Feature music interview: Adia Victoria at the Basement
Coming off a grueling tour cycle following the release of her 2016 debut, Beyond the Bloodhounds, Southern blueswoman Adia Victoria needed time — first to recuperate mentally and physically, and then, eventually, for new songs to begin to creep to the surface.
“The first record, I was doing double-duty, wearing a lot of hats. I wasn't working with proper management, so I had to put myself out in ways I wasn't accustomed to, and I wasn't prepared for it, and I felt a little bit torn apart,” said Victoria, who will lead her seven-piece band in concert at the Basement on Friday, May 17. “PerformingBeyond the Bloodhounds was the first time my art was used as commerce, and there was business attached to it, and other people, and it wasn't this small, precious thing. I had to learn to work through that pain.”
Starting on her sophomore album,Silences, released earlier this year, Victoria knew only that she wanted the songs to evolve from the rhythm of language. As a result, a number of tracks began in a similar manner, with Victoria constructing a skeletal beat on an iPad and then allowing the composition to “balloon forth,” as she described it, shaped by the meter and feel of her words. Witness the ominous, album-opening “Clean,” on which Victoria sings of a “grown man walking in her garden” atop tip-toeing drums and cascading violins that mirror the prowler's movements.
Victoria's delivery is placid throughout, and even in those moments where the music is spiky, foreboding or tumultuous, giving way to horn freak-outs and chilled electronics, her unwavering voice projects in a way that suggests the characters in her songs are privy to a secret that others aren't.
“It took a lot of patience, and it took a lot of me listening to what she had to say and felt, and then giving her space to speak her story,” Victoria said of her song's narrators.
Though the singer portrays a range of characters, tracks were often shaped by personal experiences, be it childhood nightmares or adult friends struck with illness.
“The City,” a percolating, electro-tinged number, started to take shape after Victoria learned about the cancer diagnosis of friend Jessi Zazu, the singer of Nashville band Those Darlins, who died in 2017 at age 28 following a battle with cervical cancer. “In the moment of writing that song, it felt like everything was being taken from me,” Victoria said. “The city's being gentrified. My best friend is essentially dying. In a weird way, it was a moment I could pull a lot from, because it was a clean moment. It was a moment where everything was up in the air, and it was my job as an artist to pull these ideas from the air, in a way, and place them in a manner that I could make sense of it.”
The origins of “The Needle's Eye,” in contrast, are slightly murkier, fueled by childhood nightmares and a lifelong struggle with anxiety. Atop urgent drums and quivering synths, Victoria imagines herself “deep down in the gallows,” surrounded by darkness and far out of earshot from anyone who could provide assistance.
“Anxiety can feel like a masked phantom assaulting you, coming at you from all sides … and that song was written when I opened my eyes and looked at my fear the first time,” she said. “I'm used to feeling like my fears can see me but I can't see them. When I was a little girl, I would have nightmares of people walking past my door at night, and they would just look at me and keep walking. … There was something [terrifying] about this idea of something seeing me, but I couldn't properly see it.”
While Victoria is an avowed practitioner of the blues — “I think the blues is used to give full expression to black lives in America,” she said — the musician embraces the genre more as a foothold than a limiting force, consistently pushing into unexpected new terrain. The musician even takes long-held genre tropes, such as the presence of the devil, and recasts them, portraying the being not as a trident-carrying red beast, or a creature striking crossroad deals, but as the various systems that seek to press her narrators into subservience, or impress a misshapen worldview born of greed and vanity.
“The devil is the way the world speaks to you, or the way the world creates a line, and then we go after it,” she said. “I see that at work especially in consumer culture. None of us is born wanting or needing an iPhone 10. None of us were born wanting perfectly contoured cheekbones and Louis Vuitton blouses, but the way that the world speaks to you, it's able to create this need or this lack in you, and then completely exploit it.”
Whether guarding against these corrupting forces, or protecting her music against the business pressures that encroached in the months following the release of her debut, Victoria remains driven by an unwavering confidence she said was instilled from a young age, and which surfaces on songs like “Heathen,” the blueswoman singing, “I like to do things my way/Or I don't do them at all.”
“That was just a decision that I made as a child that I didn't want to play by the rules that were set in front of me, which I thought were boring and simplistic and off-base,” Victoria said. “It's a bargain I made. I might fail in the eyes of the world, but I won't fail myself.”
7 p.m. Friday, May 17
391 Neil Ave., Arena District
ALSO PLAYING: Carriers