During her interview with American Songwriter at 30A Festival, Adia Victoria pulls out her typewriter. Resting in the tray is a picture of her as an eight-year-old girl, sitting on a wooden fence surrounded by white flowers and other blooms as bright as the smile on her face. As Victoria puts it, she was free. “I love that kid,” she reflects. “She was fearless. She was curious and she wanted to take in the entire world.” Victoria carries forth that spirit, now with a wealth of knowledge she captures in song. But those songs also reflect the deep pain her childhood self had to lock inside. Below, Victoria takes us inside her intimate writing process, including how she connects with her inner child through music, how nature impacts her songwriting, the power of rage, and more.
American Songwriter: When did you know your songwriter?
Adia Victoria: I knew I was a writer when I learned how to write my name because I saw what writing down my name symbolizes to me. It made me real. I wrote myself to existence. From when I learned how to spell A-d-i-a, it was power.
AS: When did you write your first song?
Victoria: I remember I was probably six. I would write songs and stories and sing them to my little sisters. We would create cleaning songs. We had to exist and create songs from our minds that we could play with and interact with, that was our way of fighting back against a world that told us that we did not exist. We make songs, we sang the songs. It was great.
AS: What brought you back to 30A Festival?
Victoria: We really enjoyed our experience the first time around and I like gigs where it doesn’t feel like a gig. We’ve been able to go to the beach and it was just really well run. I love festivals that are more about the writing process and the art of writing. There’s a community here of weirdo writers and I’m here for it … I feel a sense of community and understanding and it’s not so performative. That’s what I really enjoy. It’s really more about the guts of what we do. There’s this understanding among the artists here that what people hear is that finish, it’s the end result of a very long process, and everyone here understands what that process is. We have a chance to explain what that is and talk about that, what goes into a good song, the discovery of a song. I feel like the folks that come, the fans that are here to listen, they’re here to see the whole story rather than just the finished product of the performance that we give when we’re on tour. So it feels like a complete way of sharing my art.
AS: Take me inside the guts of your songwriting process. When do you get a spark of inspiration for a song?
Victoria: The living is the process. Everything that I do goes into my art … Part of the writing process for me is [huband and producer Mason Hickman] and I got married in October, we moved out to Ashland City, which is a town about 35 minutes north of Nashville, [we got] nine acres and a cabin. The writing process for me is going out naked in my woods with my cats and going for a walk and sitting and letting nature flow through me and getting enough time that I can distill things and get a sense of clarity and find words to put to the emotions. I believe every good lyric begins in the body as an emotion, as a feeling. It was felt, and feelings are without words. So the writing process begins for me by thinking about how I felt in a situation and matching those to words … We moved there last year at the end of a very hectic and intense touring cycle and I just needed to shed. I needed to have no boundary between me and the trees and the dirt and the air and the sun. I just needed to feel completely embedded in the natural world. I needed to be an animal, and we are animals. But I think that in our socialization, we forget that, and then when we start thinking, it’s a lot of ‘shoulds,’ ‘I should be doing this’ and that to me is the death of inspiration. So I just needed to shed all of that self-consciousness and be as naked as my cats are. Sit out there and just let nature hold me.
AS: Do you still feel fearless like that girl in the picture?
Victoria: I don’t. I have fears. But I think part of my journey is giving words to those fears because a lot of the fears that we have are based in trauma, and trauma is worthless. It’s just something you feel in the body. Oftentimes, we don’t express it. We don’t metabolize it. It just stays stuck in us. This little girl is reminding me that your trauma, it’s fair game for you to explore. You can dig in it and you can air it out. You don’t have to hold it and sit on it. I’m trying to be more like her every day … I wouldn’t say my work is all trauma-based, but it’s me living and growing and exploring the depths of myself. And if you keep doing that you’re gonna run into something ugly. But art gives me a vessel to challenge it, to explore it, tear it apart. Look at it, investigate it. Speak to it, soothe it. It is therapeutic always.
AS: How important to you is location for writing? Do you have to be in a certain type of environment?
Victoria: It depends on what I’m writing. I journal anywhere. I don’t like writing on tour. You’re basically doing the same thing over and over again with very high intensity. So your mind is not very open to new things. It’s routine. It’s executing what you’ve already perfected and doing it again and again and again. So I don’t write on tour. I like to write while I’m walking, just being in my body. The body, you feel things, your executive brain is not editing while you’re walking. You’re less conscious of the ‘shoulds’ and you’re able to be in the body get in rhythm and just walk.
