Not long after completing her soundcheck at the Nashville rock club the Basement, Adia Victoria realized she’d left her book — a French translation of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment — on a table near the front of a bar. Without a word to the table’s occupants, the singer, songwriter and electric guitarist swooped in, retrieved the paperback and quietly hustled out of sight. This wasn’t rudeness, but a matter of ritual: Before shows, Victoria retreats inside herself, speaking as little as possible.
It was a very different Victoria who turned up on stage a few minutes later. Furious and feral, she spit out songs that scanned as miniature Southern Gothics: There were vivid tales of backwoods isolation and deprivation; bodies dangling from palmetto trees; the ominous warning of a “mad woman” who’s going after a deceitful man. As she sang, Victoria stalked the stage, flashing her eyes angrily at every corner of the room. It was a powerful, confrontational performance. At one point, Victoria seemed to realize that the lyrical content of some of her more aggressive numbers might make male audience members feel unwelcome. “We don’t hate men,” Victoria she said. “We have a man who plays with us.”
There’s plenty of anger directed toward men in the contemporary pop landscape — in Beyonce’s ring-finger-wagging on the dance floor, Taylor Swift’s lovelorn scolding and, most recently, in the music video for Nicki Minaj’s “Lookin Ass” where the rapper aims machine guns at leering males. But unsweetened, undiluted female expressions of anger haven’t made much of a mainstream impact since Hole, PJ Harvey and Fiona Apple injected their angst into mid-’90s modern-rock playlists. And voicing anger is even more of a minefield for women of color; the racial stereotype of the Angry Black Woman is pernicious.
A few days after the Basement show, at a café next to the Nashville library, Victoria seems acutely aware of this. “When you grow up pretty and you’re told you’re pretty, what that really means is, ‘You’re beautiful and you owe the world something. So you need to just shut up and be pretty and let me look at you.’ I see it all the time now with artists in pop. Everything comes second to the sexy. You can be angry, but you gotta look sexy doing it. When I’m on stage, I don’t want men thinking about fucking me. Because one, I ain’t gonna fuck you. And two, I’m telling you real stuff.”
It’s both jarring and thrilling to witness a fiercely intelligent, self-aware, 28-year-old woman like Victoria — who performs under her first and middle names — using deep-seated anger as her creative fuel. She’s still somewhat new to bandleading, and “Stuck in the South,” a foreboding garage-blues track produced by longtime Yo La Tengo collaborator Roger Moutenot, is her first song to be made widely available on the internet. But she’s an old hand at fighting to be heard from the social margins — where sexism, racism and classicism intersect. As a southern-raised, self-directed, poverty-surviving, church-outgrowing, defiantly unattached black woman, she didn’t find her life experience mirrored anywhere in pop culture — certainly not in the recent spate of southern-fetish TV dramas, from True Blood to True Detective.
“My South has nothing to do with vampires or mansions or [cowboy] boots,” Victoria emphasizes. “I want to tell people what it was like for me. I’m not a fetish. I’m a real person. I’ve got the birth certificate to prove it: Born in Spartanburg, South Carolina.”
Victoria’s father was a Trinidadian immigrant and her Philadelphia-born mother was led to the Palmetto State through her work as a domestic violence counselor. They had a volatile marriage, and Victoria quickly found a means of escape: “I’ll read books anywhere, just to get away from people.”
After her parents divorced, Victoria’s mother struggled, and the family slowly plunged from middle-class stability to a series of evictions. The children regularly went to live with their maternal grandparents outside Campobello, South Carolina, where they’d traipse around the bucolic foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. “Nature made me wonder about my place in the world,” Victoria says. “‘What is my significance? Because I’m so small, and that mountain’s so big.’ I was asking myself philosophical questions as a 7-year-old girl. No one was telling me, ‘Oh, this is because of this, and over that mountain is Tennessee.’ No adults were stepping in.”
