While writing her second full-length album, Silences, Adia Victoria spent time in the stacks of the Vanderbilt University library, poring over the works of women she admires — from Toni Morrison to Virginia Woolf to Tillie Olsen, whose 1978 novel inspired the album’s title.
“I consider myself a writer first and foremost, and I don’t feel like I need to hold people’s hands and tell them what they’re supposed to get from my songs,” Victoria said. “I [write] from a subversive, very much blues-informed point of view, which proved to be a revelation for me as a young woman getting into music. I wanted to keep my ability to thumb my nose at the status quo, and let people know it’s okay to see things differently.”
Last week, Jay Gabler spoke with Victoria ahead of her June 29 performance at Rock the Garden. The indie blues musician is no stranger to The Current: she performed in our studio in 2016. Since then, she has released Silences, which was produced by another 2019 Rock the Garden artist: Aaron Dessner of The National.
Victoria is also a poet and one-third of the Nashville-based poetry collective, Blair House Collective. As with her music, Victoria uses poetry to reexamine history and “reclaim black women’s rightful space as the inventors of blues,” she explained. “This our legacy and culture as black women.”
“The literature that comes from the South, especially in the 20th century, has been profound and unyielding,” Victoria said. “It’s different; it stands apart from American culture as a whole because America is such a future-oriented society; we’re always looking towards the next horizon. In the South, we’re caught up in our past — unfortunately, we can’t seem to get over our past. There’s a lot of excavating that needs to happen there.”
After Rock the Garden, Victoria will embark on a European tour in support of Silences. Having lived in Germany, London, and Paris before settling in Nashville, Victoria feels comfortable on both sides of the Atlantic. Victoria’s 2017 EP How It Feels features rearranged covers of French pop songs, along with an accompanying short film complete with French subtitles. “I get to experience another side of myself [in Europe],” she said. “I try to remain as free as I can in this business.”
Victoria explained how Aaron Dessner fostered her creative freedom throughout the recording process. “He has this fearlessness and security in himself where he doesn’t have to be over-bearing and he kind of steps back and lets you get to the point you want to make yourself and helps you get there any way he can,” she said. “It’s great to see him in person when our paths meet.” In July, Victoria will open for a few National shows in Europe. “I’m like a buzzy little sister who just shows up like ‘I’m here, how’re you doin’?'”
As producer, Dessner worked with Victoria to build the “sonic backdrops for all these characters to wander through and interact with,” as she describes the sound of Silences.
With “Dope Queen Blues,” for example, “I knew that I wanted it to be a vicious song. I knew I wanted it to be sparse, I didn’t want it to be a comfortable song, so we did away with the guitar, and we started writing around this beat, and then the piano-pounding came in,” explained Victoria. “The space doesn’t need to be filled, so don’t fill the space. We have to build around the story that these characters are telling, and the music has to serve the story.”
Victoria confesses that she doesn’t normally gravitate towards large outdoor crowds like the one she’ll find at the Walker. “I like the darkness; I’m more comfortable in a confined black box,” she said. “There’s a different energy when you’re playing out underneath the sun and it’s bright and you just have to perform a lot more open.”
That said, Victoria explained that different settings bring new life to her songs. One track in particular, “The City,” reaches new heights outdoors — its steadily swelling symphony of synth and brass buoying Victoria’s eerily soft voice to a crescendo featuring a loop of Billie Holiday’s “Lady Sings the Blues.”
“It just becomes almost this Duke-Ellington-esque rhapsody when we play it in larger settings. It gets to stretch and breathe a little bit more, so that’s always enjoyable to do outside.”