Given her history, it should come as no surprise that, when seven-time Blues Music Award-winner Janiva Magness set out to record her John Fogerty tribute album Change in the Weather, she chose to emphasize his more political material.
Released just months before the pandemic struck, it features songs like the metaphor-laden “Bad Moon Rising,” which Fogerty wrote the day Richard Nixon was elected president, and “Fortunate Son,” a condemnation of the overly privileged that, much to Fogerty’s dismay, was used by Donald Trump when he would descend from Air Force One.
“When I’m choosing material that I didn’t write, it has to be something I have a deep connection to — otherwise there’s not much point to it for me,” says Magness by phone as she navigates her way through Los Angeles traffic. “It turns out that with the Fogerty catalog, when you start to examine it, there’s a ton of resistance material there, a ton of protest songs. And, you know, if you listen to some of my records — actually, all of my records — those are definitely recurring themes, whether the songs are personal or use broader strokes.”
Magness, who will be headlining Colorado Springs’ Oct. 2 Blues on the Mesa Festival, has released 15 albums over the course of her career. Among the most impressive is 2016’s Love Wins Again, which debuted at No. 5 on the Billboard Blues Chart and earned the musician her first-ever Grammy nomination. Magness was also the second woman, the other being Koko Taylor, to win the Blues Foundation’s B.B. King Entertainer of the Year award, which was presented to her onstage by Bonnie Raitt and King himself.
That winning combination of talent and attitude can be traced back to the singer’s debut album More Than Live, a cassette-only release that Magness put out back in 1991. Among its standout tracks are covers of Irma Thomas’ “You Can Have My Husband (But Please Don’t Mess With My Man)” and Peggy Lee’s “Why Don’t You Do Right?”
“That kind of material has always gotten under my skin,” she says. “I suppose it’s sassy women, ballsy women — I’ve been called that and then a whole lot more — so I can relate to it.”
Onstage, Magness has proven herself to be no less impressive, earning a loyal fanbase that includes more than a few critics. The L.A. Weekly called her “a strong woman with a beaming smile, charisma for days, and a voice that soars, [who] can hold a huge crowd in the palm of her hand and gleefully toy with it.”
For her Blues on the Mesa performance, Magness will be bringing along a four-piece band whose collective résumés range from Ann Peebles and Rufus Thomas to Fiona Apple and Beck.
In addition to the Fogerty collection, 2019 also saw the publication of Magness’ memoir Weeds Like Us, which Americana Highways writer Bill Bentley described as “a life-affirming look at the hell she went through, as well as the miraculous change that perseverance and passion allowed her to find.”
“I’ve always known I needed to write a memoir,” she says, “but I was afraid, I didn’t want to do it.” The musician credits her work on behalf of Foster Care Alumni and the Child Welfare League of America with enabling her to write about her early years being passed from foster home to foster home, 12 in all, living on the street, and three stays in psychiatric hospitals.
“Being a mentor and telling my story to whoever was interested in hearing it — whether that was legislators, social workers, foster parents, foster kids, kids in the system, alumni of the system — is a huge gift. And it helped me realize that the early part of my life — which was, quite frankly, pretty harsh — was a part of history that didn’t define my days and nights any longer.”
Following her festival appearance, Magness will be returning to L.A., where she intends to start writing and recording, neither of which she managed to do during lockdown.
“I wasn’t one of those people that went into this massive creative thing — I went into frozen,” she says. “It just freaked me out. I mean, I haven’t gone this long without live performances since I was 19 years old. I’m 64 now. So it’s really been weird. So here’s what I can say: I’m trying. I am actually working on songs right now — well, I’m driving right now — but I’m working on songs and I’m working on a new album that I hope will be released in the spring.”
That said, Magness is making no guarantees.
“I’ve never been the kind of artist that can make the same album over and over again,” she says. “There are career artists that have done that — Bobby Blue Bland and B.B. King did it brilliantly — but that’s not me.”