On ‘Stuck in South’, a track from her 2016 debut album Beyond the Bloodhounds, Adia Victoria sang about “dreaming of swinging from that old palmetto tree.” The South Carolina-born, Nashville-based singer-songwriter and artist has explored her complicated relationship with the South ever since, including on 2019’s Aaron Dessner-produced Silences, but takes a slightly different approach on her latest release, which opens with a declarative statement: “I’m gonna let that dirt do its work/ I’m gonna plant myself under a magnolia.” Though seemingly more straightforward than her previous records, A Southern Gothic is no less unrelenting in its vision or searing in its intensity, as Victoria finds new ways to play with and subvert the tropes of blues and folk music while examining the traditions of the Southern gothic.
This time, her character-based, loosely connected narratives are grounded by darker, grittier, and more rustic production courtesy of Victoria and her creative partner Mason Hickman, who co-produced the record after experimenting with various instruments at home, with assistance from executive producer T Bone Burnett and guest contributions from Margo Price, Jason Isbell, the National’s Matt Berninger, Kyshona, and Stone Jack Jones. As much as the familiar, often uplifting arrangements have a way of elevating and illuminating even the album’s heaviest, most haunting tales, they also bring us closer to the soil of the earth, leaving us scrambling for meaning as nature continues to do its work.
We caught up with Adia Victoria for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about her relationship with the South, the inspirations behind her new album A Southern Gothic, and more.
The ideas for this record started to take shape while you were in Paris, a place you’ve said has helped you reconnect with your home and Southern identity. But I was wondering if actually being there also made you kind of think about how those stories and experiences may resonate with people who don’t necessarily share those roots.
Yeah, Paris for me is just my favourite place to go and create. It’s my favourite place away from home, away from the South. I spent a month there writing and recording the initial phase of A Southern Gothic, and I wanted to share what Paris brings out in me as an artist, as a writer; this real cerebral side of me comes out on there, and I wanted that to be reflected in the atmosphere. I feel like Paris is one of those places that has this vibe, you know – you walk different when you’re in Paris, you feel yourself differently and I wanted that to come through on the songs, to capture that moodiness of Paris.
I wanted these stories to be universal. People that aren’t from the South still understand the human experience of feeling isolated, they understand that experience of the way people perceive you being different from the way that you perceive yourself. They understand the experience of running away from home, wherever home is, needing to have space, needing to go somewhere to recollect yourself. And so I wanted the stories in this record to not be strictly autobiographical, not just mine. I think that good art is the ability to make an experience universal even if it isn’t your own; to put yourself in another person’s shoes, that kind of empathy that’s required to make art that connects with people. I would like to think that’s what people are finding in this record, is their own stories being reflected back to them through the experience of this Southern black girl.
You mentioned the word “cerebral” to describe how being away from home affects you creatively. Could you elaborate on that?
For example, I’m fluent in French, but it’s not my first language, so I have to think about words differently while I’m there. My relationship with words is not the same as when I’m back home in the States. When you’re home and you’re speaking in your native tongue, you can kind of go on autopilot, you can kind of be thoughtful and quickly respond to things. But when I’m in Paris, I’m listening different. I’m listening closer to people; I’m watching people to put together the meaning of what they’re saying. So, the visuals of body language, they count as much to me as the words that I’m hearing. And I think just having that level of concentration and intention and communication leads to a higher clarity in my art. I really try to get to the heart of what I’m trying to say in Paris, so I feel like my writing is clearer, it’s leaner, it’s less beating around the bush. You know, it gets to the point, and I think that’s reflected in the songs on A Southern Gothic.
So you find that being able to observe your surroundings more intently also enables you to focus on your songwriting in a different way?
Yeah. You know, Paris is notorious for people-watching. You sit at a desk and you just watch people. Time moves differently there. I can be in the world but still have my solitude in Paris, I’m able to digest my thoughts. A lot of these songs I wrote while just like walking around and getting lost with myself and keeping myself company, taking myself out on dates, really asking myself hat I’m thinking about and my perception of things. And I think that those are all the ingredients of making quality art.
What sorts of things were you thinking about?
