Interview: Adia Victoria Takes Another Step in Her Southern Reckoning With New Album
Adia Victoria's new album, A Southern Gothic, is so deeply rooted in southern heritage — hers, as a Black native of Spartanburg, S.C., but also the long, collective history of people from the southern United States — yet it began so far away from the South.
"Paris, for me, has always just been a place where I could go and properly brood," Victoria explains. "Like, I'm a good brooder, and I'm good in the South, but I'm better in Paris."
She's familiar with the city, and she speaks enough French to get by, but she knows neither so well that she can put herself "on autopilot" like she can when she's at home. In Paris, Victoria says, "You have to be that much more in tune with your surroundings."
"The space of being able to physically remove my little body out from the South and get some distance, get some waves in between you and that thang that gnaws on you, it gives you a different perspective," she continues. "It gives me a chance to just breathe a little bit different. It's like, 'Yeah, I know there are problems here, everybody's a mess ... but this ain't my mess.'"
When Victoria and creative partner Marcello Giuliani started what would become A Southern Gothic — out Friday (Sept. 17) — during that trip to Paris in January and February of 2020, those problems included COVID-19. Victoria heard about the then-newly discovered virus for the first time while overseas, "and it crept closer and closer," she says, until, shortly after she returned to the U.S., it became a full-blown pandemic and shut down much of the world.
"I feel like a lot of us had a lot of our 'adult costume' hijacked from us, and we became childlike in a lot of primal ways," says Victoria of the fallout, which included the temporary shuttering of significant segments of the music industry. "Like, I was eating so many Nutty Bars during the [press conferences then-president Donald Trump was holding about COVID-19] every day last year — just Nutty Bars and bourbon, like, 'I'm gonna die, but I'm gonna eat my favorite snack.'"
She was "self-soothing," she says, much like she was when, during the pandemic, she wrote "Carolina Bound," one of the 11 songs on A Southern Gothic. Unable to tour, Victoria was working at an Amazon warehouse in the Nashville area, and the anxiety of living during a time dominated by an invisible and unknown virus was getting to her.
"I felt like I had reached a point of almost dissolvement — like, pure dissolving into the chaos of last year ... So I wrote that song just to get my mind to transcend the terror," Victoria explains. As she packed orders at the warehouse, she wrote the song in her head to the rhythm of her body.
"Like any southerner, I'm always looking to go back home. But there's that tension between leaving home because you feel chased out. But once you leave, you realize how much you are part of that place, and how southerners, more than anybody else in this stinkin' country, we are so bound to our space and time," Victoria reflects. ""Carolina Bound" was just the yelp from the bottom of my pathetic southern heart ...
"It's self-pitying for sure, but it's like, look, that's how I felt — like, everything has to be better if you just go back home," she adds. "And obviously that's not the truth, but in your mind, you can make yourself believe anything about the past."
As a whole, A Southern Gothic draws deeply from those bodily rhythms. When Victoria went to Paris, she brought with her the field recordings of Alan Lomax, an ethnomusicologist who, along with his father, John Lomax, traveled around the U.S. recording thousands of performances by and interviews with those working in the folk and blues traditions, including singing prisoners and "chain gangs," many of whom were Black and living in the segregated South.
"They've been an inspiration for me, not just as a musician but as a Black woman in the Deep South ... They were my bread and butter when I first started [this record]," Victoria says of those recordings. As such, because she and collaborator Giuliani were without a full band, they used their bodies, as well as rice and dried beans in jars, to create the sounds they wanted.
"[It was] very, like, if I can't tap it on my thigh, this song ain't alive," Victoria continues. "I just wanted to keep it as down to my blood as I could. I think of the the enduring brilliance of, even in situations and atmospheres of death that Black folks have been confined within, we still create life, which is art, that endures ... That sense of groundedness and community that I found in those recordings sustained me."
Victoria called on her own community throughout the recording of A Southern Gothic, with Giuliani and another of her collaborators, Mason Hickman, assisting greatly with the instrumentation. Friends and fellow artists Margo Price and Kyshona Armstrong lend vocals on several songs, but perhaps most prominently on "You Was Born to Die" — a Blind Willie McTell cover — which also features Jason Isbell on guitar.
"I knew that I needed other women around me, especially to sing that blues song, of just dealing with so much spectacular death of last year and just looking at a man's world and seeing it crumble around you ...," Victoria continues. "I think the blues has been a way, for women especially, to sing back to the absurdities of their men. So I needed my women with me."
Together, they're a stunning chorus that make you feel the song deep in your bones. It's surprising to learn that, Victoria says, she had to "fight" her label to include it on the album.
"I wanted that continuation, that callback — thinking about call-and-response so much in the blues, and how that builds community, and that was a thing that I'd been missing from the world: my sense of community with my folk, my people," Victoria says. "The blues for me has always been a way for me, when I couldn't have, the real thing, I could find it in that song and in the spirit of the song and the stories of the song."
While "Carolina Bound" finds comfort in thoughts of home and "You Was Born to Die" connects Victoria with those who came before her, A Southern Gothic also sees her wrestling with what it means to be a Black woman from below the Mason-Dixon Line. In "Far From Dixie," she portrays the South as a "rough-and-tumble lover" to whom she knows she's forever bound, for better and worse.
"I wrote that song on the airplane flying to Paris, 'cause I was just like, I need to break up with the South for a second," says Victoria, adding that she intentionally used the word "Dixie" — a Civil War-era term of endearment for the South and the southern values of the time — to reclaim it.
"Using that word was important to me because I wanted it to be said out of a face that looks like mine ...," Victoria says. "The word 'Dixie' isn't dangerous to me. My people didn't do goofy s--t under that ... and so I wanted to reclaim Dixie as, I am of this place, but I'm far from what you say you are."
Her work is far from done, though. Creating A Southern Gothic and living through 2020 changed Victoria's relationship with her native area, but not completely.
"I don't feel like I'm better or more at peace — I think I was just finally able to swallow the mouthful that I've been chewing on for so long," Victoria says. "I had time last year to finish that mouthful, swallow it, digest it, s--t it out, and I feel like that allows me to try a new bite of this world around me ... and to maybe approach it from a different standpoint, a different perspective."