That’s not entirely true. Victoria’s family attended a predominately white Seventh Day Adventist Church that claimed to have the answers to all manner of metaphysical and eschatological questions. They also had strict rules about hair length and watching television on the Sabbath. Victoria viewed Bible stories as “fairy tales,” but liked the urgency of the hymns that, at the time, loomed larger in her life than any other music. Singing solos in the church choir gave her a taste of what it was like to command attention from the stage, and she loved the feeling. “I think singing all those songs as a child, taught me the importance of words to music, and what that could do to people, the power it had,” she muses. “The people around me, they actually believed that shit. ‘Wow, you guys really believe one day we’re gonna float up into the sky.’”
When the younger Victoria appears in her songs, she’s usually precocious, perceptive and uncowed. In “Pacolet Road,” a pint-sized Victoria complains, “That fuckin’ river ate my patent leather shoes!” The lyric serves a dual purpose. She’s not just talking about the time her shiny little Mary Janes were swept away by the rushing water — she’s talking about the hard lessons she learned at a tender age: that loss is inevitable; that everything you love can be taken from you without warning.
To say that Victoria’s father didn’t respond well to her intellectual independence is an understatement. “When I was young, he called me Dia Doll,” she says. “I was his favorite. I was the apple of his eye. But as I became older, around 15, and started having my own opinion, he kind of set out to emotionally crush me, to clip my wings and shove my face in the ground. In a lot of [my] songs, he’s the negative force, this person that’s holding me back.”
It never occurred to Victoria that her family was poor until her mother moved them to thoroughly suburbanized Greenville, South Carolina. There, the disparities were impossible to miss. While other kids shopped at the mall, Victoria shoplifted food and toothpaste from the grocery store. “I would do it again,” she says. “The way I justified it was, ‘Look, if I don’t do this, I’m gonna be hurting. My family’s gonna be hurting. And you’re not gonna miss a tube of toothpaste.’ I had this whole system of morals in my head. I didn’t play by anybody else’s rules.”
School teachers urged Victoria to live up to her academic potential — so that she could get into a good college and land a good job. Victoria wasn’t buying it. The one thing that did interest her was a dance program at the Fine Arts Center of Greenville County, which proved to be a more satisfying creative outlet than church solos. In her senior year, she stopped showing up for math, English, science and history, but she never missed those dance classes.
Victoria’s family left the Seventh Day Adventist Church before she got to high school, at which time she launched into her first serious exploration of secular music. In Kurt Cobain, grunge’s patron saint of teen outsiders, she found a “soul mate,” spending hours in her windowless basement bedroom with the lights off and In Utero on repeat. Miles Davis, on the other hand, she’d listen to in her mom’s closet. And like a few of the other kids in her dance class, Victoria loved Fiona Apple. She says, “I liked how charged with emotion her words were. She wasn’t trying to be safe. She wasn’t trying to make me feel comfortable. She was like, ‘I’m fuckin’ pissed. I’m angry, and this is what it feels like. This is what it sounds like inside my head.’”
“All three of those artists,” adds Victoria, “they let me know, ‘It’s OK if you walk through your halls in your high school and you don’t feel a thing for anyone around you, and they look at you like you have two heads. Don’t worry ’bout it. You don’t want to fit in with those people.’”
What Victoria really wanted was to get away, a sentiment captured in the creeping claustrophobia of “Stuck in the South.” She eventually scraped together enough money to fly to Paris — the city’s always been an obsession of hers — and delighted in walking the streets in total anonymity. When she returned, she took an Amtrak train to New York, saw enough of the professional dance world to realize she couldn’t compete, skipped over to Tucson and finally landed in Atlanta, where she embraced music as her new creative outlet. There, she studied the fundamentals of guitar playing at her telemarketing job. “I was flipping back and forth [on the internet], looking at chords and practicing how to hold my hand while I’m selling people cable,” she recalls. “I just became obsessed with it. I wanted to learn how to control my hands and make them make music.”
Around that time, the Black Keys’ song “Your Touch” caught her ear, and she was convinced singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach was black. Even after a friend set her straight, she still wanted to see him play. “All the other girls up front were like, ‘Wheee!’” says Victoria, clearly not the type to swoon over rock stars. “But I was watching his hands: What are you doing to make these sounds?”
