Born in South Carolina and raised in the Seventh Day Adventist church, Adia Victoria spent time traveling and living in Europe and New York before finding her way back to the South.
Recorded in Nashville at Haptown Studios, her new album Beyond the Bloodhounds reverberates like a howl. It is lonely, vicious, and haunting. Victoria teeters on the lines of country, punk, and rock, and stands steadfast in the spirit of blues. Never one to be boxed in, Victoria’s search for answers, a sense of self, and a place to be, is unrelenting.
She Shreds talked with the songwriter and guitarist about isolation as a breeding ground for creativity and how to tell your story above all else.
She Shreds: What was it like growing up in South Carolina?
Adia Victoria: I’m from Spartanburg County, which is upstate. I grew up in a small town, small church, and a small school. So it was a small world for me as a kid and I was never really satisfied with the answers I was getting about what life was supposed to be from my church or from my school. I always imagined outside of my immediate surroundings. We spent a lot of time living in Campobello which is a small town in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, about an hour south of Asheville.
Having that access to nature, to isolation, it saved me from having my mind dulled. Being able to access this otherworldliness, this power of nature independent of what I was being taught it kept me a little rebellious. It instilled a punk attitude inside me, looking at the world and being like “you don’t know what happens when we die, so you don’t have any authority and I just don’t care.”
What was the creative atmosphere of the Seventh Day Adventist church like? Did you have a relationship to music in a spiritual upbringing?
We had choir at my school and we’d perform at Christmas and at Easter and Sabbath service on Saturdays. I loved singing with a group of people. I felt something very spiritual with that. I remember standing in the front of our church and looking out at the congregation and that kind of deified the church for me, just being able to perform in it. I liked the effect that performance had on the church – it changed the whole atmosphere. I’m very grateful that I had that as I child. My mom always knew that I was different so she was kind of like, “Adia so you want to sit in your room and pretend you’re Anne Frank and write, alright. You want to watch Riverdance till three in the morning on repeat on VHS, do it.”
Do you carry ideas of “Southern femininity” with you?
Well it was funny for me growing up because I never really thought I was very Southern. My mom is from Philadelphia and my dad is from Trinidad and I developed a pride like, “I’m not really from here.” Cause I really did look down on the South as a child, just thought that everyone was so simple. I always blamed the South on my state of mind. If I was depressed or sad or going crazy, I’d be like, “I just gotta get out of here.” But when I moved to New York when I was 19, which is the first place I lived outside of my mother’s house, I realized how fucking southern I was. [My] first night, I had dinner with the woman I was living with and I ordered a sweet tea and the server was like, “We have sweetener and iced tea, is that okay?” and I was like, “Oh, I’m not home anymore… and no that’s not okay.” I don’t think I can ever permanently leave the south. It’s this very humanistic part of the country in spite of itself. And I think that interests me. This obsession with constantly having to prove yourself and your values and this stubbornness because the South has never really come clean. I just see so much of myself in the South that it’s like a constant goldmine for me.
What your thoughts on this under representation of the south, or the kind of archetypical representation of the south? Do you feel like breaking that canon?
What I’m doing is offering is not only an alternative view of the south but also a context of why they’re making the songs that [country music is] making. There’s these particular peculiar truths to the south that are terrifying for people to grapple with that has just been completely wallpapered over. What’s coming out is so heavily censored… you’re so terrified to talk about anything than your trucks, your jeans, a girl with a nice tan. You’re terrified of going there. I think that keeps a lot of people here are placated. There’s more at play in the South that’s so unsettled.
How do you go about writing about those hard or uncovered truths, or your life more generally?
These things are the only things I know. If I’m going to make art then I’m going to tell my story and if I’m not going to tell my story then I won’t make art. So for me it’s very matter of fact, I’m going to tell my life story very plainly. When it happens it’s so seemingly revolutionary it’s like “wow you’re talking about experiences that have had happened to you and I’m identifying with it” and it’s like “yeah dickhead that’s what we’ve been doing since the dawn of time, we’ve been telling our stories.” I love pop music – it’s candy to my ears, [but] we sacrifice a lot of truth to get to a more marketable product. We’re sacrificing a lot of ourselves in pop music today, losing lot of humanity. We have human brands not human beings. Like can you just talk to me like a person? Not everything has to be a hashtaggable moment.
