interview + track premiere: adia victoria’s ‘howlin’ shame’
By Sound Check
April 8, 2015
Adia Victoria may only have released 3 songs (including the exclusive premiere of “Howlin’ Shame” on the AFROPUNK Mixtape #005: Midnight School, embedded below), but she’s already made a huge impact on the music scene. Her unique southern-fried marriage of blues, folk, and alt-rock has taken her on a national tour opening for Hurray for the Riff Raff. She’s preparing a wider release of the tour only EP she’s been selling on the road, as well as an upcoming book of poetry. She recently spoke to us while on tour about the importance of sharing stories and speaking your conscience as an artist.
By Nathan Leigh, AFROPUNK Contributor
Adia Victoria’s track is at 38’16
So you’re on tour right now. Where all are you guys going?
We are headed from Salt Lake City to Denver tonight. This is the last leg of the tour. We’ve got about five or six days left until we’ll be back in Nashville. It’s been going really well. This has been my first time out here in this part of the country. It’s been a huge blessing to be able to be out on the road for a month, opening for Hurray for the Riff Raff.
What have you discovered about the country that you didn’t know before this tour?
I would say that it’s hard to wrap your head around the magnitude of the country—how big it is, and how it just keep going. We’ve also noticed that the best part about it is the area where there’s little to no humans, we’ve enjoyed the natural beauty of it all. What’s been kind of a bummer has been to see the same kind of developments and shopping centers all over the country. You can easily forget where you are, because you’re walking around and there’s a DSW and an Applebees. You can lose track of time and place a little. But the natural beauty and the drive has been incredible. I’m on top of a mountain right now and there’s snow on it!
What’s been your favorite place that you’ve been?
Visiting or show wise?
For me, I always feel like visiting is more interesting than show-wise.
You know for me, it’s actually the exact inverse. I think because I’m so focused on the tour right now, it kind of escapes me after being in these cities. But the best show, personally I feel was Seattle. And my favorite city this far to visit I think was probably LA.
Yeah. I’ve never properly visited LA before. I’ve been once, but it was for business, so I didn’t get to see anything. But this time I got a better feel for the city, and there’s so much good food there. And whatever they’ve got lemon trees. That’s insane to me coming from the South.
I didn’t know they even grew on trees! What’ll they think of next, oranges?
Right! (Laughs) There were oranges too! It’s just insane for me! And the drive up to LA from Phoenix, we got to drive through—I forget the name of the desert, where all the rocks are and it looks super prehistoric—and it was so cool to start at the bottom of the state and see this gradual subtle change nature-wise. It was a real treat to see. And we drove up to Big Sur, and that was amazing. There were all these big cliffs and fucking sea lions on the beach! It’s crazy. It’s beautiful. I tried to explain it to my mother because she’s never been either, and I just don’t think I have words to do it justice—just how pretty it is.
Well it’s funny, because your music is so definitively of a time and a place. Being on tour is literally the opposite of being “Stuck in the South,” right? Have you found different regions respond differently to what you guys do?
Well yeah. It is a little joke I have with myself when I’m singing that song and I’m 2,000 miles away from home. I’m kind of living out right now what I’m singing about in that song. “Stuck in the South” is written from the point of view of my 17 year old self, before I was anywhere but South Carolina, and I kind of felt like I was drowning in the south; and I know there’s a whole world out there, but I can’t even conceptualize what it looks like. And being out here on the road, and literally going all over the country? I don’t know, there’s something kind of poetic about it in relation to my art, in that my art is what got me out here. There’s something very affirming for me.
And I will say, we’re lucky that we’re opening for a band like Hurray for the Riff Raff, in that they have a very progressive and queer fanbase, and our music has found a grounding with them as well. And it’s been all over the map. People have been super open to the shit that I’m singing out about, and it’s not something people sing about often, especially not black women. And I can tell that it’s very jarring for them when they’re seeing us perform, because they’ve never seen a black woman in that context. Even in cities like LA—progressive cities—you can tell that people are like “What am I looking at here?” The one city that rubbed me the wrong way—well not rubbed me the wrong way—they were just a lot colder. We played a one off show without Hurray for the Riff Raff in Spokane, and I could tell that they were kind of…I did a shout out to Black Lives Matter and before we play Stuck in the South, I dedicate it to Travyon Martin, Mike Brown, and Eric Garner, and as soon as I said that, I was like “yeah I might have lost them.” I don’t think they were trying to hear that. They just came to see a rock and roll show.
