is deep, my friend,” she said. “That cut is deep for me, but my God can handle all of it. And that understanding is paramount for me.”

Little girl lost

Janiva Magness musician in recovery

Courtesy of Margaret Malandruccolo

Music and pain go hand-in-hand for Magness, whose mother committed suicide a week after her 13th birthday. Her father never recovered, and two months after she turned 16, he took his own life as well.

“I was just alone — ALONE, all capital letters, because there are no lower case letters for me,” she said. “I don’t mean alone in the room, I mean alone in the world — an absolute, overwhelming sense of aloneness in the world, and it required that I, by any means necessary, fix that. So I did, and ‘by any means necessary,’ in my case, was alcohol, drugs and everything else that would, through their side effects alone, numb me.”

Around the same time, however, music began to take center stage in her heart. She fell in love with melody and song long before that; as a kid, she was known as the child who knew all the theme songs from popular television shows and could sing along to the commercials. Her father could sing and play harp; he would sing and play to her, and she loved it when he would turn his records up loud as possible.

“In hindsight, that was part of the ‘by any means necessary’ to get out of me, because I had to get out of me,” she said. “Music took me someplace else, and I needed to be taken elsewhere. I needed to be anywhere other than where I was, anyone other than who I was and what I was.”

When she was 13 years old, drugs entered the picture. She remembers her first time vividly: The family was living in St. Louis at the time, and her brother and his wife, along with their infant son, had moved down to help her father. Both were battling substance abuse themselves, however, and lost in his own grief and mental illness, her father didn’t pick up on it. One afternoon as they drove around St. Louis, Magness said, they stopped at a drug store and returned with a case of Robitussin.

“Which, in the ’70s, had codeine in it,” she added. “So we were driving around St. Louis, and they cracked a couple of bottles and started drinking them in the front seat, and I noticed that their mood kind of lightened, and that they seemed pretty good. And I wanted that. I started bugging my brother, and even though my sister-in-law said no, I stayed at him until he relented, and I just downed it — and I felt so much better. I remember thinking, ‘Oh my God! This is excellent!’ In a way, it was the first time I stopped holding my breath.”

From then on, she was, as she puts it, “100 percent committed.” Around that same time, her father began disappearing on the weekends, and her brother and sister-in-law would have parties. Magness was right there in the mix, drinking and smoking weed. It wasn’t long before she was in foster care.

Music becomes a lifeline

Janiva Magness musician in recovery

Courtesy of Paul Moore

Although the system was, as she describes it, a “meat grinder,” it also gave her an opportunity to discover her life’s calling in a way that spoke to her damaged soul. Within a short period of time, she saw both Otis Rush and B.B. King perform, and the two titans set the tone for the music she would pursue for the rest of her life.

“I recognize again, in hindsight, that it was a part of what would become a formula for me, even though at the time, I didn’t recognize it as that. It was just an experience, of information going into the database, if you would,” she said. “Otis and his band were absolute head-cutters, and Otis played and the band performed like his life depended on it. Everything was real and right now and in the moment, and it was searing. It was like being hit by a lightning bolt, and it was devastating to me.

“I just walked away from that night like, ‘I need that’ — not unlike how I needed that bottle of Robitussin. I didn’t even know what it was, I just knew I had to have that again, and so I started to chase that experience.”

A fake ID let her sneak into clubs underage, but the idea of performing herself was a terrifying thought. She remembers being 16 years old and in her final foster placement, turning up a Roberta Flack record and singing at the top of her lungs, thinking she had the house to herself.

“And much to my horror, I heard someone say, ‘You have a beautiful voice, dear. You really should do something with that, my dear,’” she said. “It was my last foster mom, and I was mortified.”

Around the same time, she sobered up briefly — not out of choice, she added, but to get out of trouble. Without that “desire to stop drinking” that 12 Step programs mention in their literature, it didn’t stick — after giving her daughter up for adoption, she went back to drugs and alcohol to numb the pain.

“The loss of my child was more than I could bear, and I was not grounded in any consistent practice or any relationships in recovery, so I drank,” she said. “The next four years were just pathetic. In that four-year period, I became in IV drug user, and I went through lots and lots of bullshit. By the time I was 21, I was shooting dope, and I turned 22 in a hospital rehab facility.”