You talk about location a lot in your songs, especially with what you were talking about earlier with wanting get out. How did traveling really start to affect your writing?
I first went to London and Paris as an 18-year-old and I was there for a little under a month. I was just traveling around in total silence. I didn’t talk, I didn’t know anybody. That began to compound on the isolation of moving to New York, where I was surrounded by millions of people but not speaking to anyone. I think it tapped into a different part of my mind that wouldn’t be there if I had been interacting or been in a comfortable place for me. So traveling, as ironic as it sounds, you’re pretty much fleeing. You’re far away from your life, you go further into yourself when you travel. I wrote a lot of material that’s on the first album while I was living alone in Paris in an apartment and all I had was my guitar. And I had all these thoughts in my mind because I was out there, but I was never fully comfortable to express myself in France. There was this hesitance to speak so I was having all these conversations with myself in my mind and I would just come home every night and just write. It was a good feeling.
Do you have any advice for how to find space for your music?
Honestly, I just went out there and sat on the floor in my living room and learned a few chords and wrote songs. I came to Nashville and I started going to local clubs and coffee shops and playing. That’s how I made place for myself. I had to first, within myself as a woman, and especially as a black woman in the south, I had to claim the space. I had to say there is a need for me, there is an absence there and I’m going to fill that. Because I looked around and didn’t see anyone else doing what I was doing. And that’s not good or bad, but, “Hey, I’m not here, I deserve to be here.” That’s how I went for it with my career. There was a blind kind of optimism and delusion at play as well. I had to constantly tell myself that, “you deserve to be heard.” There’s so much in the world as a black woman telling you that “hush no one needs to hear from you. We’ll tell you how to feel, we’ll tell you how to love.” There’s such a major silencing of black women and our voices.
Is there a moment in other people’s music that has touched you or changed you?
I would say that one of the most profound relationships I’ve had with an artist is with Fiona Apple. I found her in my early teens when I had no outlet to speak for myself. And so when I found her, the first album I got into – When the Pawn… listening to it I was just like “Holy shit! You’re mad as hell. You don’t sound like what the world would call sane and they didn’t scrub that out of your music. And oh my god you’re letting me hear that.” And so for me it was feeling acknowledged. She found me in dinkyass small town South Carolina and she lifted me up. Where she made me feel righteous about my anger. I don’t have to smile when men tell me to smile. And I don’t have to feel grateful just to be here. I don’t have to fucking make men comfortable. I needed that.
What kind of guitar do you play now?
I have a Epiphone Casino. It’s cherry red. That’s the first guitar I bought for myself. I still use it to write songs, cause I live in an apartment and I can’t plug my guitar in and this one I can just hear it better. But the one I’ve been performing with is from here Gruhn Guitars in Nashville. Big shout out to Sarah Rose Jones who works there, because she hooked it up for me. It’s a 2001 Gibson SG. I had a Bigsby put on it and it’s black and it’s absolutely beautiful and I love it.
Where does the spooky stuff come from for you?
It’s just a byproduct of coming up in the church and that there was a very specific part of me that was evil and feeling like I had to pray it out of me. As a little kid that made me very terrified and neurotic. Like, “Oh my god I could burn in hell for telling sins and I love telling sins.” I became terrified of the feeling of confession. But as I became older and fell in love with art. I wanted to play with [that idea of confessions]. I want to turn that on it’s head. And show to people someone who refuses to relinquish their demons and they’re just playing with her, because there’s days where I feel like that.
Do you have anything else you’d want people to know about the album or the tour?
The tour is called the Me & The Devil Tour is my interpretation of the blues from delta blues to now, we kind of pay homage to Skip James, Robert Jones, and Victoria Spivey. It’s just a big spooky mess. And it’s fun and I really enjoy the chance to perform for people.