I was thinking a lot about the land that I came from, the sounds that the land makes, the sounds that the people who live on that land make. I was thinking about what it felt like to move through the world, what it felt like to be a part of my community growing up, which is very Southern, conservative, religious, and also the feeling of being apart from it. And the way we create meaning and belonging with our language, but we also create separation and distance as well. We create others with our language. So I guess in Paris, I was just thinking of the ways that I had learned language, the way that language created meaning for me and what new meaning could I get from a very old place that I came from, what new insights I could get being that far from home.
Your relationship with the South is something you’ve explored throughout your career. Could you talk about how that relationship has shifted over time, and how those new insights informed A Southern Gothic?
I’ve made a lot of peace with a lot of my struggles with where I’m from. I think in the past year, I’ve put a lot of things in perspective, a lot of struggles, and it allowed me to lay down old burdens and old blues that I had, if only for the reason that I had new troubles coming my way that I had to make room for. So, I learned how to digest a lot of my issues and a lot of my pain, and to make peace with it, and to let it go. And I allowed myself to question the South in a lot of ways, to not take it for granted, the surface of it, to really dig under the surface and get into, like, the dirt of the matter, get into the subterranean of a society. That’s where the interesting stuff is. It’s like, “What do you believe? What do you feel?” And then the question is, “Why do you feel that way? Who put that into your mind?” You can’t just accept that this is the way things are, it’s like, “No, they are this way because someone made it this way. Now, why did that happen?” And I put all that questioning into my art, into A Southern Gothic.
Were you surprised by any of the possible answers to those questions, that you hadn’t thought about that much or that deeply before?
Yeah, you know, I realized that growing up, I felt alienated. But I realized the reason why I felt alienated was because I trusted myself, and I made a home within myself, and if you do that, if you can be at home within yourself, well, then society loses a lot of its power. The roles that people follow just so they will belong to society, they aren’t as necessary, they aren’t as threatening. You’re not afraid to break them. And I realized now looking back on my childhood that I knew myself, and I accepted myself, and I had my own code. And I wasn’t an alien. The people that needed God, that needed morals and needed to tell people what was right and wrong, good and bad, heaven and hell, that those were people were alien within themselves. And there’s nothing more lonely than being lonely inside yourself.
Even just by titling the album A Southern Gothic, you’re also engaging with a literary genre that has its own complicated history and its own rules. Was that something you started thinking more about after writing the songs, or was it actively on your mind during the writing process?
I mean, I love Southern Gothic literature, I love American Gothic culture. You know, the Gothic is concerned with the society’s fears, its suppressed truths about itself. The Gothic is what sleeps below the surface, that never leaves a society alone; it haunts a society. In the Southern gothic, you have writers like William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, and Flannery O’Connor who were able to expose the psyche about the South, and so I wanted to write a Gothic that was centered on a young black girl’s experience. Like, what would she look out at at our society that seems so normal and seem so moral, and what secrets would she able to find be able to find just looking at it? What grotesque elements could she spot in like, her preachers or all the moral good Christians around her? How could she look at them and see them as haunted and see them as dangerous and see them as strange when the whole world is telling her that she’s the strange one? What if she stood in her truth and gazed back out at the world and made her own judgments on it?
One song that stood out to me in that regard is ‘Troubled Mind’, which I think encapsulates that mood that you were talking about. You mentioned the words “haunted” and “strange,” but I was curious if the word “troubled” had specific implications for you in that context. Was there a reason that you landed on that word to communicate that distress, as opposed to any of the other adjectives?
Yeah, “troubled” for me differs from “haunted.” “Haunted” suggests some foreign element, something outside of yourself, that is looking to implant itself within you; a ghost, a memory, something that you’re trying to evade. “Troubled” to me seems to speak more so to internal concern, internal disturbed waters. It’s less fear than a sense of disquiet, of discomfort, that all is not well. And I wrote that song – those lyrics are literally a prayer that I was engaging with, you know, with God. One night, in the middle of the night, I just woke up and there was so much in my heart and in my mind, and I just, with my eyes still closed in the dark, I just called out to God. There’s so much on my mind that is troubling me, and I think that it doesn’t get more intimate than to hear someone inside of their spirit, talking to God.