Well it’s a little like when that Senator what’s his name—Paul Ryan—talked about being really into Rage Against the Machine, and it’s like “oh you’ve clearly not listened at all to what this band is about. you just like the energy of this music.” And so you’ve got people in Spokane who are like “yeah I like your songs, but I don’t feel like engaging with the things that matter you to you.”
Yeah. I was actually thinking about that earlier today; I don’t consider saying things like that as radical or a needle stop moment like [makes a record scratch noise]. Everyone that’s out there making music, the reason you have bands is that everything we’re singing about is social. Even fucking Rhianna talking about “bitch where’s my money” is a social issue. So it’s just as normal to me to say “hey this song is about being black in America, which I am.” And it doesn’t seem like a political moment to me, it’s very matter of fact. And to me when I see other black artists, and I don’t see them being vocal about it I’m like “are you serious? You’re just not going to say anything about this?”
Yeah. It’s the way that people are willing to stay silent for advertising dollars.
Hell yeah. You have to take a hit, and you have to be OK with that. It’s been kind of disheartening to see the lack of response from the kind of “royalty” of black culture right now. That they’ve remained silent is very troublesome. I liken it to Civil Rights, like Nina Simone was out there singing about this shit. She wasn’t being quiet about it.
I was in Ferguson a bunch this summer, and there was a day that I was there and fucking Nelly showed up. It was the most surreal experience, because it was the 10th or 11th day of the protests, and one of the biggest stars St. Louis has ever produced finally decided to show up and kind of had nothing to say. And there was a lot of anger at first when he showed up about “well where have you been, how come you haven’t said anything until now.” And then when he finally did speak, it’s like “oh you had nothing to say, that’s why you haven’t said anything.”
Oh hell no they had nothing to say, because they benefited already from this system. They cashed in! So they can’t now say “I’m against this system that needs to be reexamined,” when it’s rewarded you so greatly; it’s bought your silence essentially. So hell no, Nelly didn’t have anything to say.
Right! That level of silence is so fascinating, and if you look at someone—like you mentioned Nina Simone—who I think at this point in time is rightly deified for speaking her conscience. I wonder in like twenty, or thirty years, about the artists who are out now and saying what they feel and not being silent for the sake of financial benefit. I do think they’ll be rewarded in the long term.
Yeah that’s an interesting point to bring up. I think across the board, black people and white people can all agree that Nina Simone was right to speak up. It’s safe to say that now because in our minds it’s so far removed in the distant black and white past. That moment is settled, that moment is done, and we all thought—especially as millenials—that we overcame all of that that racism and the civil rights movement was done; “wipe your hands, we’re moving forward.” And that’s what’s produced this post-racial bullshit. And so when things as glaringly horrific as Mike Brown happens, when Trayvon Martin happens, it forces us to reexamine ourselves, and how we inherited this system that allows this shit to happen and we keep it running. We have no language to even begin that conversation. So it makes sense that the people in today’s day and age, they’re not talking about. I’m looking around like “where’s my Nina Simone? Where’s my James Baldwins at? Where are the people who are commenting very plainly about what the fuck is happening?”
I mean it’s up to you as an artist to be that. Isn’t that the whole notion of DIY culture? If you see a role that’s not being filled, and you think that it should be filled, step into it and do it.
Yeah. It kind of reminds me of this quote by Toni Morrison. They asked her what got her into writing. She was like “well, there was a book I wanted to read, and it hadn’t been written yet, so I wrote it.” And that was her first book. And that’s how I feel right now. Like I’m not trying to be something. I’m not trying to wear a badge, you know. I’m just trying to say “I’m a black woman in America y’all, that hasn’t been bought, and I don’t want to be bought.” And I see the shit that’s happening; it’s not that complicated to me. And just by starting that little spark, it gets the fire going. And I was turned in to that when I released “Stuck in the South” last summer. It was my first song out, and no-one knew who the fuck I was. I wanted this to be the song to introduce me, because it’s gonna force people to ask some real fucking questions. It makes it that much easier to get in to. “Oh! You like my song? Do you like the lyrics? Do you know what that’s about?” And I’ve gotten backlash from fans online and stuff who threaten that they won’t be my fans anymore. And I’m like “dude, I don’t fucking care. If you think you can threaten me like that? That you won’t give me your money? Well fuck you, I don’t care. I’m poor right now and I’m happy. Seriously, I don’t want your money.” And no-one is saying shit like that right now. All of our pop stars right now are too busy counting their money. What the fuck is that?
