When blues artist, Adia Victoria, was first introduced to music in earnest, it felt for her like a religious experience. This, though, was at least somewhat tragically ironic for the future songwriter. At the time, Victoria was part of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in her then-hometown of Spartanburg, South Carolina. She was also enrolled in the adjoining Christian school. For Christmas, the students would perform concerts for the congregation. For Victoria, learning the songs and performing with her friends in front of an audience felt like an epiphany. More than any Bible verse or bit of scripture, this is what actually felt divine to her. “That for me was a revelation,” she tells American Songwriter.
Now, Victoria is set to release her third studio LP, A Southern Gothic, on Friday (September 17), The record represents yet another step forward in Victoria’s journey to uncover hidden truths.
“I’m not interested in history from the conqueror’s standpoint,” Victoria says. “I’m interested in the people whose lives were colored by the systems erected, whose stories were silenced. I’m looking to unbury the silenced voices.”
Victoria, who grew up in the south and has lived in South Carolina, Atlanta, Nashville, and New York City, is acutely aware of what she’s never been exposed to: stories, lineages, families, names, achievements, and much more. One of the many devastating effects of the American slave trade was the erasure of so much of the past. To be Black in the U.S. often means not knowing anything about yourself past your parents or grandparents. But for Victoria, to be an artist means to dive deep into the unknown. That’s often where the reward is.
“It’s the land that I grew on,” Victoria says. “So much of my story is of the deep south. I’m always investigating it, always questioning it. Digging, mining it to find truths. Why is so much of our history unspoken?” She adds, “As an artist, that’s where the gold is. The Gold is in what’s unspoken, forbidden.”
Growing up, Victoria was one of six siblings. There wasn’t much for her to do, she says, not a lot of action in her hometown. What’s more, Victoria often felt stifled, even under a type of surveillance by the deeply religious faction of people around her. So, she gravitated towards song. She picked up the tuba, the oboe. She transferred to public school in 6th grade and performed in the middle school’s marching band. She studied dance, looking for ways to express herself after feeling so suppressed by the church. She listened to Nirvana, Miles Davis, Fiona Apple, Outkast. But when she turned 21, she got her first guitar. At the time, she was working as a telemarketer in Atlanta, selling cable and internet.
“Nothing else was going on in my life,” she says. “I feel like the guitar found me when the blues found me. It saved my life, gave me permission to express the stories I’d never spoke. I could sing them and write music to them. It basically became a lifeboat for me, music did. It became a shelter and a haven.”
Victoria, who’d already by that time, spent stints in Paris, France, and learned to love the feeling of finding her own way in new lands and languages, says she became obsessed with setting her own goals, being her own teacher. After so many years of thinking so much of life was unavailable to her, the guitar was the portal through which she saw the other side. Working as a telemarketer, Victoria brought her guitar to the job. She played it on lunch breaks, studied tabs in free moments. At home, she stayed up late learning Johnny Cash and MGMT songs.
“I don’t look at it as getting better,” she says. “I opened up more space for the guitar. It’s like a relationship. You don’t ‘get better’ at a relationship, you give more of yourself.”
She would visit her family in Nashville, taking the Greyhound Bus from Atlanta to the Music City, guitar in hand. Many of the service people at the station would come to recognize her, saying, “There goes the Blues Queen!” Later, despite the cautions from friends and family, Victoria moved to New York City. There, she got a day job selling clothes and, at night, got to cut loose. Victoria engaged with much the city had to offer, from foods and shows to imbibing, sneaking into clubs, and passing out on rooftops.
“I wanted to see what was behind the curtain,” Victoria says.
Now, she brings all of her life experiences to her songwriting. Victoria, who doesn’t shy away from topics like brutal history or death, says that she wanted a specific feeling on her newest record. She thought about the south, about 400 years ago when slaves on chain gangs sang songs that kept them alive as they shattered rocks with hammers. And how these songs through resourceful creativity (to put it mildly) became the foundation for the blues, jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, hip-hop, and more.
“I wanted all the songs to have that dirt on it,” Victoria says. “I wanted them rooted in the land.”
The record, which also features Jason Isbell and Matt Berninger, opens with the track, “Magnolia Blues,” which speaks to Victoria’s creative intention in a more modern way. Victoria, who can see a giant, swooping magnolia tree from her bedroom window in Nashville, now where she writes, wanted to both showcase her own experience with the tree and take it back as a symbol of American Blackness. The magnolia tree, which is a recurring symbol in certain southern myth-making Victoria says, like the mint julep and white suits, is so much more than that to another population. For Victoria, the magnolia is a symbol of Black freedom. That’s why it was so crucial to open the new record with a song about it: to unveil again its longtime meaning.
“Like so many girls who grew up under the shade of the magnolia tree,” Victoria says, “the magnolia was where we were able to create worlds with our imagination. We could play unseen from anybody telling us what to do. That’s where we were able to be our most true selves.”