Adia Victoria’s “A Southern Gothic” – Being Black in the American South
Share this story!
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
Several miles down the road, at the West Meade home of her fiancé and musical partner, Mason Hickman, Victoria spent much of 2020 sheltering from the global pandemic and creating her newest album, A Southern Gothic.ADVERTISEMENT
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.
“I love the South,” Victoria says. “I was raised in South Carolina and will always be a Carolina girl. It’s a rich and amazing culture. I’m not walking away from it, but I think the area is haunted by its sins and by its past. I wanted to share the narratives of the Southern people who’ve been silenced, and I wanted to give myself grace, too. That’s what this album is to me – it’s my grace album.”Adia Victoria photographed by Shance Ware/Ware Media
Pausing to think about the days she spent recording A Southern Gothic in Hickman’s home, she adds wryly, “It’s also my sweatpants album!”
To truly fall in love with the American South, Victoria had to leave it. She’d been raised with her five siblings in Campobello, S.C., a rural town in Spartanburg County largely clustered around the intersection of two state highways, and brought up within the strict confines of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. “I always was curious about the world outside my community in Spartanburg,” she remembers, “but my church was attached to my school, so my world was really limited.”ADVERTISEMENT
Her first escape wasn’t a physical one. In search of something to soothe her mind after her parents’ divorce, she turned to poetry and music as a middle schooler. “Playing the tuba in the middle-school band was a transformational experience,” she says. “This was in 1998, and at our Christmas program we played a very rusty rendition of Celine Dion’s ‘My Heart Will Go On.’ Because, you know, the ’90s. I was floored by how much the low end mattered. It provided foundation and context for all the other sounds stacked upon it. I wasn’t playing a lot of notes, but whenever I changed, everything changed. The tuba could shift the entire tide of the song. That stuck with me – the bare bones of a composition, the roots of it, the grounding of it. I still jokingly consider myself more of a bass player than a guitar player. I’m all about the low end.”
Music helped give Victoria a glimpse beyond Spartanburg’s county limits, but her desire to explore was still discouraged by those in charge. “There was so much energy put into warning me about the outside world,” she recalls. “But I was a curious kid, and if you told me not to go see the outside world, it made me want to do it even more. I noticed that none of the adults around me seemed particularly happy or accomplished outside of the community, so at 18 years old I saved up my money and went to Paris on my own.”
For seven inspired days, she listened, learned, and wandered through the streets of France’s capital city. “Experiencing a new world by myself was something I’d always wanted to do,” she says. “It was one of the best adventures of my life. There’s so much history there. So many stories. You’re walking amongst history in a different way than you do in the States. We’re such a young country over here. Being around people whose culture goes back thousands of years is very humbling.”ADVERTISEMENT
Although she returned home after a week, Victoria’s search for new horizons soon took her to Atlanta, where she moved at age 21. There, she dug into the bare-boned folk music of Gillian Welch, studied the songwriting of Johnny Cash, and had a transformative experience after hearing Skip James’ “Hard Time Killing Floor” for the first time. Everything about the song sounded like home to her, as though James had funneled an entire landscape of dirt, blood, and sweat into three haunting minutes. Transfixed, Victoria dove headfirst into the blues, playing her first 12-bar progressions on a Washburn acoustic guitar she’d inherited from a friend.
“There wasn’t any teacher or parent telling me to go take music lessons,” she says of those earliest days learning guitar. “It was the first thing in the world that was completely and totally mine. It challenged me. It was like a partner – it pushed me to be honest with myself. There was no goal outside of me expressing myself. I’d sit and listen to Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside, and I wouldn’t try to transcribe their songs note for note. I’d listen for the feel.”
Meanwhile, most of her family had moved to Nashville, where her mother, Jackie Paul Sims, was working as an activist. Victoria eventually joined them, studying French at Nashville State with the goal of one day moving to Paris to teach English. But she also began writing music and playing shows, finding a home among the countercultural crowd of garage punk rockers, Americana rulebreakers, and other musicians who shared her desire to salute influences and subvert expectations.
One of those musicians, Jessi Zazu (who fronted Those Darlins for a decade before dying too young from cancer in 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.”ADVERTISEMENT
Atlantic Records agreed with that assessment, so 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 emphasizing the feel.
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, 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 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 such songs as “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. In hindsight, 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 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. Oddly, Victoria says it helped keep her creative instincts sharp.
“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 tics. Working at that warehouse made me a better artist.”
She had 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 them from getting together in person. Likewise, it felt irresponsible to reassemble her band during such a dangerous time.
Instead, Victoria formed a quarantine bubble with fiancé 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 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 celebrates Victoria’s heritage while exploring the complicated relationship many Black Southerners have with their homeland.
It’s an album 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 using her own voice to amplify those that have long been muffled.
If there has ever been a modern moment 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 struggled 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.”
Adia Victoria’s A Southern Gothic is available now via all streaming channels. It will also be out on vinyl in the near future. Visit adiavictoria.com for updates.
This article first appeared in the January 2022 edition of The East Nashvillian. Used with permission.