Adia Victoria (with Tank and the Bangas)
Lincoln Theatre, Raleigh
“I don’t like being pretty or polished,” the blues singer Adia Victoria says, a few minutes before the call drops.
She’s driving through fickle patches of mountain service, en route to visit her boyfriend’s family for Easter; after an hour of phone tag, we settle on texting, exchanging a few riffs and GIFs about I-26 traffic. But after I send a list of questions, several hours pass before she responds, late at night, with a photograph of her answers, handwritten in a loopy script and signed “Columbia, South Carolina.” It’s worth the wait.
“I have always maintained that I consider myself, first and foremost, a blues musician,” the note begins. “Now, this is not to say that I should feel boxed in by preconceived notions of what the blues ‘sounds like’ but, rather, the work of the blues.” This kind of searing consideration marks Victoria’s work: She’s an artist who leaves no stone unturned, whether in her own introspection and musical process or in the stories she tells the world about that music. On the heels of her “Dope Queen Blues” tour, she is opening several shows for Tank and the Bangas, including one at Lincoln Theatre on Tuesday.
Silences, Victoria’s second album, released in February, reflects her thoroughness. It also reflects her early twenties. Victoria was raised in a devout Seventh Day Adventist household in rural South Carolina, and the constant moral calculus and emphasis on the afterlife bore a heavy hand. By the time she dropped out of school at age sixteen, she had disavowed her parents’ religion and began a series of moves, first to Paris (according to a recent New York Times profile, she bought a plane ticket the day that George W. Bush was re-elected), then to Brooklyn, and finally to Atlanta, where she worked as a telemarketer. This period was, she said in a KEXP interview, a “wild, debaucherous time,” as she explored what a life free from religion might look like. Also, she began teaching herself to play guitar.
It’s essentially standard by now for a musician in their early thirties or forties to release an album that reckons with a period of youthful debauchery: Perhaps they’re sober now, converted, clean, or otherwise domesticated—somehow better. Silences is a different entry into that canon: When Victoria adjusts her rear-view mirror, her backward glance is a complex tribute to the wild, searching time after she left the church. To that end, she creates characters to tell the story.
“The album is a story about freedom and about reclaiming yourself, owning yourself,” she says. “After my indoctrination in the church I was no longer in ownership of myself and my soul. I needed to use those characters to dramatize what I had to go through to get those claws out.”
The devil—both the demons inside us and the pitchfork-wielding one from organized religion—necessarily plays a hand in that process of reclamation. When Victoria recites, on “Dope Queen Blues,” that “we are lost, in vain,” the line is less one of mourning than it is of raw incantation. There’s almost a Shakespearean quality to the narrative voice of Silences; it may be haunted by higher powers, but the response Victoria takes is nervy, as if running a finger along a live wire. This danger is laid bare in “Clean,” a song about killing God. That’s not an interpretative reading. The first line goes, “First of all / There is no God / Because I killed my God.”
“The most dramatic imagery I could spit out was actually killing God, to equate God with a domineering man’s presence, the patriarchy—kill it, get free of it,” Victoria says. “The big taboo, the big secret, is that it feels good. It doesn’t hurt you. It’s not like damnation is waiting for you; you can have fun. It dramatized what I went through in my twenties: coming out as an atheist, and then losing my mind.”
After Atlanta, Victoria moved to Nashville, where members of her family live. It was there that she began experimenting with music more seriously and performing at open-mic nights; briefly, she enrolled in college but dropped out when she was approached by a producer. In 2014, she released a single on SoundCloud, “Stuck in the South,” a blistering track that threads cultural indictments with a sense of hazy disorientation, and, of course, her signature mention of hell: “I don’t know nothin’ ‘bout Southern belles / But I can tell you something ‘bout Southern hell.”
Holding Southern niceties up against the South’s ugly racism is a fixture of her songwriting; on “Nice Folks,” she issues an adjacent refrain: “It’s the same old nice folks bringin’ me down / And it’s the same old nice folks watchin’ me drown.” This characteristic of her writing—along with her attention to ruination, symbolism, hypocrisy, and the practice of keeping one ear to the red-clay of Southern ground—have earned Victoria the descriptor “Southern Gothic” and frequent comparisons to the writer Flannery O’Connor. It’s not a comparison that comes out of the blue.
“[O’Connor’s] ability to put a blade to the Southern mind and reveal the grotesque absurdities running through it has been inspiring and therapeutic for me,” she says. “Art gives me a safe space from which I am able to challenge the most closely kept aspects of an identity forged onto me—religion, sexuality, race, capitalism. No sacred belief was left unscathed in Flannery’s art.”
Victoria’s 2016 debut album, Beyond the Bloodhounds, took a methodical three years; the following year, she released two EPs, Baby Blues and How It Feels. When it came time to produce a second full-length album, she enlisted the help of The National’s Aaron Dessner. And she had an idea about how she wanted it to sound.
“Rhythmically, I was looking to have the instrumentation feel a little bit off balance, to go between playing an unsettling note or a difficult interval,” she says. “I wanted to make things feel a little less comfortable, to stretch people’s ears. I wanted Aaron to be OK with a woman making her art intentionally confrontational, or disturbing, or unsettling. I think that’s a very powerful statement for a woman to make.”
Silences is, in turn, inflected with hypnotic vocals and eerie soundscapes that take hairpin turns between the lush and jagged Victoria’s studied guitar work is cut with horns, electronics, and woodwinds, and it’s not always possible to tell if she’s going to finish singing a whispered, wounded note, take it to the skies, or let it drop entirely. The album is named after a book of essays by the first-wave feminist writer Tillie Olsen, which grapples with the ways in which women’s creativity has been snuffed out.
Such tie-ins are by no means unusual for the polymathic Victoria; throw a dart at a song and you’re bound to hit a literary reference. The title of Beyond the Bloodhounds was drawn from Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Harriet Jacobs’s 1861 autobiography. “Cry Wolf” was inspired by Sylvia Plath, while “The Needle’s Eye” was, Victoria says, inspired by “the letters and diaries of Virginia Woolf, who painstakingly recorded the crushing blows of manic depression—the anxiety, the paranoia. I believe she faced these fears head-on in order to create art that was unflinching and, in the end, fearless. ‘The Needle’s Eye’ is a character coming face to face with her demons.”
Beyond attention to literary lineage, Victoria’s music also embodies a blues heritage that she has studied, honed, and advocated for. Holding her heroes close—Robert Johnson, Bessie Smith, and Victoria Spivey, to name just a few—she frequently uses the hashtags #reclaimingtheblues and #shitthebluestaughtme as she outlines, in performances and on social media, the ways in which blues music has been appropriated and erased to serve white interests.
Olsen’s Silences, after all, was a text meant to excavate the lost voices of history, and Victoria’s Silences is a project no less ambitious: The sacred isn’t left unscathed. If the Catholic O’Connor’s work makes a case for what she famously described as a “Christ-haunted South,” Victoria’s music goes a step further—not only is Christ sacrificed, but God, in the form of a domineering man, is dead. And Victoria sings on.
“I felt very much connected to the strength and conviction that birthed the blues,” her interview note closes out. “Beneath it all is the quest to lay claim to one’s own life. To truly belong to yourself while inhabiting a Black body is truly a radical endeavor. I want to break the blues out of the box White tastemakers have seen fit to confine it within. The Blues still has much work to do. xx, AV.”
Contact associate arts and culture editor Sarah Edwards at email@example.com.
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