Adia Victoria dissolves into song
The musician talks about her staggering new album, ‘A Southern Gothic,’ her deep connection to the blues and giving the finger to respectability culture
When Adia Victoria started writing new album A Southern Gothic, released in 2021, she initially envisioned it as a series of vignettes about her encounters with the South, as well as the ways a Southerner “comes alive in this landscape” into which she was born and to which she has continually returned throughout her life.
“And when the pandemic popped off, it became me surviving in the South, living to see my next breath, living to see my mother survive the pandemic,” Victoria said recently by phone from her home in Nashville, where she and her band were gearing up to join Jason Isbell in concert at the Palace Theatre on Sunday, Jan. 16; the show has now been rescheduled for Jan. 27 following Isbell’s announcement earlier today of his breakthrough case of COVID. “So, it changed a lot from a theoretical approach of self-encounter to very real, very dire life or death experiences in the South. And so, I would say these are vignettes of a Black girl trying to survive the South that raised her, and the South that is trying to kill her.”
As it unfolds, A Southern Gothic emerges as a concept album, of sorts, with Victoria crafting a haunting series of folk- and blues-steeped character portraits linked by a deep connection to the region, including a preacher who carries on sermonizing as his daughter struggles with drug addiction (“Whole World Knows”), an expat suffering through a Northern winter (“South for the Winter") and the Southern Black woman weary of repeatedly shouldering the burden of history (“Deep Water Blues”). “They say a Black woman got steel for a spine/She'll carry your weight, she’ll carry it fine,” Victoria sings, a few lines later adding, “But I don't want to rescue you.”
“It was me giving the finger to respectability culture, to people who have told me that because I’m a Black girl I have to be twice as good and twice as smart and twice as ladylike and pure. I was like, ‘That sounds like a you problem. That is not a me problem,'” Victoria said. “Behind all of these rules there’s the unspoken or else. Or else what? This whole society has existed off of my body, my labor, my contributions. … What happens when I let that go and let the people who broke the levees just drown and live with their own mess instead of asking Black women to step in and save America? Like, no. I’m as self-interested as the next person. I’m going to have my pleasures and my kicks and I’m not going to be a support system for people who don’t even value my life.”
This idea reiterates itself to Victoria time and again, most recently on Saturday when Morgan Wallen appeared onstage at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, less than a year after footage surfaced of the white country singer caught using the N-word on camera. While the Opry’s decision to let Wallen perform on its famed stage undercut recent anti-racist messaging by the organization and called into question its efforts to create a more welcoming space for Black artists, it did not land as a surprise.
“If I go there and I look at the roster of people who have appeared at the Opry, and there’s more acts that have appeared in blackface than Black artists, that tells me something,” Victoria said. “And I’m not going to be drafted to serve as public relations or token Negro that you can point to and say, ‘See! See! See!’ No. If y’all want to get real about this, let’s get in the backroom. Let’s get in the boardroom where real decisions are made, where real power is held. Unless you’re ready to have that conversation, then I’m going to keep believing that y’all don’t give a damn, and you’re a white supremacist organization where a white boy can say [the N-word] and then do a year’s time away from the spotlight and come back and grace your stage and you’re OK with that. … I trust what you show me. I believe you. I’m not cleaning it up.”
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Musically, A Southern Gothic is deeply atmospheric, Victoria crafting a humid, haunted sonic world that draws on elements of folk, soul and especially the blues, complete with a searing cover of “You Was Born to Die,” by the late singer and guitarist Blind Willie McTell.
“I was able to expand in the blues, and I was able to release a breath I didn’t realize I had been holding,” said Victoria, who first discovered the genre in her early 20s. “Growing up in the South and growing up in the white evangelical church, there’s a lot that gets caught inside of you. The breath gets stuck, and you become so obsessed with the binaries — good and evil, Black and white, saved and unsaved, redeemed and damned — that you lose your humanity. … In finding the blues, especially the Black blues, I was able to expand in my flesh and see that I had options.”
Though steeped in the South, Victoria started work on Southern Gothic overseas in Paris, France, writing at a remove from “my own neuroses, my own little rut,” she explained, which helped bring a greater sense of perspective, in addition to placing an increased focus on the language she employed in her songs. “I speak French, but it’s not my native language,” she said. “So, I need to think about my words in a different way, think about what I’m trying to express, the intention behind it, which makes me a lot more careful as a writer and a lot more thoughtful as a human being.”
From the time she learned to read and write, Victoria, born in Spartanburg, South Carolina, said she was drawn to “expressing something in myself … that I didn’t see in any culture system around me.” She started off writing poems and stories, and then joined the middle school marching band, playing oboe and tuba, two instruments “where I needed to breathe.”
“I’m just always looking for ways to release this breath,” said Victoria, who continues to write poetry and short stories, even as music has become her most identifiable public output. “I find that [music] combines a lot of my artistic outlets. I’m able to write. I’m able to perform onstage. I’m able to use my breath. I’m able to bear witness and tell stories. Music has always been an outlet for my people in the South to sing what they would be killed for speaking, so that was how I felt most comfortable being in the public eye, by dissolving into song.”