The debut album from Angelica Garcia, Medicine for Birds, is, for the most part, a love letter to the South, even though the 22-year-old singer-songwriter is a relatively new transplant to Dixie. Garcia grew up in Los Angeles but then moved to the eastern shore of Virginia at age 17, when her father left the music industry to become a priest.
We talked with Garcia days before her the release of the album (which is out now via Warner Bros) about the recording process, how the South affected her songwriting and her plans for the future.
It’s been a busy few weeks for you, I’m sure. Did you have any idea how hectic it would be?
Busy, but really cool. It’s just crazy to see the dramatic change of pace. From hanging in Richmond to “Here we go, I’ve gotta do this and do this.” But it’s all awesome. I’d heard that once things really kick off, things were gonna change, but I guess I didn’t really quite think through how big the change of pace would be.
Taking things back to the beginning, what were some of the ways music was first introduced into your life?
I heard a lot of mariachi music growing up, but as for inspirations for my music, my step dad, when I was a preteen, started to introduce me to some of my favorite artists. He handed me a Neil Young CD for the first time when I was maybe 13 or so. That’s also when he handed me the Rolling Stones, and that was a big kick-off point for me, because I had never really ventured into the rock world before. I was just kind of in the pop and Latin pop and Mexican folk music realm. When my dad first showed me these rock icons, I was like “Woh, people do this? This is crazy!”
The real jumping off point for me was Neil Young because I used to listen to Neil Young all the time, and it really stuck with me, and it inspired me to write my own stuff. I’m pretty sure the first song I ever taught myself how to play on guitar was “Heart of Gold.”
Did any Neil Young influence bleed over into the record?
I think what I’ve learned from Neil Young is that you can have a series of records that are very different from each other and still be a very true artist and have a cohesive kind of sound — even though the chapters of your life may be different. I guess in that way, Neil Young inspired me to really capture this time in my life. For example, Tonight’s the Night is very different from Everybody Knows This is Nowhere and Zuma.
As for this album, I like to think it’s a combination of all my influences merged into one thing. I’m also a very huge White Stripes fan. I grew up listening to a lot of Willie Nelson, too. My dad used to put that one on for road trips all the time. I’m a really big Lucinda Williams fan. I’ve also loved songwriters that are heavy into lyricism.
Are these songs you’ve written over the last couple of years, or do some of these songs date back to when you were an early teen?
The bulk of the songs came from a time period between when I was 18 to 20 years old. I’m 22 now; the recording process and everything took a little longer than expected, but the majority of the songs came from that time period. That’s why the last song on the album is called “Twenty.” I wrote that when I was 20, and its was the last song I finished off before heading to Nashville to record. I started recording the album in January of 2015.
What was it like going into the studio to record your first album?
It was really crazy to me, to feel like everything was all at my fingertips. I was working from a very limited perspective before I first got there. I taught my self how to play guitar, and then piano. All that I really knew how to do, was what I was able to do myself in that little back house where I wrote all my songs — the parish house in Virginia. It was pretty crazy to go to Charlie Peacock’s studio, he has made so many connections over the years, working with different session musicians. He has so many programs. You can sit there and ask Charlie, “Hey Charlie, I want there to be a little bit of a delay on my vocals.” And he’ll say, “Well, what kind of delay do you want to use?” There are like 50 different kinds. Whereas, whenever I worked by myself writing and recording at the parish house, if I wanted a certain effect, I’d have to make it up myself or use whatever was programmed on GarageBand. So having all of those options in front of me made for a cool environment. We got to experiment a lot and play with the sonics.
A lot of younger musicians are going the DIY, independently released route for their projects. What made you want to go with a major label?
I was first introduced to the major label when I was really young. And I was about 20 when I signed. When I first went to Warner, I know that so many heroes of mine came through Warner Bros. Of all the labels, I felt that they had the biggest roster of songwriters coming through, as far as all the people I’ve looked up to all my life. It was a crazy honor to have the label interested in me. I just felt that I had a really good team behind me. As long as you have the right people with you and willing to back you up and support your ideas, I felt confident in my decision.
One of the catalysts for the record was when you moved from the West Coast out to Virginia. How did that change of scenery affect your songwriting?
It was a really crazy jump for me. I moved to the eastern shore of Virginia so it’s this really rural community. There’s a lot of farmland and fields and the woods and ocean. It’s a crazy place to think that people live there every day. It’s different from Los Angeles in probably every way you can think of. Everything from pitch-back backroads to the manner that people speak. There’s a friendly neighborly vibe going around everywhere, and everybody knows who you are, whether you like it or not. That’s different from L.A. where you can walk into a place and never have to worry about seeing the same person ever again.
The fact is that there were all these new faces and places that were special to me, that inspired me a lot when I was writing a song. And not to mention, I had never been able to walk among 30-foot magnolia trees. In L.A., there’s a height limit on the trees [laughs]. In that sense, it was kind of magical to me to be able to be a part of that world and to stand there and realize, “Wow, all this has been here all this time, and I had no idea about it because I had been living in the city.”
As far as the magnolia trees, I’d say the magnolia trees embody the South for me. All my family members had told me they were riddled all over the South, but I had never seen one full-formed before. I thought they were beautiful and they’re all over the Eastern Shore.
In what other ways did the South affect your music?
The house that I lived in with my parents was a 200-year-old house and was a station for the Union troops during the Civil War, just to give you an idea of the historical significance of where I was. A lot of the buildings on the eastern shore have this old architecture and spookiness infused into everyday life because you know the ground you’re walking on was walked on by people a few hundred years ago. I feel like it’s harder to imagine that in the big city. Everywhere you look on the Eastern Shore there are old abandoned houses that are falling apart.There are tombstones in the backyard, there are iron fences that date back 200 years. I think that kind of spookiness and creepiness made its way into the record. But it’s also this unusual type of eeriness that because it’s eerie, it’s also beautiful. It’s just cool to see these landmarks of generations before us just so co-mingled with everyday life.
Several songs on the album tackle relationships and love, such as “Orange Flower” and “Bridge on Fire.” Are you pulling from personal experiences on those tracks, or are you projecting others’ situations?
It’s interesting the way those songs in particular happened. I feel like I just start writing them. With the exception of maybe “Loretta Lynn,” [most of the songs like] “Bridge on Fire” and “Orange Flower,” I just started writing them and fleshing out the idea. It wasn’t until after the song was written fully and recorded, that I was like, “Whoa, that was something that totally happened to me but I didn’t realize was as significant as it was, but now I wrote about it so I guess it did affect me in some way.
In a way, it does sort of reflect part of my personal life, but it’s not like I sat down to write about it. With something like “Bridge on Fire,” the cool thing about that song is that it’s really about finding yourself for the first time. And realizing that even though people are trying to limit you, you have control of your destiny from the very beginning. In that way it’s a self-declaration.
Looking forward, where do you want your career to go? Where do you want to see yourself in ten years?
I’d like to have at least six really cool albums out, all notating different chapters of my life. That makes it sound very self-driven but it’s not. I just want it to be six cool pieces of art. I want them to have their own little world. I just want multiple records that are each very much their own thing, and I would hope along the way that people relate to them. That’s honestly the most I can ask for. If I can wish anything on my end, I hope I never lose the drive to keep creating and recording stuff. I haven’t thought about what it’d be like to be 32, though [laughs].