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"I've managed to make a career doing
what I damn well please, musically," she says.
It should go without saying. Anyone who
has ever heard Magness sing - live or on any the baker's dozen of releases she
has put out since coming on the scene 26 years ago - can immediately divine
that this is a strong, resilient, commanding woman in masterful control of her
voice and her destiny if not always her heart. In the space between the notes
you can hear a performer who has survived a difficult life by anyone's measure
to become one of the top blues vocalists of her generation, only the second
woman, after blues legend Koko Taylor, to win the Blues Music Awards' coveted
B.B. King Entertainer of the Year award.
That defiant attitude drives Blue
Again, Magness' new
record being released on Blue Élan/Fathead
Records on May 12. A succinct artistic statement, Blue Again collects
Magness' interpretations of a half dozen classics from the blues canon and
beyond, including numbers made famous by Bo Diddley, Freddie King, Etta James,
and Nina Simone.
"The whole record is about getting back
to my taproot," says Magness. "The process was just digging through a large
pile of some of my favorite material, my favorite classic blues songs, to come
up with these, my absolute favorites."
A seven-time Blues Music Award winner,
Magness has more than earned her right to sing the blues. Her life story comes
straight out of a blues song. As she recounts in her soon-to-be-published memoir,
she was born in Detroit, and among the fondest memories of her childhood were
the sounds of her father's blues and country record collection.
Childhood was short lived for Magness,
however; as an adolescent she lost both parents to suicide. She spent the next
several years bouncing around the foster care system, a traumatic experience
that inspired her adult advocacy involvement with a variety of foster care
programs. As a young woman, her life was seemingly spiraling out of control.
She was saved one night in Minneapolis when, underage, she snuck into a show by
bluesman Otis Rush. She started down the path of a music career, working as a
recording engineer before being coaxed out in front of a microphone as a backup
singer and finally forming her own group in Arizona.
Since then Magness' life has not been
without its downs, including the deaths of many close to her and the
dissolution of a long term marriage. But
she has persevered. Recently remarried to English bluesman T.J. Norton, she has
continued her steady progression up the career ladder.
Blue Again comes hot on the heels
of Magness' 2016 album Love Wins Again, which became the biggest
commercial and critical success of her career. The record, Magness' Blue Élan debut, reached the top of the
blues radio charts and remained in the Top 10 for seven months and also crossed
over into the Americana chart. Love Wins Again also earned the singer
her first Grammy nomination for Contemporary Blues Album of the Year. The
record's success was made all the sweeter because it marked the continuing
flowering of Magness as a songwriter.
Having hit a new career high, Magness
felt it was important to connect where she was going as an artist to where she
"There's definitely been an evolution,
an arc over the course of time of the kinds of songs that I've elected to do
and the kinds of songs I now write," she says. "I wanted to bring that arc full
circle. I wanted to make a record of what and where I come from. It was
important to me emotionally and spiritually."
To help her make this spiritual journey,
Magness turned once more to Dave Darling, the producer of six Grammy nominated
albums. With Blue Again, Darling has now produced six records for
Magness and also serves as her chief songwriting partner.
"I just love working with that guy," says
Magness. "We've been friends
for a very, very long time, and I really trust implicitly. I trust his creative
sense. I trust his musicality. He's incredibly talented. Nobody's been the boss
of me for a long time, but I do trust him and I'm willing to let him lead me
and I find that very critical to the relationship between a producer and an
Trust also played a part in the tracking
of the record at Burbank, California's Clear Lake Recording, with Magness and
Darling employing Magness' longtime road band, including drummer Matt Tecu,
bassist Gary "Scruff" Davenport,
guitarists Zach Zunis and Garrett Deloian. They are joined by Arlan Schierbaum
on Hammond B3, guest artists Kid Ramos, Sugaray Rayford, and Magness' husband,
English bluesman and singer-songwriter T.J. Norton.
The title track, a rip-roaring floor
filler best associated with Bo Diddley, kicks off Blue Again, with
Ramos, an associate of Magness' since she provided guest vocals on his 1999
self-titled sophomore album, providing the down-and-dirty guitar.
"It's very raw. It's very animal," says
Magness of the track. "And I really dig that."
It's followed by Al Cooper's "I Love You
More Than You'll Ever Know," a devastating, slow burner made famous by the great
soul balladeer Donny Hathaway. It's a song Magness says gets to the heart of
the blues' enduring appeal.
"I hear it as a tale of one love
speaking to another about their level of commitment and passion," she says. "If
a song is really well crafted, it's going to be a snapshot and it's going to
speak to basic human truth. I have always found that to be the case with the
blues: It speaks to basic human truth, which is why it's still here as a genre."
On the record's third track, Magness
faces the daunting task of living up to one of every blues singer's idols, Etta
James. A duet with Harvey Fuqua, "If I Can't Have You" is one of the Chess
Records great's best known songs and likely the most recognizable on Blue
Again. For her rendition, Magness recruits as her foil fast-rising blues
singer Rayford, whom she first met when she was a judge and he was an unknown
contestant at the Blues Foundation's International Blues Challenge.
"If you don't know him, you're about to,"
Magness says of Rayford, who is nominated for two awards, including male
contemporary blues artist and B.B. King Entertainer of the Year at this year's
Blues Music Awards. "He's coming up real fast and strong in the ranks. I'm so
grateful he was able to do the session because his voice was perfect."
Up next is "Tired of Walking," a tribute
to one of Magness' favorite singers, Joe Hinton, a contemporary of B.B. King
and Bobby "Blue" Bland who died tragically young.
"I think his work needs more
recognition," Magness says. "My version is an ode to him and an acknowledgement
of the idea we've all had that you've worked a really, really, really long time
really, really hard and you're a little bit tired and you'd like to have a
Credited to her husband/manager Andy
Stroud, Nina Simone's "Buck" is the most unconventional choice on Blue Again.
Magness says she included it because it is "straight up sexy," reflecting the
tempestuous relationship of the two people behind it.
"I have loved that song forever, and I
love Nina Simone," says Magness of the song, which features harmonica by
Norton. "She didn't have any damn left to give. That woman was fearless. She
was a very strong woman at a time when it wasn't popular to be a strong woman.
I don't know when it was ever popular to be a strong woman, frankly, but it
certainly wasn't back then."
The record is rounded out with Magness' version
of the oft-covered "Pack It Up," a song she best knows from Freddie King. Her
take features a distinctive acoustic guitar riff that gives the track an
unexpected country flavor.
Despite this record's looping back
around to her beginnings, Magness says Blue Again should not be seen as
a coda. She still has a lot more songs to sing and write, and she is finding
all new audiences for her music, including her recent first trip to India where
she sang for 5,000 fans despite never been there before.
"There's a lot more to this story," she
says. "And if you're interested in the book, I hope to go to publishing this
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