Adia Victoria photo by Huy Nguyen
After issuing a wake-up call with 2020’s standout single, “South Gotta Change,” singer-songwriter Adia Victoria is back this month with her third album, A Southern Gothic, a record full of untold tales about sorely underrepresented folks in the South. We talked to Victoria about the importance of bringing these stories and characters to life, what it means to play the Ryman Auditorium for the first time, and how exactly The National’s Matt Berninger found his way onto this record. We began by chatting about the nature of making music during COVID times.
Americana Highways: I would imagine with the pandemic, it’s a much longer process than you’re used to.
Adia Victoria: It’s funny – actually, in a way, it wasn’t. I guess the process of actually recording the songs was longer, but the writing period was just as long as my previous record. But what is time? Time’s a flat circle!
AH: Exactly! Now a lot of it was written and recorded pre-pandemic in France, correct?
AV: Yes. A few of the tracks were written while I was in Paris on a writing sojourn. I was there with one of my collaborators, Marcello Giuliani, and Stone Jack Jones – he’s a Southern folk artist. I’d say we did about four songs the month I was there. I was there from end of January 2020 to end of February 2020, so I got home just before everything shut down. So Paris is definitely a big part of this record. Which is great, because I love Paris.
AH: One thing I noticed is the title, A Southern Gothic, with the article “A” in front of it. It seems to me that, by saying it’s “A” Southern gothic, it’s specifying a part of the South that really hasn’t been talked about very much – a different perspective.
AV: Yeah, that’s exactly right. I think one of the things that pushed me to name it that – I had recently gone into one of my favorite antique book stores here in Nashville, a place called Rhino Booksellers. I was looking at their Southern literature section. There was the usual names there – Eudora Welty, Faulkner, O’Connor – the people you’d usually expect to find in that section, and I realized that there were no Black Southern authors there. Then I went over, and I found Black Southern writers in the African-American section, because they’ve kind of been, in a way, just divided off and segregated away from what we think of when we talk about the South. And then I got to thinking about my own experience growing up in South Carolina and understanding that what I was necessarily feeling and perceiving in the world was not being reflected back to me. What was being reflected back to me – by my church, by society at large, by school, by teachers – was that I was not included in the South. I was this aberration. Naming it A Southern Gothic is kind of reclaiming what we think of when we think of “Southern,” and I think about my own experiences, and my ancestors’ experiences in South Carolina, and what could be more goth than the sh!t that they had to put up with.
AH: Did recording it in Paris, writing some and recording some there, allow you to have a wider view of things and consider stories in addition to your own?
AV: Yeah. yeah. Paris, to me, has always been my sweet spot of creativity. It’s a place I’ve been traveling to, often alone, with the express purpose of writing. I think there’s something about 1) of course, the distance – you’ve got a whole ocean between you and home and 2) even though I’m passively fluent in French, I still have to consider my words, I have to consider my thoughts. I have to listen closer and differently than I do when I’m back home, when you take communicating for granted, and you’re kind of on auto-pilot. In Paris, I find I’m a much more present, tuned-in being than I am here. And, of course, Paris is famous for walking and just pondering and being with oneself. It’s kind of like the perfect storm – all the ingredients for me, personally, to create. But when I do go to Paris, I do carry over with me Southern writers, Southern scholarship, Southern literary criticism, because I am over there with the distinct reason of looking back home, and seeing it differently, being so far removed.
AH: Listening to the album, for almost the entire time, there’s this kind of underlying sense of tension, like a lot of Southern gothic novels. Did that level of intensity take a lot of energy to tell stories that way?
AV: Yeah, it does. This was the first time that I felt I was writing for my life, and I was living through the story that I was trying to tell. In A Southern Gothic, you’re hearing about the story of a young girl – right off the bat, you learn that her father’s a preacher, and that she is not at one with her community. She does not feel she belongs – she feels isolated and judged. And I was using this young girl to tell my own story through. So it wasn’t me literally, but it was feelings I’d had, it was friends that I’d known. And then the other songs on the record – it’s people singing ABOUT her and observing her behavior. So it kind of becomes a question of who’s the reliable narrator? There’s this tension that I wanted that record to have of, there are no epiphanies. She starts the record lost from South CArolina, and then she ends the record in New York City, and she’s, “BAM – I’m going home.” So there is no resolution. She never arrives anywhere, so we’re never sure what we should trust. Is it this woman who’s telling us what happened to her? Or is it the people around her saying, “This is who she is?” So I think that creates a tension, certainly.
AH: “Mean-Hearted Woman” is kind of a “pre-murder ballad.” We don’t get to the point where the murder happens, we think maybe it does at some point. What inspired that song?