Eventually, further exploration of blues traditions led Victoria back to pre-electric country-to-city blues diva Victoria Spivey. “She’s one of my biggest inspirations for songwriting,” says Victoria, “because she tells a story very plainly — no pretension. The first song I listened to by her was ‘Detroit Moan,’ and she’s talking about being poor and leaving Detroit and being tired of eating beans. She doesn’t need to use big words. It’s just this woman saying, ‘I’m fuckin’ broke. I gotta get out of this town.’ I was like, ‘I know what you’re talking about.’ The blues spoke to another part of me — the rambling spirit in me, the restless spirit, the southern in me. I embraced being from the South and being a black woman through the blues. It made me feel more connected to my culture.”
Victoria eventually relocated again, this time to Nashville. She worked a hotel job, earned her GED and moved on to college French courses, which progressed rather slowly for a meticulously self-educated, Paris-lover like her. A semester short of finishing her associate’s degree, Victoria decided it was time to put her school work on hold for music.
Her first attempt at assembling a band was unsuccessful — the guys bristled at her telling them how to play her songs — but, one by one, her current, egalitarian band mates, bassist Ruby Rogers, drummer Tiffany Minton and guitar Mason Hickman, reached out after hearing her perform. Victoria’s manager, John “JT” Turner, found her that way too, as did Moutenot, her producer. This summer, labels started sniffing around.
But Victoria still lacked the proper instrument to realize her vision. In Atlanta, she’d borrowed a friend’s acoustic guitar. One of her brothers bought her an acoustic of her own, but it was smashed by airline baggage handlers. She ultimately sprang for a candy-apple-red Epiphone Casino electric — besides plane tickets, it’s the only big purchase she’s ever made. The choice was transformative. Not only does the instrument give her brambly guitar figures a guttural bite, it also sends a distinct message. “In this town, it’s really easy to get pegged into a singer-songwriter, coffee-shop kind of thing, if you’re just a girl with an acoustic guitar,” Victoria observes. “And I fuckin’ love Nirvana, man. I love power.”
In Nashville, she’s still enough of an unknown that she opens for more established acts like Those Darlins and Deer Tick, taking the crowds entirely by surprise. “I love watching people’s faces when they look at me,” she says, “’cause when they see a black girl get on stage, with a guitar, fronting a band, they’re like, ‘OK, what’s this gonna be? Soul music? India.Arie? What’s she gon’ do?’ And then I start performing and it’s disbelief: ‘I didn’t know black girls could do that.’”
“That” could refer to the style of music Victoria and her bandmates are playing — shadowy, angular, southern-accented, indie-leaning blues. But it could just as easily refer to the utterly unhinged persona she lets loose during her shows. “That part of me, Adia Victoria — that’s my stage name — she’s very real to me. She’s very much alive. And there was a point in my life where I was letting her run my life. But as I got older, I realized, ‘I don’t have to change you — I just need to channel you. Because [otherwise], you’re gonna ruin my life.’ So on stage, I let her go free. It’s a safe place for her to come out and interact with people.”
Of course, safety is relative. It goes without saying that Victoria would be tossed out of the library café if she stalked around with the same savage demeanor that she summons on stage. But she’s also gearing up to perform her brutally honest songs in front of more and more people — some of whom may not know what to do with them. “There will be moments where you feel uncomfortable, where you feel that you’re looking at something that you’re really not supposed to see,” Victoria says. “And that’s what I want to show people. I want you to take a look at what certain [life] experiences can do to a person. I want you to look and see it, because it’s not something you see walking down the street. It’s taboo. No one’s talking about the stuff that I’m singing about, and that’s why I felt compelled [to do it]. I have to sing about this shit, because there’s people out there living this shit.”
Presenting the unpresentable demands an incredible amount of energy. That’s one reason she’s so quiet before her shows: She’s gathering her powers.