Singer-songwriter-author Janiva Magness makes a forceful return on June 24 with the release of Hard to Kill, the Los Angeles-based musician’s first new collection in three years, on her own label Fathead Records.
The 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 will simultaneously release the Fathead audio book edition of Weeds Like Us, her frank, profoundly moving 2019 memoir. Los Angeles composer and musician Matt Cartsonis produced.
LA Weekly named the volume its “Book of the Month,” while No Depression said, “[Magness] plumbs her own emotional depths, carrying us with her through her own hells and back to the other side. Ultimately, Magness’ memoir is a story of hope and the refusal to let the worst experiences of life kill you.”
Magness, who co-wrote four of the dozen new compositions on Hard to Kill, says of her boldly honest and affecting 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.”
The musician sees a direct link between her new album — which leads off with the autobiographical track “Strong As Steel” — and her book, an unflinching and shattering look back at a life shaken by physical and sexual abuse, the suicides of both her parents, years in foster care, drug addiction and alcoholism, and teenage pregnancy and motherhood. It also details the beginnings of her distinguished musical career, for which she found early inspiration in the work of such blues titans as Otis Rush and Etta James.
“I like true stories,” Magness says. “My dad said something to me a long time ago; the meaning of it has changed over time, as things like that do, if we wake up. He said, ‘The truth will set you free.’”
Sitting on the bedrock of blues, soul, and funk, the music on Hard to Kill is so tough and assured that it comes as a surprise when Magness says she was initially uncertain about undertaking the making of a new album.
She recalls, “Coming out of the pandemic, I had gotten to a pretty dark place.” She chuckles, adding, “I laugh, because how is that a surprise? Is this news of some kind? I’d gotten there just as many of us had, and I had lost myself.”
Magness turned the corner creatively after her husband suggested that she should talk things over with Dave Darling, her longtime producer, guitarist, and friend.
“He’s a scrapper like me,” Magness says of Darling. “He’s pragmatic. I said, ‘I don’t know if I can do this again. I don’t know if I should.’ And he goes, ‘Of course you should.’ I said, ‘But why?’ And this sounds really simple and stupid, but he said, ‘Because it’s what you do. Because it’s what we do, as artists, and you are a f ing artist. So cut it out.’”
Magness began writing new material in the spring of 2021. Looking back, she now realizes that her new songs were tied to the intense memories and feelings she had exposed in Weeds Like Us: “The book and the songs are very, very connected. I was not even aware of that at the time.”