Adia Victoria’s Blues are Southern and Gothic

Adia Victoria in vintage dress at Black Shag Vintage in East Nashville, December, 2021. Photograph by Shance Ware/Ware Media
Adia Victoria in vintage dress at Black Shag Vintage in East Nashville, December, 2021. Photograph by Shance Ware/Ware Media

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It’s a week before Christmas, and Adia Victoria is riding out the final hours of an early-winter rainstorm in the home she shares with her mother and sister. Victoria moved here — to a historically black neighborhood on the border of North Nashville and Midtown — in November 2010. “I showed up in a Greyhound bus with my cat and my guitar,” she remembers, “and just walked into the city. I’ve been walking ever since.” Things have changed considerably since she took those first steps.

Victoria still winces at the memory of the 100-year-old bungalow that was recently torn down and replaced by her neighborhood’s first tall-and-skinny house, which looms above the block like a tone-deaf billboard advertising gentrification. In the distance, the downtown skyline remains in a constant state of reconstruction as new buildings sprout skyward from the concrete. For a hard-touring musician who spent more than 200 days on the road in 2019, it’s been shocking for Victoria to come home to such a rapidly changing landscape.

Adia Victoria photographed by Shance Ware/Ware Media
Adia Victoria photographed by Shance Ware/Ware Media
Adia Victoria photographed by Shance Ware/Ware Media

Several miles down the road, in the West Meade home of her fiancé and musical partner, Mason Hickman, Victoria spent much of 2020 not only sheltering from the global pandemic but also creating her newest album, A Southern Gothic. It’s a record steeped in postmodern blues and haunting folk-noir, filled with character-based stories that explore what it truly means to be Black in the American South. Call it a reclamation of Victoria’s Bible Belt roots, perhaps, or maybe just an honest look at an area whose own mythology — one that’s been perpetuated by centuries of white writers, politicians, and artists — all too often disregards the grittier reality of the Black Southern experience.

Adia Victoria photographed by Shance Ware/Ware Media
Adia Victoria photographed by Shance Ware/Ware Media

“I travel because it allows me some distance. It gives me new perspectives that are hard to gain at home. It helps me examine my Southern identity.” —Adia Victoria

Meanwhile, most of her family had moved to Nashville, where her mother (Jackie Paul Sims, who is the subject of our “Know Your Neighbor” profile in this issue on page 15)worked as an activist.  Victoria eventually joined them, studying French at Nashville State with the goal of one day relocating to Paris as an English teacher. She began writing music and playing shows, too, finding a home amongst the countercultural crowd of garage punk-rockers, Americana rule-breakers, and other musicians who shared her desire to salute influences and subvert expectations.

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One of those musicians — Jessi Zazu, who fronted Those Darlins for a decade before tragically passing away in 2017 — became a close companion and champion of Victoria’s art. “She encouraged me to get out of my own way and get to work,” Victoria remembers. “She told me I was good enough to be on stage.”

Atlantic Records agreed, and Victoria made her major-label debut with 2016’s Beyond the Bloodhounds. A second album, Silences, followed in 2019. Both records positioned her as a blues heiress for the modern age, focusing less on the technicalities of the genre’s cyclical form and, as mentioned before, emphasizing the feel instead. Her songs were urgent. They were unsettling. Equal parts Tim Burton film score, garage-rock exorcism, and poetry-slam soundtrack, they showcased a street-smart musician who was unafraid to stir big issues — from religion to race to sexual politics — into her own Southern brew.

After touring across Europe in support of Silences’ release, Victoria found herself in Paris once again. She’d just wrapped up a run of concerts with Calexico and Iron & Wine, and the urge to spend more time in France — the country that had first validated her childhood belief that a wider world awaited — was too great to ignore. “Our last show before COVID was in Paris,” she explains. “It’s still the place I like to go create, write, brood, and lose my associations that can sometimes distract me from creating here in Nashville. I love being able to lose myself in France. It’s a different pace of my life for me, but one that’s very conducive to creating.” And create she did, writing songs like “My Oh My” — a haunting ballad inspired by a Eudora Welty short story, its verses dotted with descriptions of kudzu and mountain hollers — while halfway across the world from the landscape her lyrics described. Years later, she credits that distance with helping her tap into a Southern muse.

