Adia Victoria: The Escape Artist

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Adia Victoria is always on the run. A refrain late in her debut single “Stuck in the South” finds her echoing, “I’m leaving soon” over a swirl of frantic guitars, the urgency growing more palpable with each listen.

Victoria knows a thing or two about leaving, having packed her bags at 19 and left her small town South Carolina home for life in New York City, before making a couple stops in Arizona and Georgia and finally settling in her current hometown of Nashville.

“I just wanted to go somewhere where no one would be looking for me, no one would ask anything of me,” Victoria explains, sitting in the courtyard of Nashville’s downtown public library, her self-described “second home.” “I could basically live like a ghost, kind of like a voyeur, in a way, watching the other people around me. That’s kind of what drew me to New York City.”

That tendency toward isolation gave Victoria a keen eye for the world around her, enabling her to write sharply observed Southern Gothic blues rock that sounds like little else being performed right now. “I try to keep myself kind of isolated, and that’s where I come alive creatively,” she says.

For an artist who trades in anonymity, buzz has been building around Victoria for a while, with Jessi Zazu of Those Darlins singing her praises early on. Victoria found a band, manager and producer within a matter of months, each approaching her after seeing her perform around Nashville. “I feel like it’s like this cheesy, kind of made-for-TV Glitter, Mariah Carey story, like ‘I was just moonlighting one night and there was a producer in the crowd,'” she laughs. “But it happened to me.”

Wanting to get it right, Victoria and her team purposely kept the curtain closed, keeping music offline while demand continued to build. “I guess we kind of wanted to do the opposite of what everyone in Nashville does and not throw shit all over Bandcamp and YouTube,” she explains. “So, it’s been really good because the only place where you could see our stuff was at live shows, so we’ve been able to control it that way. It adds to the mystique.”

The curtain lifted, though, when Victoria released “Stuck in the South” last month. When she and bandmates Mason Hickman, Tiffany Minton and Ruby Rogers laid down a first take of the track with producer Roger Moutenot (Yo La Tengo, Those Darlins), they knew they were onto something big. “We kind of just knew, ‘This is the song,'” Victoria says.

“Stuck in the South,” inspired by an R.L. Burnside riff, is both wild and restrained, a cagey, almost paranoid blues that paints Victoria as a reluctant product of the troubled region that birthed her. “It’s a very honest portrayal of my life in the South,” she says of the single. “Everyone has this preconceived notion of what the South is, like boots and mason jars and Taylor Swift. That’s not the South for me.”

For Victoria, who grew up Seventh Day Adventist, the South, instead, has been one long lesson in isolation, one that she managed to make the best of artistically, a sentiment expressed in a particularly potent line from “Stuck in the South,” where she seethes, “I don’t know nothin’ about Southern belles/ But I can tell you something about Southern hell.”

“I’ve never been able to get comfortable here, because it is such a conservative part of the country,” she says. “It’s very traditional. The way things are done is the way things are done. I kind of picture myself in a bubble living in the South, kind of observing everything around me.”

Growing up in the bubble of the church, Victoria wasn’t exposed to much secular music, only discovering the blues that so deeply informs her own music a couple years after leaving home. “I kind of started my own journey into the blues when I was 21,” she says. “A friend introduced me to the Black Keys and the White Stripes and I started listening to their work. It led me to, ‘Who are these guys’ influences? I know they didn’t invent the blues.'”

The blues quickly became an outlet for Victoria, a way to share her story with others as well as a reconciliation of her Southern heritage with the isolation it bred. Listening to Victoria Spivey and Robert Johnson eventually introduced her to country artists like Johnny Cash and Hank Williams, whom she cites as equally influential, despite today’s deep divide between blues and popular country music.

“For these people the blues was not so different from what they were writing,” Victoria says of her favorite country artists. “The song structures are essentially the same. They’re singing about the same stuff: being poor, being sad, being heartbroken, being drunk. Even though there was segregation they were closer together than we are now. And they influenced one another. They borrowed from one another.”

Victoria’s debut album, tentatively slated for a spring 2015 release, will see that mélange of influences as a backdrop for her to tell a story nearly three decades in the making. “Basically this first album is from when I began having memory, began being able to perceive the world around me, up until right now,” she says. “Before I would just write songs trying to learn a chord. But now I feel like I have more of a message, I have more of a theme, and I can kind of flesh that out. So that’s helped me enormously as a songwriter.”

The handful of songs currently available from that album (like the haunting “Howling Shame” and “Sea of Sand,” the latter of which plays as a long list of lamentations) could soundtrack a William Faulkner adaptation, but Victoria sees any similarities between her music and the Southern Gothic tradition as pure coincidence. Instead, she’s focused on telling her own story, one that has its Southern roots but is more concerned with breaking free of them.

“The theme that I’ve been working with is a woman on the run, a woman escaping the tyranny of the urgent, trying to protect herself when it feels like the world is ripping her apart,” she explains. “Everyone is trying to get a piece of you. I feel like it’s something a lot of us can relate to, the toll that being a human being takes on you, and constantly struggling to preserve yourself in this world. It’s really hard not to compromise and sell your soul.”

Blues music may have its roots in soul selling, but Victoria isn’t about to let anyone else tell the story she’s lived. “I’m not really interested in writing songs that I don’t want to hear,” she says. “If I don’t want to hear them, I doubt anyone else wants to, either.”

And if she runs out of those songs? Well, there’s always a new bag to be packed.