That intimacy is definitely why it resonated with me. And darkness is also something that plays a vital role and is referenced throughout the album.
I think darkness, for me, can oftentimes be more illuminating than the light. I feel that the darkness, it tests you in a way where it calls on you to question what you saw, what you think you saw, how the darkness is influencing or colouring your perception. You know, I think that the mind can play tricks on you in the shadows, and darkness can show reality based on your reaction to it. It’s easy to be at comfort in the light, when everything is seen and available and easily determinable, but what happens when things are more murky, when things are more ambivalent? Who are you then, when you don’t have the guiding force of light around you? Who are you when times get hard, when night falls?
I feel like that goes hand in hand with the rawness of the production, which I know came partly from the restrictions of recording during the pandemic, but also from listening to Alan Lomax’s field recordings. Were there any other influences that helped you connect with the land in a similar way?
Just the land itself, you know. Here in Nashville, I live with my mom, and going outside and touching the dirt and walking barefoot through the grass, hugging my magnolia tree, that was an important grounding practice for me over the past year. I put out a hammock underneath my magnolia tree as well, I would just go out there and some nights I would just spend the night outside under the stars. And it helped to locate me when I felt like I was going to dissolve into anxiety and just, you know, flake away in the wind. Just literally touching the South, the land, it reoriented me in a way and it gave me my backbone, it gave me the strength that I needed to carry on.
In what ways did it help you reorient yourself?
It helped me to see beyond a lot of the manmade mess that we were living through, because it reminded me that the dirt’s been here for God knows how long, this tree has been here who knows how long. And it also made me respect nature in a way because nature does not seek to control, it does not seek to manage, it just lives and then it dies. Nature shows all of us that we are impermanent and I think that man has been too foolish and too vain to accept that about himself. That he came from nature, he goes back to nature, he never really leaves nature. He just plays these games to pretend that he’s elevated himself away from nature, but it’s like the Bible says, “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” You go back to the earth from whence you came. And it reminded me that I’m alive for this brief bit of time but I will surely die and I will surely pass, and that’s exactly what I’m supposed to do.
You wrote and recorded a lot of the album with your longtime bandmate Mason Hickman. What did you like most about working with him on A Southern Gothic?
We were just on our own and we were able to spend as much time getting the sounds that we wanted. This was a very personal record and we were able to grow it in a way that was organic. We didn’t have a bunch of people giving us feedback, and it felt true and it felt of the time that we were living through. We were able to experiment, we were able to try new things and not have a record label or a producer pushing us, so I feel like this record is just he and I together, you know, surviving a pandemic. We were able to play more on this record and I feel like that’s something that I was losing in my art before, the enjoyment of it.
Could you talk a bit about the timeline of the record? And more specifically, what was it like when you were able to finally go into the studio with the album’s executive producer, T Bone Burnett, and did that change the direction of the songs at all?
I started sending him back in the spring of 2020. We weren’t able to go into the studio to record because of the pandemic, but after he and I had been vaccinated this spring, we were able to do the mixing together, and he was part of that process of placing the sounds in the song and showing me how to do that in a way where you can create whole atmospheres, whole worlds. And that was a really cool part of having him involved. He told me while I was writing the record that I don’t need to have someone else’s hand over my hand while I’m trying to write, to basically go with my gut and believe in my vision because I’m the only one who understands what that is. That was the biggest thing that I got from him.
Although the album centers on character-based stories, it still feels like it comes from a personal place. One of the songs that felt the most personal and introspective to me is the final track, ‘South for The Winter’. We were talking earlier about the effect of being in different cities, and one of my favorite lines here is “any city can make you a ghost.” With that in mind, what do you ultimately feel you’ve learned about yourself as a person and your relationship with the world as a result of working on this album?
I’ve learned that there’s no clean ending. There’s no such thing as closure. My world just moves in circles, and whenever I think I’m gone, I’m back, and when I’m back, I’m leaving again. And there’s no happy ending; there is no ending. You know, your life is just a cycle, and sometimes that’s a cycle of leaving and sometimes that’s a cycle of homecoming. And I love that about my journey.