She also toyed with the idea of taking her own life. It seemed to be an inescapable destiny, given the role suicide had played in the deaths of both parents. Combined with the continuation of pain she endured in the foster system, she went through several failed suicide attempts, her last at 19. By that point, she felt like she had nothing left to lose — so why not try her hand at singing?

“I knew I was going to die, and I thought, ‘I need to try, just one time. I need to just give it a shot; otherwise, I’m just an asshole,’” she said. “I went from the privacy of my own closet with the singing, found out about some auditions in Minneapolis, where we were living at that point, and showed up. And I got the gig. I was stunned.”

Chasing her dream through the backdoor

Janiva Magness musician in recovery

Courtesy of Paul Moore

By 1978, however, drugs and alcohol had robbed her of almost everything, and so she got clean and sober for a second time. The gift of desperation gave her the desire that she had previously lacked, and in figuring out a future for herself without drugs and alcohol, she felt like a life in music was no longer an option.

“I thought I had to give my dream up, because I didn’t think I could play music and stay sober, and I knew I had to stay sober,” she said. “I didn’t know how to be around musicians at a club and perform and not be drunk or loaded. I did not believe I could do that, so I felt like I had to give up what had been a very private dream.”

She spent six months in long-term treatment, but the letting go was soul crushing. She cried uncontrollably, for days at a time, and knew that even if she couldn’t sing, music had to be a part of her life. Determined, she got busy living, getting a scholarship to an electronics school, where she studied audio engineering, and an internship at a St. Paul, Minnesota, studio. It was there that singing found her.

“I was working at this recording studio, and I got called in to do background vocals — and it was one of those ‘get in here or you’re fired’ type of things, and I needed the job,” she said. “So I very reluctantly go in and put these background parts on this thing, and the next day, the songwriter called me up. Here I am, 22 or 23 years old, and he was like, ‘I have some other songs? Will you sing them for me for a demo?’ I couldn’t resist, so I did it. That’s how God back in through the back door and dragged me out.”

With a voice that couldn’t be denied, she became an in-demand session singer, earning a spot in a 16-piece brass band that did everything from the Andrews Sisters to Elvis to ‘Play That Funky Music.” But in Minneapolis in the late 1970s, the glass ceiling was strong, and although she earned plenty of respect for her abilities, there were few opportunities. That led to her exodus, first to L.A., then to Phoenix, where she lived for six years.

While the Mojomatics were a regional favorite, it wasn’t until she her five-year relapse, relocation to L.A. and re-entry into recovery that she came into her own. Her debut record, “More Than Live,” was released in 1991, kick-starting a career that’s built on a voice that can do it all: from languid and sultry to full-throated steam train wails, from catamount growls to sensual whispers, her range and control made her a bonafide blues star, and by 2006, her independent release, “Do I Move You?,” cracked the Top 10 of the Billboard Blues Albums chart.

From there, she signed to Alligator Records, releasing three albums that earned her critical acclaim and national award nominations. In 2014, she relaunched her own label, Fathead Records, and 2016’s “Love Wins Again,” released on the Blue Elan label, reached No. 5 on the Billboard Blues chart, No. 2 on the iTunes Blues chart and spent two months on the Americana radio chart, which allowed her to make inroads into that genre and perform at the 2016 Americana Conference and Festival. The record also earned Magness her first Grammy nomination, alongside the 28 Blues Music Award nominations she’s received over the years.

But while such recognition is lovely, none of it has gone to her head.

Remaining grounded in the program

Janiva Magness musician in recovery

Courtesy of Margaret Malandruccolo

“I don’t seem them as accomplishments or things that I’ve done, and I don’t believe I ever will,” she said. “That’s not some false Hallmark shit; that’s really, truly who I am. I’ve got a lot of, as they’re referred to in recovery rooms, outside issues. I can qualify for every damn 12 Step program there is, and my therapist assures me that I won’t ever have a problem where my head is too big to get in the room. My early life took care of that.

“So I see those things as gifts, as God’s sense of humor. I’m looking at 16 pieces of hardware and various accolades on the wall behind the desk in my office, and they’re all nicely displayed, but they’re heavily covered with dust. But where my line of work has given me beautiful recognition and has held me up as an example, I guess, I don’t see them as things I’ve done. I don’t think that I did that.”