AV: That was one of the songs that I wrote in Paris. I was reading a book of blues poetry. I love the way that blues deals with love and loss. There’s this humor to it – humor in the inevitability that your heart is going to be broken, that one day you’ll be on top, and one day you’ll be the loser. I just thought about my own humiliating experiences (laughs) in dating and being rejected and how that can really cut across the heart. Just giving it the humanity that you need to in order to make blues. This woman [in the song] gets kicked out of her house into the snow on Christmas morning? Sh!t! (laughs) But I also wanted to give a woman’s perspective of what it’s like to be the broken-hearted blues woman, because there’s so many men – Robert Johnson, Skip James – that make the devil out of women, saying, “she’s crazy, she’s mad.” But, yeah, who did that to her? Who put her this way? So I wanted to allow her to speak. You say I’m a “mean-hearted woman” – well, then, here’s what happened to me. And there really is no resolution. I wanted her to be like Billie Holiday, still in her rocking chair, ruminating over a lost love. Oftentimes, we don’t get closure. You just stay stalking it through the woods, literally or metaphorically.
AH: Why is it important to you to tell these stories, to get these stories out? Or, like you say with “Mean-Hearted Woman,” to get the different perspective?
AV: It’s like Toni Morrison said – If there’s a story that you need to read, then chances are you need to write it. I’m not waiting for people to write the songs that I want to listen to. I’m not waiting for someone else to write the characters that I need to help me make sense of the world. This is kind of self-help for me, and I just found a way to make it groovy for other people, maybe to get a kick out of it, too.
AH: Of course, a lot of the album was recorded in Paris, but once you got back here, back in a full-on studio session, you worked with T Bone Burnett in an executive producer role. What’s it like to work with him?
AV: He’s just…real. I feel like he has made his art, and he’s a world-builder. He creates worlds for people and himself to occupy and examine. It’s kind of like hanging out with Merlin the wizard over the course of the pandemic. He’s like a walking encyclopedia, a walking library. His attention to detail, his understanding of the way that the physical body interacts with sound is…he’s a sound shaman (laughs). But at the same time, he’s totally silly, too! He is someone who will just talk about our favorite fast food places, so we cover a lot of humanity! He’s someone that became a mentor to me, and I think I became a mentor to him with a lot of projects, as well. I’ve always wanted to work with him, and as weird as it sounds, it was the time during “the plague” for us to meet up and be real cool.
AH: He’s almost a shape-shifter – he can work with just about anyone.
AV: Yeah, he told me – over the writing process, I was starting to lock horns a little bit with my label, because they’re doing their job, they’re gettin’ on my nerves – and said, “You don’t need anybody’s hand over your hand while you’re trying to write. Don’t let nobody put their hand over your hand while you’re trying to write.” That’s relevant for when you’re writing a record. It’s also relevant to so any other walks of life – don’t trust anybody’s hand over your hand to write your own story.
AH: Outside on France, you do most of your writing and recording in Nashville, correct?
AH: It seems like, over the past couple of years, there’s been a community of artists outside of the mainstream country genre that are really supportive of other artists, and some of them are on your album – Jason Isbell and Margo Price. It seems like certain folks really want to work with each other, and that enhances everybody’s music. Is that what you find?
AV: Maybe, sure. I just call up my girls and say, “Hey, y’all wanna make some art?” I think that’s a big part of the community that I’m blessed to be a part of here in Nashville. There’s so much talent here and so many kindred spirits and weirdos and freaks. It took me until a pandemic to actually really take advantage of the connections and the stories that are here and the talent that is here. For a lot of people, a lot of performers here in Nashville, we saw the uncertainties that swallowed up so much of the business. The business side of things was in absolute disarray last year. Touring was canceled, promotional cycles were canceled, called off, Everything shut down, so the business can’t keep making money. But we can keep creating, and that’s especially powerful for me. We’re taught so much, “Think about our careers! Think about money and the business and what makes sense as far as advancing.” And all of that is 1) make-believe, 2) based on nothing and 3) liable to disappear at the first sign of weakness. And that’s what happened – the business cratered. But what we were left with was why we got into music, why we picked up a guitar in the first place, or moved to Nashville. It was songs, it was writing, it was meeting up with friends and making art, and that’s internal. That doesn’t go away.
AH: Now that things are lifting a little bit, we hope, from an outsider’s perspective, it seems like artists, performers, musicians have a renewed sense of, maybe not purpose, but joy in what they’re doing. Is that something that you’ve felt or that you’ve seen?
