THE READING ROOM: Janiva Magness Charts Growth through Rocky Times in ‘Weeds Like Us’
Janiva Magness portrait by Paul Moore
Blues and soul singer Janiva Magness has won many awards for music and her songwriting. She’s been named B.B. King Entertainer of the Year — the only woman besides Koko Taylor to win the award — and every year, Magness receives nominations for annual blues music awards.
Life wasn’t always so rosy, though. Both of her parents committed suicide. She ran away from home after her mother’s suicide and called her father from Berkeley to say she was making her own life. She’s lived in foster homes in several states, endured domestic violence, assuaged her wounds with alcohol and drugs, and started her own record label when she wanted more freedom. Like Richard Fariña, Magness has “been down so long it looks like up” to her.
With the same energy and depth she brings to her songs, Magness tells the stories of her life in her deeply moving new memoir, Weeds Like Us. She 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. She takes the title of the book from her 2010 song “Weeds Like Us.” A few lines in that song affirm her purpose: “I’m thinking still / About that hole you just can’t fill / Every day is an act of will / Weeds like us are hard to kill.”
Though music pulls her through, she confirms toward the end of the book that her purpose is even larger than music: “Being able to sing for a living is a huge gift, but I have come to understand that it’s not the real job. My real job is to reach out and connect with people, to share some of what I have been through in my life and have the kind of heart-to-heart connection with another person that lifts up both of us. Music is simply the vehicle that allows me to do that.”
I chatted recently with Magness about her book, her inspiration for it, and her music.
Why this book now? Why did you decide to write it?
What’s accurate to say is that I was never going to write a book because I was never going to tell these stories to anyone. I’d fought the notion of writing a book until about 10 years ago, when I realized I should write a book because I recognized that my experience might help someone else. I knew I wasn’t going to get away with not telling my story. If you were a person who believed in callings, you’d call this a calling. It’s my life story. It’s my experience of my life, the highlights of my life in many ways.
Can you talk a little about the process of writing the book?
I was doing a show at the Palms Playhouse in Winters, California. I blurted out almost matter-of-factly that I was going to write a book. After the show a guy comes up to me and hands me his card. “I also happen to be a writer,” he said. “If you decide to write a book, call me.” I forgot about the conversation, but a few days later I was in Seattle going through my stuff and found his card. I looked him up and discovered he was an honest-to-God writer named Gary Delsohn. I got in touch with him, and he helped me write the book.
I can remember some things in great detail: I can tell you the colors of the socks I was wearing yesterday or describe the sun coming through the windows, but I can’t deal with the meaning of time. My memory is a jumble, and sometimes it makes you feel nuts. So, for the book I was working with Gary, piecing things back together. I could recall details but not necessarily the timeline. Gary kept saying to me, “We need to get it linear,” and I’m grateful to him for doing that. A lifetime of no, but once the universe speaks, you say yes.
What are some of your father’s most memorable traits?
My father was the musician. Dad had a beautiful singing voice and played harmonica well. He was incredibly funny; he was the guy who was proud and self-effacing. I got my love of music and sense of humor from him, and I also got my business acumen from him. He gave me the sense that “you can always do better.” I got my work ethic from my dad. I also get my nerve from my dad; I’ve been accused of being bold. (Laughs.)
My mom was extremely funny, too. She was a really good cook. I love to bake, and I feel close to her whenever I bake. I’m really good at domestic stuff, when I have time. I can sew really well, and I love to garden. My love of art and my love of critters comes from my mom. I love to strip and restore furniture; my mom did that. Doing that brings me a great deal of peace.
How did music change your life?
Music speaks to me and always has. It speaks to me when there are no words. Music is a collective experience. A song is a collection. When it’s done properly it creates this force, an energy that speaks to a place where I have no words. I would chase a song by any means necessary. It’s a balm; it makes me feel like I’m not alone. The community of musicians is where I belong. My dad had all the music: Bull Moose Jackson’s “Big Ten Inch Record,” Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, early Nat King Cole. Seeing Otis Rush and B.B. King in the same year was like having lightning strike twice. When I saw Otis Rush, I wanted to feel that again, and I wanted to do that again.
Did you read other memoirs as models?
My Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls. It’s really well written. It’s a beautiful, but hard, story about a woman and depression. I loved the way she told the truth and that her chapters were short. I wanted my chapters to be short, too, since people can follow short chapters better. Simple Dreams, by Linda Ronstadt; I couldn’t put it down.
What do you want readers to take from your book?
I want people who have similar experiences, or worse, to know that the cut doesn’t have to be the end of the story. I want people who have trauma or who have navigated depression to know that they can have hope. Hope is a risky proposition. Music kept me floating. Are the majority of my days good? Yes. Am I having the best revenge ever by having a beautiful life? Yes. I want people to know what is possible.