When she lived in Brooklyn, Adia Victoria would sometimes go days without speaking. She had just turned nineteen and relocated from South Carolina in an attempt to strike it big in a new city. She had few contacts outside a cousin and her mother’s friend, who provided her a home in Prospect Heights, and while ambitions were mighty, her goals were undetermined. “I was like, ‘Well, make it at what?’ I don’t know, so I decided to just go. I don’t know if I felt I was going to New York because I was a freak but I definitely turned into one when I moved there,” she recalls, now 29 and living in Nashville.
While in New York, she was years away from the eerie, intriguing songwriter she’s come to be recognized for today with her bone-chilling guitar riffs and lyrics topped with candid scorn. No songs inspired by Southern disorientation, like her debut single “Stuck in the South,” had yet to peak through. But she’d wander the city and craft ways to bend her isolation to her benefit.
“I had a job at Abercrombie & Fitch at the South Street Seaport, my first job in the city, and they had so many employees [that] no one ever talked to me and I never spoke to anyone,” she remembers. “No one would take account of me or notice if I was missing, so I’d clock in, leave, and take the train back into Brooklyn to go watch Daria – and then come back at the end of my shift and clock out.”
By 2007 Victoria had left New York for good and retreated to the South, this time to Atlanta, to begin reflecting and digesting her isolated years. “Once I left the city and had time to let my barrier down a little bit, I began to think about all the things I had been through and how it really had affected me,” she says. “I think that’s what really spurred this creative birth within me that’s lasted my whole twenties.”
She picked up the guitar and taught herself to play, learning chords in between phone calls at a telemarketing job, and drew heavily from the Blues, snatching inspiration from the classics (Junior Kimbrough; R.L. Burnside; Victoria Spivey) to contemporary giants (the White Stripes; the Black Keys). At first, her audience was no larger than her cat, Mortimer, but she continued writing songs and poetry, ultimately earning national attention online when “Stuck in the South” was released via Soundcloud in the summer of 2014. She’s since released the Sea of Sand EP featuring more of her honest, seething perspective as a young Southern woman.
“I don’t know nothin’ about Southern belles / But I can tell you something about Southern Hell,” she growls during “Stuck in the South,” a line that quickly become one of her most quoted lyrics. This dichotomy of the Southern lifestyle is not only present in her music but a hurdle she’s met with daily, most recently expressed in a Facebook post: “since leaving my job 20 minutes ago I’ve had a group of white men proposition me to have their babies while I walked down commerce and now I’m listening to an old white man on the phone laughing about the black pussy downstairs he used to fuck when he was young. Being a black woman in the south is really fucking fun, yall. A real scream.”
When pressed on the issue, Victoria speaks in an earnest and self-aware tone as she unravels the sinister flip-side to Southern sociability.
“I think the gentility that the South is famous for can only come when the person who is dispensing the hospitality feels completely unthreatened and unchallenged by the world around him. So, yes, it’s easy to be polite and charming when you’ve crushed the spirit of people where no one can resist you or up rise against you – people are powerless,” she states before continuing.
“I think that when you display as a woman – especially as a black woman – and you’re dealing with a white man, you do have autonomy and do have agency. You do have the right, that ‘No, I’m not just going to engage you just because you want to engage with a pretty young thing.’ When you start that push back, the energy you get back from a lot of white Southern men is displaced rage: They no longer hold all the power.”
Victoria has been working closely with producer Roger Moutenot, noted for his work on some of Yo La Tengo’s strongest work, and she’s aiming for her debut LP to be released early next year. She’s just recently had time to revel in the first mix of the album and will continue to tour throughout the fall.
“I’ve got a theme going with the album because it deals with my twenties, and this was decade that was particularly filled with strife for me. I struggled and I grew, but I had a lot of growing pains and shit that I had to go through. I had to deal with lovers failing me, and me failing myself, and this album is the standing object of my struggle as a young black woman in her twenties in the South, in New York,” she says. She then sums it up: “You’re trying to just get to the other side, man.”
Adia Victoria will perform on August 22 at the Afropunk Festival in Brooklyn’s Commodore Barry Park. For ticket information, click here.