AV: That’s a good question. I was at Newport [Folk Festival] last month. I wasn’t there to perform, I was there to do my podcast, “Call & Response” – we were doing a little special, “Live at Newport.” It was crazy, because that was the first national festival to come back, and no one really knew what to expect. A lot of performers didn’t have their full bands with them, they were doing stripped-down things. There wasn’t as much hustling going on. It was, “What am I even walking into?” It was the first time that I had even been around live music since the pandemic – a year and a half, right? And when I tell you that it felt like the most sacred event that I’ve been a part of as far as my work is concerned…there was this reverence for other people’s bodies, other people’s presence. Before, you’d take it for granted. I was at Newport in 2019, and you’re so busy (snapping fingers) trying to “catch the carrot” and hustle and make headlines and have a big moment – it’s so ego-driven. But there was this sense of grace that flowed from the top down. Jay Sweet, the [executive producer] of Newport, was very intentional about making sure that people felt space to feel and that people did not feel that they were “supposed” to feel a certain way, or put pressure on the performers – “We gotta make sure we come back strong.” No, this is new territory for ALL of us. I just felt so protected and held up in that moment, getting to perform with Allison Russell and the super-jam that she did with all the women, Chaka Khan – Once and Future Sounds – that was holy. It felt sacred. It felt like community, the way that community SHOULD feel. My prayer is that we are able to maintain that sense of grace moving forward, for ourselves and for each other and for the audience. Let’s be present for each other, let’s take care of one another, because, as we’ve learned over the past year, we’re all we have. If you ain’t got your people, you ain’t get nothin’.
AH: I can tell you, from someone who’s started going back to shows in the past few months, it’s different in a very good way. It feels different. And part of it’s a sense of relief, but part of it – there’s just a difference there. And, like you say, I hope that lasts.
AV: Yeah, I don’t want to go back to “before,” even if before meant being able to tour endlessly, and having the privilege of being able to go whenever, wherever you wanted to. I’ll take this heightened sense of mindfulness and consciousness around my actions and how they affect other people and sharing energy with other people. I know this sounds very “crystal,” and I promise I’m not doing that! But it’s my humanity. It’s not otherworldly, it’s very much of this world. It’s just that, the times that I’ve been blessed enough to be in rooms with other people felt really beautiful to me. And 2019 Adia would NOT have said that. She would’ve slapped me in the face and said, “Girl, what the hell are you smokin’?” (Laughs)
AH: A lot of artists, the first couple months they were off the road, it was, “Oh, this is great! I can spend time with friends or family or cats or books or whatever.” Then there seemed to be a sharp dividing line of, “Oh, sh!t, this sucks. I wanna get back out in the road!” Did you have that kind of before-and-after feeling?
AV: Oh, yeah, I had that every day, multiple times a day! It just depended what hour you caught me at. I’ve got strong introvert tendencies that kind of border on reclusive and anti-social. Part of me was, “This is great – I can be in my room with my books and my cat. I might even learn Russian!” But I didn;t realize that before, I could say that, but I also had the privilege of just walking down the street and going somewhere and grabbing a burger. I had the privilege, I had the option of being an introvert. Forced introverted activities are not the same as freely choosing them. And there were days where I’d miss things about tour so much that I could’ve cried, like eating breakfast at a gas station, or watching my bassist, Jason, finding a New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle in the van. Or just checking into hotels – “Oh, God, I miss checking into hotels!” These are things I never even thought of before. I missed Paris so much, it hurt. I don’t know – I’m happy with the time that I spent with Adia, but I want to take this Adia that I’ve found out into the world – “Girl, let me take you to Paris. You’re gonna LOVE that sh!t now!” I’m ready to SAVOR things.
AH: All through the album, you’re listing and discussing a lot of problems with the South. But at the very end, “South for the Winter” is almost a “no place like home” moment, realizing at the end, “Yeah, it’s a pain in the ass, but that’s where I want to be.” Was that what you intended?
AV: That song’s probably one of the most autobiographical songs on the record. I wrote that by going back and reading journals that I kept while living in New York City, 2005-2008. It was the first place I’d lived outside of my mom’s house in South Carolina, then moved to Brooklyn. And I just thought about a moment when I was with my underage friends – we were 19, and we were stumbling around 5th Avenue, just wasted, and trying to get downtown to party, and “Why? What am I doing here?” That was the place that I’d moved to to become a ghost. And then I realized that I kind of got abstracted into this mass culture up there – it’s very different than the mountains of South Carolina. And just wanting to get back home, to feeling something concrete, instead of chasing these big velvet lies that the world brainwashes you into thinking you want. That was another one that I wrote in Paris at Stone Jack Jones’ house, and I was, “Man, I wanna go home. Already. What is this feeling?” I feel like, with Southerners, that’s never really resolved. It’s such a conflicted territory, a conflicted land to grow up in and have ancestors there. It’s tearing you apart, but to leave it would break your heart.