“It’s a fish-out-of-water thing,” she says. “You don’t know you’re swimming in water until you leave the water. That’s the moment you realize you’re a fish. I find the same thing whenever I travel because it allows me some distance. It gives me new perspectives that are hard to gain at home. It helps me examine my Southern identity.”

Back home in Nashville, Victoria continued writing A Southern Gothic while working a part-time job at an Amazon distribution center. The coronavirus pandemic had turned Amazon into a madhouse, with thousands of locked-down Nashville residents relying on the e-commerce company to deliver groceries and other essential items. It was demanding work. For Victoria, it also kept her creative instincts sharp.

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“My back would be pounding at the end of my shifts,” she remembers, “but when you’re in touch with your body, you’re very present. I felt very rooted in my own body during a time when we were being killed by the air — by things we couldn’t see — and that made me more grounded. In our culture, we’re often so thought-centric and head-centric, and I needed the mental flush that Amazon provided. I could clean my brain’s palate, turn it off, stop thinking so much, and get my head to shut the fuck up for a while. I would leave work and my brain felt very rested, so I could write once I got home. That was a rare experience for me. I got out of my neurotic ticks. Working at that warehouse made me a better artist.”

She’d already tapped co-producer T Bone Burnett — one of the most sought-after architects of modern-day roots music — to help helm her new album, but quarantine restrictions prevented the two from getting together. Likewise, it felt irresponsible to reassemble her band during such a dangerous time. Instead, she formed a quarantine bubble with Mason Hickman and his roommate, keyboardist Peter Eddins, and began making homemade recordings at Hickman’s home studio. The do-it-yourself tracking sessions required all three to become multi-instrumentalists. Hickman learned to play the viola and banjo. Victoria sharpened her piano and percussion skills. Steadily, A Southern Gothic took shape.

“We were able to craft the songs from the rhythm up,” she says. “It was a way for me to strip away a lot of pretensions and get back in touch with that middle-school girl playing the bass. I divorced myself from the idea of time and just took it day-by-day, hour-by-hour, breath-by-breath. It was a kind of grace I’d never felt with the creative process. T Bone said, ‘I can handle the label and get them off your back. You can take your time.’ He was so supportive of me and honored the process of creating a body of work you can stand behind. I had no external pressures on me. I was in complete control of how this art got made.”

Beginning with the slithering, slow-simmering “Magnolia Blues” — the story of a Southern woman’s return home after chasing a no-good lover to parts unknown — and ending with the campfire folk duet “South For the Winter,” A Southern Gothic both celebrates Victoria’s heritage and explores the complicated relationship many black Southerners have with their
homeland. It’s a record of extremes — the claustrophobia of “Troubled Mind” giving way to the ethereal, dream-like soundscapes of “Please Come Down”; the stripped-down starkness of “Mean-Hearted Woman” set against the collaborative, cameo-filled “You Was Born to Die” — and its sound mirrors the duality of the South. There’s melody and menace, virtue and vice, devotion and defiance, all underpinned by an artist who’s using her own voice to amplify those that have long been muffled.

If there was ever a modern time for the blues, it’s now. As the entire world strains to return to some sort of normalcy, A Southern Gothic takes a close-up view of a region whose people have been struggling for decades. It’s a reminder to enjoy the present, without forgetting the past or abandoning the push for a brighter future.

“I’m learning to give myself grace,” Victoria says. “That’s the main lesson I’m walking with right now. All the things that prevent you from giving yourself grace — that’s all fucking fake. All you have is what you can hold, and that’s a lesson I had to be sat down and forced to reckon with. I’m learning to be right here, to enjoy the moment. I’m learning to just be
here now.”

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