The magic of Adia Victoria’s bluesy, countrified folk music comes from her creative essence existing in an unbothered realm where Black excellence is unified and equal to white-defined standards of American greatness. In 2020, her critically-acclaimed single “South Gotta Change” yearned for reparational social justice emboldened by her self-defined societal standards. One year later, her September 17-released album A Southern Gothic dives deeper into this notion and is a fuller appreciation of the true power boiling in the crucible that sets aflame Victoria’s craft. Songs like “You Was Born To Die” — the newly-released album single featuring Kyshonna, Jason Isbell, and Margo Price — require the listener to divorce themselves of preconceptions regarding control, supremacy, and logic borne of antiquated traditions. Via this album, the South Carolina native boldly dives into music also now best defined by one incredible statement, which she states while talking with CMT:
“Black women are not bottomless bowls of sweat, work, emotional support, and reassurance for white America. I, as a Black woman, needed to reclaim my ability to have my own prerogative and self-interests while living in a country that can’t do right. Basically, if I’m putting on an apron and getting in the kitchen, I’m frying chicken for my damn self.”
Though that statement is a magnificent mouthful, she doesn’t stop there in discussing her latest release, plus the state and nature of her creative existence in the modern era.
Marcus K. Dowling, CMT: What’s defining your creative voice these days, and why is it so strong? Are you concerned about the idea that some listeners may not be prepared to feel the power of what you know to be the truth you’re stating?
Adia Victoria: There’s now a [greater] diversity of voices now speaking for the south. Some people will need to relieve themselves of the idea that they had any authoritative control of the narrative of who or what defines the southern perspective. I’m not making music to get in anyone’s mind or to change someone’s mind, though. That’s a case of “not my monkeys, not my circus.” Life’s too short, and I’m not trying to get wrinkles. There’s a quote that says that “white people are very skilled at misunderstanding Black people.” I’m just living my life. You can either catch my words or not. But I’m gonna keep it moving, regardless.
CMT: You worked with white artists and creators like legendary producer T. Bone Burnett and respected country artist Jason Isbell. These are two people who, for many, represent the more progressive edge of allyship, awareness, and sensitivity regarding reparational issues Black people are currently facing in the music industry. What, in working with them in this particular moment, was most profound?
AV: Well, I can only speak to working with (T. Bone and Jason) in the context of my project. Maybe for them, it was the first time they worked on a project where they took creative direction from a Black woman. Getting more people in the industry, in general, to listen to Black women allows for the industry, at large, to no longer be deaf to certain truths. Ideally, this experience for them — personally and professionally — allows them to realize that listening to Black women isn’t just done for brownie points. Rather, it should be done to respect the wisdom we have to share. We have a significant stake in folk, the blues, country, all of this.
CMT: Let’s dive into the album. When I read notes that [ethnomusicologist] Alan Lomax’s 1930s era field recordings of blues and folk records inspire an album, I get excited because that usually — and in this case, it’s true — means that something amazing is in the offing. What about Lomax’s work was essential to this project?
AV: I initially wrote a lot of this album in Paris before the pandemic began. It was me, my guitar, and my creative partner Marcello Giuliani in his apartment studio. I started listening to Alan Lomax’s field recordings to feel more rooted while creating — because I was so far from home and needed to feel an artistic connection to that home. At that moment, it felt good to hear music made by people who, because they worked it, and were connected to the land by dirt, sweat, and hard work. Feeling the “Southern dirt” in Lomax’s music rooted me artistically. So when we started recording these songs, we even started using cans of beans, rice, and our own bodies, to create the percussive elements. Without having my creative feet rooted in the lineage of the Black creative arts, I feel like I could float away.
CMT: I’d be hard-pressed to call this album anything less than ’one of the heaviest and most emotional country records of 2021, or any year, for that matter. There’s a certain divorce from joy here, and more an acceptance of potentially frightening reckoning that I feel needs to be expounded upon because it’s a novel perspective for a recording to come from. You have this song, “Deep Water Blues, that starts with, “They say a Black woman got steel for a spine / She’ll carry your weight she’ll carry it fine / She’ll think of you ‘fore she think of herself / She don’t mind not being on the mind of nobody else / But I don’t want to rescue you from the / Deep water washing over my neighbors. Let’s dive into that.
AV: That song is EXACTLY what I wanted to talk to you about today. Pop music shouldn’t always be about making people feel powerful emotions beautifully. Romance, comfort, and reassurance aren’t really things that I can speak to often. So, my music is definitely [a little bit moodier]. For example, “Deep Water Blues” is my “joyful” song. I wrote it when Michelle Obama spoke at the Democratic National Convention and was basically like, “y’all f*** around and find out what happens if you don’t vote in November, so y’all better go vote.” A lot of folks got on Twitter after that and said, “Black women are gonna save America!” To me, I was concerned and wondered, “how warped are people to think this is high praise for Black women?” I thought, “Others are entitling themselves to [Black women’s] labor, especially in trying to ’save’ America.” So, I’m pissed off, but I found some level of joy in being able to have the ability — and feel unafraid — to write that song.
CMT: Could you tell me about the power of possibly feeling, say, relatively safer and more comfortable than ever in your self-empowerment in making this album? It would appear that this is the case.
AV: Well, either you safe or you ain’t safe. What’s “relatively safe?” I cannot predicate the creation of my art upon the tolerance others show my art. Man, I was honestly just trying to breathe while making this album. At times, while making this album, I was working in an Amazon delivery warehouse. So, I survived life to write these songs. That changes your relationship to the music, to everything, really.
CMT: This is true. So, I want then, I guess, to ask better about the idea that more Black artists surround you in the country, folk, and Americana spaces than ever before. What about this strikes you, in particular, as notable?
AV: Black artists tend to have limited and managed access to growth and visibility in the country, roots, and Americana genres. That creates a situation wherein Black people — because there once were so few of us gaining visibility — were unable to create relationships with each other. So instead, we are oftentimes isolated. And yes, because of that isolation, you get [idealized] as a special, magical and singular star, but that also limits the establishment and development of community highlighting the totality] of Black people working together.
CMT: To the idea that you’re developing community, take me to July’s Newport Folk Festival, where Allison Russell curated the final day’s closing event with you, Chaka Khan, Yola, Amythyst Kiah, Joy Oladokun, Kyshonna, Dpoet/essayist Caroline Randall Williams, and more It felt like an incredible moment that in many ways speaks to the sounds you’re making and the style in which you’re making them?
AV: Before the current era, it was odd and alienating being singled out as a Black performer in this folk/country/roots/Americana space. As Zora Neale Hurston says, “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.” Now, I’m uplifted and surrounded by my peers, who, in many cases, are also my friends. Plus, we also speak the same creative language, so I feel truly understood and in community with [a peer cohort] of artists in my career. To have more than one of us at a time at the table is great. We’ve all known that we’re individually great, and we all [privately] wondered what could happen if we would be able to [unify]. On that day, on that stage, we finally got to say, “we told you so,” together.