AH: Matt Berninger [of The National] comes in on “South for the Winter” – kind of an out-of-left-field occurrence. How did that happen?
AV: My second record, Silences, was produced by Aaron Dessner, from The National. We went on tour extensively in 2019 with those guys, and every night, I just got to hear Matt crooning, performing. I love him onstage – he has such a particular presence as a performer. He’s heartbreaking, but he splits your gut with laughter. It’s very much knowing and genuine with a wink, and his voice is just dead-sexy! I’m not gonna lie to you – his voice does something. My creative partner and I, Mason Hickman – we finished recording “South for the Winter,” and I was, “I think I might have accidentally written a National song!”
AH: Yeah, I can see that!
AV: I think I stumbled myself into a song by The National! But it made sense, because I’ve worked so closely with Aaron, that I’m sure I picked up stuff subconsciously. So I texted him – “Hey, would you mind listening to this song? It kinda sounds like something in your wheelhouse that I think I might want to reach out to Matt.” That was the first time I ever had a feature on my song was one with Matt. And his voice was just beautiful. I know that I want him to tell this verse, this part of the story. I want to hear him talk about going to find troubled girls in downtown New York. He needs to sing that – the regret, the “sad bastard” aspect of it. He just does that beautifully. Aaron was, “Yeah, this is great. I reached out to Matt, and he said ‘I’ll do it!.’” So, yeah, he did it!
AH: It works well, and it’s fun for the listeners to see that kind of working together like that on something that really makes it pop.
AV: Yeah, that was one of my fun moments.
AH: You’re playing the Ryman Auditorium on October 24th (opening for Jason Isbell). Is this your first time playing the Ryman?
AV: Yes, it is.
AH: How are you feeling about it?
AV: I feel great! I’m just practicing with the boys again, my band, gettin’ these blues soundin’ right, soundin’ tight. I’m just grateful to be able to hawk my wares, but to be able to do that on-stage at the Ryman, I think that’s going to be something really special. I was so honored that Jason reached out to me. My management called me, “Jason would like to know if you’d like to open a show for him. I texted him – “Man, did you mean to do that?” And he said, “C’mon, kid, let’s do it!” So I said, “OK!” But I feel like, before the pandemic, I would’ve been a ball of anxiety and stress and thinking, “I have to be good enough to be on the stage at the Ryman.” I would put all this goofy pressure on myself and might kill the joy of the moment. Now, I’m just, “Cool! Yeah! Awesome, let’s do it.”
AH: I know that Jason made a concerted effort to get black female singers on the bill, because up until a couple years ago, they have not been too prominent in Nashville. Was there a discussion with him that he was going to do that, or did he reach out to people individually about it, or don’t you know?
AV: I don’t know – he just reached out to me. I think that this has been, for a lot of white people in Nashville – bless their heart – there’s a line that I came across talking about White Southerners and White Americans saying that they are “highly skilled misunderstanding black people.” (laughs) HIGHLY skilled at that.
AV: “Y’all are really good at this! You’ve gotten this DOWN.” So I think a lot of white people in Nashville have gotten to the point where the fart has gotten too stinky, and we can no longer NOT address this terrible smell. And the terrible smell was the whitewashing, the color-lining, the blacklisting. I know MY ass wasn’t gonna shut up – I was gonna keep talking about this. I came out the gate talkin’ about this sh!t in 2016, before it was cool – “Y’all are crazy here! Y’all have lost your damn minds if you think Nashville ain’t racist as hell.” I’ve just stayed on that beat, that’s been my beat. And I’ve seen more people start speaking up – Margo Price and Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton. I’m kinda like, “Yeah, welcome to the party. Go do some work.” I’m just someone that’s kind of like a town troll, in that way where I’m just going to keep pointing out the obvious fart in this room until someone gets up and opens a damn window.
AH: Anything else you want to say about the album or touring?
AV: I’ve got Season 2 of “Call and Response,” my podcast on Sonos [available now – see link below]. And I’m just really excited to see everybody! Get your ass vaccinated, so I can hug more necks.
Go to Adia Victoria’s website to order A Southern Gothic (out on September 17) and to look at tour dates: https://www.adiavictoria.com/
Check out the “Call & Response” podcast here: https://call-response.simplecast.com/
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