Vocalist Janiva Magness slices seamlessly through blues, rhythm and blues, soul, gospel, and Americana genres with a set of pipes that she describes as experienced and road-worn.
She sings with grit, earthy passion, and an authenticity siphoned from the proverbial school of hard knocks that included the suicide of both her parents and life as an at-risk early teen in 12 foster homes in a span of 2 1/2 years.
Her sonic efforts have been rewarded with numerous Grammy and Blues Music Award nominations, and, in 2009, she was named as the second female (the other was Koko Taylor) to ever win the B.B. King Entertainer of the Year award.
“I used to hate the sound of my voice,” said Magness. “But that is really common for singers. But there is something that overrides that horror of hearing one’s own voice recorded. That thing I guess is the desire, the need to express. And that’s absolutely true in my case. It overrode the anxiety.”
Magness’ subsequent articulation has produced a 14-album résumé that ranges from 1991’s “More Than Live” to “Love Is an Army,” which dropped February 23. The latter album will be featured when Magness appears at the Sofia Tsakopoulos Center for the Arts on March 1 with a touring band of two guitars, bass, and drums.
The cuts are saturated with classic Memphis R&B and Nashville sounds, the echoes of Al Green and the Staples Singers, social protest, angst, and calls for love and understanding. Guest studio contributors included Charlie Musselwhite on harmonica, Poco’s Rusty Young on pedal steel, Delbert McClinton on vocals and juke-joint descendant Cedric Burnside on guitar.
“Love Is an Army” continues 61-year-old Magness’ stretch from interpretations of varied source material to tunes co-written with producer Dave Darling that began with “Original” in 2014. And she has extended her writing to include a memoir that will be self-published this year.
Magness was introduced to music in her family’s home as a pre-teen. Her dad had a record collection that included the Nat King Cole Trio, Buck Owens, Hank Williams, Patsy Cline and Tex Ritter, and the Bull Moose Jackson 78 (rpm) “My Big Ten Inch,” which, in typical blues double-entendre fashion referenced the 10-inch width of the record.
On Sundays he would play the record player in the basement super-loud and Magness would station herself next to the stereo so that she basically bathed in the music.
By age 14, Magness had lost her mother, had run away from home, and was in foster care. One snowy January night she had a dramatic personal catharsis while attending an Otis Rush show at a Minneapolis dive bar that reconnected her to the world and launched her future trajectory.
“I didn’t know what was happening when it was happening,” said Magness, “but I came to understand the experience. It was very weird for me at that time because I was a very damaged, very angry, very slighted young woman, and I had every reason to be so disconnected is a mild way of putting it.”
“Otis was playing with such intensity,” said Magness. “It was ferocious. It was devastating. His singing was deeply desperate. And I’m pushed up against the darkest spot in the club I can find, which is the back wall, because I don’t want people to notice that I’m 14 years old and have a drink in my hand. I cried for the first time in probably a year and I didn’t know what happened… The next day I knew that whatever that thing was that happened, I had to find that. So I started to chase that. Which I would later understand was a connection. Because I was pretty much untethered at that point. I was close to feral, like a high-functioning feral animal.”
Magness believes that music is the most potent tool she has in terms of connecting with other people, reminding them that they are not alone in their individual life and the world at large, and that one of our greatest purposes on this messed-up planet is to help each other.
“And sometimes it means we have to be very brave,” she said. “But it’s easier to brave with another (person) than it is to be brave standing alone. But sometimes you even have to do that. And I want to do what I can do as an artist to encourage and inspire people to stand up and to speak out and speak our truths. And to remember. We seem to have lost a certain fundamental, basic respect and decency for each other. People are so frightened. People are so upset. And there is a statement going around, which I agree with, that is if you’re not upset, you are not paying attention.”
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday March 1
Where: Sofia Tsakopoulos Center for the Arts, 2700 Capitol Ave, Sacramento,
Cost: $27 - $32
Information: bstreettheatre.org, 916-443-5300