In Magness, humility lives alongside pride — but not the loud, “look at me” sort of pride that most people associate with the word. For her, it’s a quiet, personal sort of determination, fueled by a strong will and, on occasion, stubbornness. Those qualities have given her a robust work ethic, and her past has made her a survivor who doesn’t give up. Those things are hardwired into her personal and musical DNA, and if there’s one thing she’s certain of, it’s that none of those accolades, or the work that led to them, would have been possible without sobriety.

“I showed up for it, but I promise I wouldn’t have shown up if I wasn’t clean and sober,” she said. “I didn’t want to be here, and I damn sure don’t deserve to be here. I know today, as a woman in recovery that now is where all the power is. It’s where the God that I don’t understand is, it’s where joy is, it’s where peace is — because it damn sure isn’t in the past, and my brain just doesn’t go to the beauty or the joy or the winning of the future. It goes to the potential wreckage of the future, so there’s no peace there, either.

“The power is in right now, and the word ‘grace’ is what it has been for me. It’s unwarranted, because I can’t earn it; and it’s unmerited, which means I don’t deserve it, because I can’t possibly be a good enough girl. If life were fair, I would be in jail for a really long time. What I’ve done is show up. That’s why it’s not possible for me to think about or hear or recite the words to ‘Amazing Grace’ without it bringing me to tears, because how sweet is the sound that saved a wretch like me?”

The spiritual part of the recovery equation has been her anchor over the past 28 years. She’s still heavily active in a program of recovery because she needs it, she added.

“I still need that experience that I was chasing with the Robitussin, that experience I chased after I saw Otis Rush and he hit me with that lightning bolt,” she said. “With 28 and ¾ of a year clean and sober, I still need that experience that I get from recovery.”

Putting herself out there

Janiva Magness musician in recovery

Courtesy of Margaret Malandruccolo

And while that broken and damaged little girl running wild on the streets of St. Louis and Minneapolis is never far from her mind, she’s learned to accept the goodness in life that she’s so long denied. She recalls one specific story from the 1970s, when she dated a guy who, for all practical purposes, was good and decent and genuinely liked her.

“We spent some time together, and I remember we took off for like a long weekend at a hotel in Wisconsin, and it was really lovely,” she said. “Two weeks later, this guy drove through a whiteout snowstorm with two dozen roses to show up at my front door. There was a knock at the door, and when I opened it, there he was. And what I said was, ‘What do you want? What the (hell) are you doing here?’ And I slammed the door in his face.

“Now that’s a bit telling. So my bigger challenge, in recovery in the last 12 to 15 years, has been accepting the goodness, the beauty, the joy, the love. Accepting the universe saying yes to me, because I do not come from any kind of a place where I believe that it’s just or right or fair, and I don’t trust it.”

Earlier this year, Magness published a memoir about her journey. Titled “Weeds Like Us,” it’s a no-holds-barred account of her life, and once again, she’s found herself able to exhale. Peers, colleagues, friends and lovers had all encouraged her to write one over the years, but that ball of pain was knotted too tightly to unwind, until she was ready.

“As painful and accurate as it is, I came to understand that part of that willingness required me to understand that I needed to stand in my truth, regardless of approval or disapproval, judgment or acceptance by other people,” she said. “That can be a challenge when there’s blood on the floor. The bigger parts of my journey, I fought the idea (of revealing them) in the way that Sylvester the cat would fight. I’ve fought against it my entire life, and I’m 62 years old, so that’s a lot of fight.”

Six years ago, she began the process of surrender. She had already begun revealing some of her story in various music publications and in her online biography, and that slow opening-up revealed the spirit of a fierce warrior poetess whose pain is both intense and inspiring. When her then-publicist first proposed the project, his words were, “You’ve got a hell of a story.”

“He said, ‘Do you ever think you might be able to help somebody else? What if there’s another kid in the system that needs to hear you say that this doesn’t need to be the end of the story, that this doesn’t have to be a defining moment? What if an adult needs to hear that they don’t have to be by themselves, that they’re not alone?’” Magness recalled.

“I didn’t want him to be right, but I knew he was,” she added. “As I began very slowly to consider that idea and very slowly accept that as true, I loosened my grip. And the second that I said it out loud, the cat was out of the bag. Apparently the universe had been listening very closely, because it put people immediately in my path to help me get that done. It’s all very strange and all very weird. I have a girlfriend that likes to say that God is her favorite comedian, and I can believe that!”