An Interview with Adia Victoria: Seeing the Story

Adia Victoria is, quite simply, one of the most incredible artists making music today. Her first album, Beyond the Bloodhounds is everything you want in a debut: it’s daring, grounded, and unflinching. A couple of weeks ago, Victoria released her second EP of this year, Baby Blues. It reimagines classic blues songs, “Me and the Devil,” by Robert Johnson and “Evil Hearted Me,” by Victoria Spivey, and the quirky mid-70s song, “Ugly Brown,” by Lee Hazlewood. It is essential listening. The album is dedicated to Jessi Zazu, the late frontwoman of Those Darlins, who died of cancer earlier this year at just 28 years old. I had the distinct pleasure of talking with Victoria about this new album, the artists who inspired it, and the importance of serving the story in a song.  

RLR: I would love to talk about each song on this album in depth, beginning with the artist and the original song, and then talking through the choices you made in your interpretation. So if we start with, “Me and the Devil,” by Robert Johnson, what was it that struck you about this song?

AV: Obviously, it’s Robert Johnson, so you’re kind of struck by his absolute staggering genius holding the guitar, and his capacity for storytelling. I found Robert Johnson in my early 20s when I first started listening to the blues and it struck me how known I felt by this man and the stories he was telling. Listening to Robert Johnson, Skip James, and Victoria Spivey, these people, it was the first time I felt really proud and rooted being from the south and being Black too. For a lot of my childhood, growing up in South Carolina, there was a negative stigmatization around Blackness. Blackness was equated with bad things, things you wanted to run from or evade. And here was this man showing me parts of my culture that I’d never seen before, that I never understood. We invented the blues, which led to rock n’ roll. I saw value in Black southern culture for the first time; it’s not that it wasn’t there before, I was just ignorant of it.

RLR: So that’s the artist; can you talk about this song in particular?

AV: This song spoke to my own grappling with my religious upbringing. I came up in the Seventh Day Adventist church. And I was not a true believer. The church left me with a lot of wounds and psychological issues that I still deal with today. A lot of anxiety, just about being good enough, constantly making sure that I’m on God’s good list, that I’m controlling my thoughts and policing myself. So when I found this song, it’s basically this person reveling in these terrible things that they do and turning it into this captivating art. I think, in a way, the blues gave me the nerve to claim out loud and to my family: “I don’t…believe in the God you guys worship…uh, pass the potatoes.” [laughs]

RLR: Can you talk through some of the choices you were making on this song? There is so much happening in this song–there is this distortion in the beginning, with this ringing tone that recurs through the song. And the drumming on this track is possessed.

AV: One thing I didn’t want to do was try and mimic Robert Johnson. I wanted to give my own complete interpretation, so I went to my band and said, “We’re going to start over bare; we’re going to forget what this song sounds like.” It started with my bassist, Jason: he had his tremolo pedal on and he hit these notes and I said, “That’s where we start; that’s what we build around.” I started singing over that and then my guitarist and my keyboard player started making these atmospheric sounds; like, you’ll notice that there’s no guitar lead in it…but it’s there. This was actually the first project I undertook with my new drummer and he comes from a marching band, jazz, hip hop background, so I wanted to give it some modernity as well, I wanted this to feel culturally relevant to now. And, of course, the blues influenced hip hop, you know, it’s the grandchild of the blues, so you’ve got all these modern textures and sounds and it’s so idiosyncratic that it’s completely my own. I always tell my band when we start new music: “Listen to the words, listen to the story, let your choices serve the story.” I don’t want to be distracted by a guitar lead or a bass run; I want it to serve the story.

RLR: What are you listening for?

AV: I’m listening to see … if I close my eyes and I sing these words and I see the story: is the music the soundtrack to it? I’m thinking cinematically when I create music, so if something’s too loud, if it’s distracting from the story, you gotta bring that down. Does it push the story along? Does it create tension? Does it pull in the listener? I create music as reader and a writer, first and foremost, and everything else has to serve the story.

RLR: Your relationship with Victoria Spivey seems fairly important. Can you talk about this original track a bit and what inspiration you’ve taken from her?

AV: I got into her at probably one of the darkest points in my life, when I was living in Atlanta, and I was searching for artistic role models and a voice in pop culture that I could connect with as a Black girl. And I didn’t find one. This was after I got into my blues kick. I started going on youtube and looking up blues singers. I was obsessed. I saw this performance of her singing “T.B. Blues,” and the first thing I noticed were her eyes and how she sang with her eyes. Some people would say she seems unhinged, but what I saw was this sparkle of pure, unadulterated humanity, unfiltered humanity. With no regard to anyone else’s gaze, or how she seemed, she was just reveling and relishing being on stage, performing for herself.

Then I got into her backstory. I read about how she was twelve when she started playing piano at Houston whorehouse, just so she could perform. She lied about her age and that’s how she got her start in the vaudeville circuit. This complete, you know, brass and nerve, that she was able to escape the Jim Crow south with her musical genius. It affected me completely as an artist; I was listening to her heavily when I started performing out in Nashville.

