Janiva Magness might not have snagged a Grammy award for Contemporary Blues Album on Sunday, but a day earlier, when she took the stage at the seventh Mahindra Blues Festival in Mumbai, the crowd was looking at a winner. In 2009, the Blues Foundation named Magness the “BB King Entertainer of the Year”, only the second woman after Koko Taylor to be so honoured. On Saturday evening, the 60-year-old put on a powerful show at the Mehboob Studio, performing songs such as Doorway, Real slow, Say you will and more from her 12th studio album, the Grammy-nominated Love Wins Again (2016). Excerpts from an interview:
The first time you saw Otis Rush perform, you said you felt like you’d been struck by lightning. Did you know then that you would sing the blues?
Absolutely not. I was 14 years old then and couldn’t have known what would become my truth, until many years later. However, not understanding that didn’t stop me from pursuing this career. But really knowing and accepting that this was my path happened when I was 40. I had too much anxiety, fear and self-doubt.
Did you gain more confidence when you decided to record Original (2014), an album you wrote, and moved away from covering blues standards?
Yes, there was a huge shift with Original. I do a lot of meditation and practise ways to find guidance. I feel as though I’ve gotten away with something; to have this career in spite of that fear has been a blessing. I’ve worked very hard all my life for this.
You also released Original with Fathead Records, your own label.
Many years ago, my ex-husband had a publishing company called Fathead. That was a joke between us — “old shoes, fat head, thin wallet” — meaning stubborn and broke, but still here. So, the shift from established labels to my own was absolutely necessary from a creative point of view, and it has proven to be a good decision.
After writing the Grammy-nominated Love Wins Again, where do you think your songwriting is at today?
It is very challenging. Especially in entertainment, because they’ll say, ‘Well, that was great, but now what do you have?’ I’m in the process of writing several songs. It is a different level of intimacy with the music, and with the audience. As an artist when you step out on stage and begin to sing, and the audience immediately sings along with you, mouthing the words to a song you have written, and not something by Muddy Waters or anybody else, there’s a depth to that connection. I feel closer to my audience than ever before.