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FEATURES -- Janiva Magness Interview

Interview with:

Janiva Magness


The ground-breaking artist’s life is a dream come true thanks to the blues, hard work, perseverance and positivity.

Janiva Magness
photo: Jef Jaisun

By Eric Schelkopf


After sneaking into a club at age 14 to see blues legend Otis Rush, Janiva Magness knew what she wanted to be - a blues singer.


The 53-year-old Magness has now been performing for almost 30 years and last year, she was awarded the prestigious Blues Music Award for B.B. King Entertainer of the Year, 2009. She is only the second woman to ever win the award, the first being the Queen of the Blues Koko Taylor - along with once again being named Contemporary Blues Female Artist of the Year (an honor she also received in 2006 and 2007).


She is considered one of the premier blues and R&B singers in the world and has earned rave reviews from the likes of Mavis Staples and Bettye LaVette. Touring in support of her latest album on Chicago-based Alligator Records, The Devil Is An Angel Too, Magness will perform Friday, Oct. 29, at Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago.


Chicago's own Lil' Ed and The Blues Imperials also is on the bill. The show starts at 8 p.m., and general admission tickets are $22, $18 for children and seniors, available at


I had the chance to talk to Magness about a wide range of topics, from how she discovered the blues to reuniting with the daughter she gave up for adoption at age 17.


Q - Your touring schedule is jam packed these days. Do you like that? Do you like the constant touring?


I like working, and I feel like having time management problems is a quality problem. I got a lot of people that want my attention and time right now, and that's a quality problem to have.


Q - Of course, you are touring in support of "The Devil Is An Angel Too." Did you have some goals for the album? What did you have in mind when you sat down to make it?


The goal is to always make as good of a recording as I possibly can, and as honest of a recording as I possibly can. It seems very well-received. It debuted at number one on iTunes, which is a big deal in today's world.


I've been touring more than I ever have in my life. I've done a ton of shows this year, and it looks like 2011 will be another stellar year. People keep turning out heavily for the shows, and in this world, in this economy, that's a blessing.


janiva magness
photo: Jennifer Wheeler

Q - How would you describe your music? Are you blues, are you R&B, are you soul, or are you all of the above?


I would say all of the above. I'm definitely a blues artist. But I think contemporary is an accurate description, as opposed to traditional.


Q - Do you think that if you hadn't sneaked in to see Otis Rush, that you would be where you are today?


I have no idea. What I think happened is that I had a profound spiritual experience when I was a young girl watching Otis Rush. I am ever grateful for that.


Q - What was it like watching him? How did that impact you?


It was riveting. He took me hostage that day. He took my heart hostage.


I connected with that performance in a way that I had not ever connected with another human being. And I really didn't understand what happened at the time. I was 14 years old, come on.


All I knew is that when I left that club, whatever that was that I experienced, I needed more of that. I needed more of that thing. So I began to seek that out, that experience of being so deeply connected.

Janiva Magness by Jenn
photo: Jennifer Wheeler


Q - Last year, you received the B.B. King Entertainer of the Year award. How did it feel to receive an award like that, let alone being only the second woman to receive the award?


It's really dreamy for me. It's very, very much like a dream. I get kind of teary-eyed when I think about it.


I'm not a person that expects good things. I'm just not hard-wired for it. I'm hard-wired to work hard, and just keep working. That's what I do.


So when profoundly good things happen like that, I'm really shocked. And that was such a huge moment for me. And the fact that B.B. King was actually there last year handing out the awards, and Bonnie Raitt was being his trophy girl was absolutely dreamlike.  But I know it happened, for sure, because there's pictures.


Q - Did you ever have the chance to meet Koko Taylor?


Oh, yes. I had the great fortune in the last few years to become friends with Koko and her daughter, Cookie. My two greatest influences as an artist are Koko Taylor and Etta James.


When things come full circle like that and you are given an opportunity as an artist to actually meet your idols, it's amazing.


Q - On your tour, I know you have been talking about foster care a lot.


Always. I am an alumni of the foster care system. I step forward for youth at risk in this country.


I'm deeply passionate about this topic. It turns out that because someone stepped forward for me when I couldn't stand up for myself, it changed everything. It changed the end of my story.


I'm deeply devoted to doing everything I can do to talk about this and to bring it into the light, and to encourage and inspire people to step forward for youth at risk.


It doesn't really matter how much time you have. There is something you can do to help change a child's life.


Q - I know you were a teenage mom and gave your child up for adoption. Have you tried to find her?


We are completely reunited, which is a huge blessing. That happened when she was 16 years old. I really feel like I'm the luckiest woman alive.


Ultimately, her family invited me to her high school graduation, which was the next time I saw her. The last time I saw her, she was four months old, and the next time I saw her she was graduating from high school.


And now we are like the Patty Duke twins. It's pretty intense. It's great.


Q - Does she want to get involved in music?


She's an amazing singer. She has a great set of pipes.


Q - Have you considered doing a duet together?


We've done some stuff on stage. I talk to her three times a week. We're like really tight, I guess that's the term.


Q - You've been doing this for a while. Do you have any dream collaborations?


I would love to have an opportunity to collaborate with B.B. King, or Dr. John. That would be great fun.


Hell, I would love to play a show with Eric Clapton, or Buddy Guy. I love Buddy.


Q - Have you been to Buddy Guy's new club?


No, not yet.


Q - Maybe you can do that when you're in Chicago.


I have played the old club several times. I look forward to checking out Buddy's new place.


Eric Schelkopf has covered the arts and entertainment scene in Chicago for the past 25 years. Visit his informative blog at:


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