She was my coach; she was the one who instilled in me: when you go on stage, you do this for you. Sing with your eyes, communicate with your eyes, your facial expression, the way you hold your hand, your body; when you sing, you perform from the top of your head to the tip of your toes. She was the woman who kind of told me: You can do this. You don’t need to be flawless, you don’t have to have the perfect body or look like Beyoncé. You can be your little weird self and go out there and you can own a room. That’s who I had guiding me when I first started performing. What I saw her doing was being fully herself and owning it. And I saw similarities between us and that kind of served as a jumping off point for me to be completely myself on stage.

RLR: In your version, the way the song builds and stops and then comes to this furious close seems to really echo the frenzy that’s in the lyrics. How did the song take shape for you?

AV: That song started with me singing, and my drummer, Timothy, playing. I told him what I was looking for–a playfulness, a flirtatious feel, where the drums are very musical. I knew I wanted to keep her piano line in. As far as the momentum, the pulling away in the beginning, the stopping and starting, that was a production idea from my co-producer, Ebony Smith, the studio engineer at Atlantic Records. She was like: “Don’t give it to ‘em all at once. Play with them a little bit. Give them the music and then draw back and go down to that bass line, and come back in stronger the next verse. And then build up a little bit more, but pull it away again. And then explode at the end.” So that’s what we did.

RLR: She’s really smart. It’s so good, especially that end. Well, finally, we have Lee Hazlewood’s song about Emery Zicafoose Brown. I hadn’t heard this song before–how did you come across it and what drew you to it?

AV: I was listening to records with my friend, Jessi Zazu, from Those Darlins. She was my best and only friend in Nashville, outside of my band. I would go over to her house and we’d listen to old records and just sing them together. She had a Lee Hazlewood record and we put it on and we heard this song, and we thought it was the funniest little story; and we laughed, because we felt like that in Nashville–we’re not the cool kids, we’re not these scene people, we’re these little hermits who like to listen to records and drink tea. We heard “Ugly Brown,” and we just started singing it together at open mics around town when I first started performing. And our voices went together, because she had that scratchy, raspy voice–we sang it and one of our friends said, “You sound like butter and salt together,” and we thought that was the funniest thing.

Our plan was to record it, but she got sick and she ended up passing a lot sooner than we thought, so we just never had the time to get together and record it. So I wanted to pay my respects to her. And I knew that I didn’t want to go in and just do a cover. This was the last song that we worked on for the project in the studio. We got all this done in two days and she passed the day before we began tracking. We got the first two songs knocked out and the label really wanted a third song. I didn’t even tell my band before–we were in the studio, and I said, I want to record this song. We had like five hours at the end of the day, and there were all these execs coming in, sitting in on the session, and looking kind of concerned, because we hadn’t found the heart of the song. I was like, “Let’s just stop, because we’re trying to cover this song right now and we can’t do that.” So, I kicked all the label people out. And my keyboard player had a Wurlitzer hooked up to a bunch of effects pedals and he started just pressing notes, and I heard it–what you hear at the beginning of the song–and I said, “That’s what I want to sing into, that’s what I’m feeling.” I went to vocal booth and did a take of that, and it became its own thing. As we were tracking and working on it, I wrote the poem at the end for Jessi.

RLR: You wrote the poem in the studio. Wow.  

AV: Yeah, I was noodling around on the guitar, an acoustic Martin sitting on the floor of the studio. I started strumming it and something about the sound of those chords compelled to go and sit and write that poem. I don’t know where it came from; I think it was just from an extreme, bare place of grief and loss. I couldn’t really express my sadness. I couldn’t–I’m in a studio, I’m at work. When I found out, when I got the call that she passed, I was in a meeting. And I got up and excused myself, went to the bathroom, turned on the hand dryer, screamed, and went back upstairs and finished the meeting. It was a blur. I didn’t know what to say about anything, I didn’t know what to say to this person who had been such a huge part of my life for almost a decade. Usually I write my best when I am just emotionally bombarded and I have no other recourse for my emotions, other than writing it down.

RLR: She was an incredible artist; but she was your friend, and I want to share my condolences to you. I have a lot of other questions about that poem, because it’s incredible, but I think it’s best to not ask them and just let the poem be what it is. But in terms of process, what is it about engaging with other artists’ work that helps you get clearer about your own?

AV: I think you’re a little less anal retentive when you’re working with other people’s songs. The lyrics are there, the song is there, the story is there. For me, that’s always the hardest part. I can write music, but it’s the story that I grapple with, and the ‘why,’ what’s the purpose? You enter into a sort of communion with these artists that you’re covering. This is what that experience felt like for you, and I’m going to show people what this feels like for me. Me singing “Ugly Brown” is very different than Lee Hazlewood, and what he’s talking about. The isolation that he suffered is very different than what I have encountered. It’s just a tradition of passing stories down and keeping people alive through their art, which is all you can do.

I cannot stress enough how beautiful this record is. Listen and pass it on.

Photo Credit: Patrice Jackson