AS: What’s the most meaningful reaction you’ve had to a song or lyric?
Victoria: I think it was hearing Nina Simone’s “Four Women” for the first time. She grew up in Tryon, North Carolina, which is just around the mountain from where I grew up in South Carolina. One of the churches we went to was in Tryon. I recently went to her house for a PBS show that Rhiannon Giddens hosts and we went to Nina Simone’s house, the home that she was born in, and I climbed her magnolia tree. We were walking through Tryon and the Pacolet River that went right past my grandmother’s house where I spent a lot of my childhood, it flowed right behind Nina’s house. So that same river flowed throughout our childhood—black Carolina girl, poor. Her song “Four Women” talks about all of these women of color and the ways that racism, white supremacy, shame, and sexism has shaped and altered their lives. Hearing that for the first time, My skin is black/My arms are long/My hair is woolly/My back is strong, that was me. I was a long-armed, gangly, skinny little black girl from the Carolinas, just like Nina was. I didn’t know who she was growing up as a little girl and I wish I had known. But I did know that I would stare up at the Blue Ridge Mountains and wonder about them. And they were watching me and holding me and I felt safe in those mountains. And to think just a little bit around the hills, she was watching in the opposite direction. She was looking towards me and I’ve been looking towards her and we never knew each other. But we do know each other.
AS: I want to ask you about “In the Pines” that you released in 2022 inspired by journal entries you wrote when you were 16. Take me inside the process of that song.
Victoria: I wrote that song after reading my entries and thinking about the relationships I had with a lot of girls in my childhood. I can see the despair and isolation and the lack of understanding that I felt as a young girl that grew up in the South in a Christian conservative community where people are terrified of emotional intimacy and the ways that this rips people apart, especially a little girl. We’re not able to be outwardly destructive towards other people, we destroy ourselves, and I knew so many destructive young girls that were in deep pain, and I was one of them. I wanted to write a story about what happens to young girls like us—what goes on and how a community deals with that grief and where do you put it. I was really inspired to write it one day when we were on the road and I saw a cross on the side of the road … From there is where I created this character. Because she’s not a real person. She’s a mix of signs and experiences and people I know and people I’ve been. I wrote a story about what would it be like to lose somebody in that way and how does the south deal with grief and what does this do to our humanity and where do you put your pain? “In the Pines” was me writing a folk song about a girl that gets fucked up on pills and then dies.
It was a conversation that she was explaining a lot of things that she never spoke to an adult about. So I think a lot of my healing has been to keep an open heart and an open ear out for her because there’s so much that girl was sitting on. Adults were repulsed by me because I was angry. There’s one thing that girls in the south are not allowed to be is angry. And I was mad. I think that the only acceptable way for a girl to express her anger in the town that I grew up in is through sadness, tears. But the tears are rage. I saw so many girls when I was that age, they’d be crying and you ask them what’s wrong, and they would shake their heads ‘no.’ They wouldn’t say it … Nobody asked me what was wrong. They just knew that I was wrong. They didn’t want to know what was wrong. I needed my defense to be anger to keep people away because I’d been hurt so much. So I was angry. I was a pissed-off kid. “In the Pines” is just me talking, allowing that girl to share the story. It’s written in the second person. It’s through the eyes of her friend witnessing what’s going on. She never speaks. But her friend tells her story for her.
Your rage is righteous. It’s it is there for a reason. Our rage is a response when we have not been able to appropriately respond to traumatic shit … Fiona Apple, when she released her song “Heavy Balloon” it spoke to me on so many levels as a woman, as the way that I internalized that rage and turned that knife back on me and starved myself and did all of this shit. I was anorexic all throughout high school and she was too because of her childhood trauma. In the line in “Heavy Balloon” she says, I spread like strawberries/I climb like peas and beans/I’ve been sucking it in so long/That I’m bursting at the seams. That’s her saying ‘I’m spreading the fuck out. I’m not gonna be small for you. I’m not going to contain myself and not take up space because you need to expand and break all of my boundaries. I’m big.’ I’m connected to so much around me in nature. That’s what art is for me. That’s what goes into my songwriting. That’s why I’m in the woods naked.
Photo by Huy Nguyen / Grandstand Hq