Assimilation is a powerful financial motivator.
Hell yeah. I mean, you saw what happened with Kanye. He acted like a damn fool taking Taylor Swift’s trophy. He had to go into image rehab, which he’s still doing now. He’s grovelling for the acceptance of the system and their approval so he can join the billionaire’s club.
I feel like he wants to have it both ways. I think he has a conscience. I think he wants to be able to say shit, but he also wants to be accepted in the billionaire’s club and he can never seem to decide which one he wants more.
It’s always interesting watching him jump from one extreme to another, and it’s like “you kinda gotta pick one” at a certain point.
Yeah man. I was listening to “New Slaves” the other day, and I was like “man this is so ironic. You’re one of the biggest slaves of them all right now.” And I love Kanye. I’ve loved Kanye for years, and I see what his conflict is. And it’s interesting to watch him compared to like Kendrick Lamar, who’s more outwardly and honestly dealing with the conflict of being a successful black man, and like where do you go from there?
Kendrick does a much better job of also bearing the conflicts that exist in his psyche and his soul. Any time there are those conflicts between his level of success and what he says, he puts a pin on it like “yeah, can we talk about how messed up that is?”
Similar to Kedrick, there’s this really strong storytelling vibe to your lyrics. Kind of a Southern Gothic thing. Your songs feel more like short stories to me, is that a thing you consciously focus on?
Well, I think my trajectory as an artist from when I began writing when I was 5, it started out so literary based, so writing based. So when I started playing guitar when i was 21, it was all bound in me being able to bring these short stories and these poems to life. The music literally served the story. You know, I don’t consider myself a great guitar player. I learn what I need to learn to complete a story. As far as “is that a conscious thing?” No. It’s really not. I don’t know any other way to present my art other than “I want to tell you a story. I want to share an experience with you.” It’s been interesting recording these songs with my producer Roger, because a lot of times he’ll be like “what are these songs about?” And I’ll sit and tell him the stories of the songs, and how I want that to translate into music and we’ll go from there.
I don’t know about Southern Gothic. I’m from the south. These songs pretty much are a package of my 20s. And there was some melancholy there. There was some extreme happiness. There was mania and depression. I try not to write under a label of anything. Southern Gothic has been applied to me many times in the press, like “this is what we think you are.” And that’s what they set those expectations; to show them like “now confirm what we told you you are.” No, I just live and I share it. And that’s what my art is. And I’ll leave it to you guys to call it what you want. That’s none of my business.
That’s totally fair! In terms of storytelling in music, what do you feel is the value of that, versus say the 90’s alt-rock “let’s just throw some words in a bowl and hope they sound nice together?”
As a little girl I saw the power of narrative; of sharing someone’s story with them. Books for me were such a huge way to humanize the world and myself because I grew up in such an isolated environment, where everything was very controlled. It was hard to connect with other people, because there were so many rules and regulations around your behavior. So I would go and read books and read stories. It was a way for me to connect with these characters; to not feel so alone, not feel so isolated in my little world. And that’s what I look for in my musicians, the people that I love. When I listened to Lauryn Hill as a kid, Fiona Apple, Nirvana, I was listening to these artists tell me their lives, explain to me what living does to them. And that helped me in turn to look at myself and reexamine what I was going through. I didn’t necessarily have the outlet, the words, the people around me to have these conversations with, so I felt like I was in conversation with these artists. That’s what I want with my music. I want people to feel like they’re having a conversation with me when they’re listening to my songs. It’s a way for me to feel known, to be known, and hopefully let someone else be known through my art.
Check out Adia Victoria on the road:
4/24 Zanzabar, Louisville, KY *
4/25 Hangar 9, Carbondale, IL *
5/6 Kung Fu Necktie – Philadelphia, PA *
5/7 Rough Trade, Brooklyn, NY *
5/8 DC9—Washington, DC *
9/25 Thrivial Innovation and Music Fest —Pittsburgh, PA
+ w/ Hurray For The Riff Raff
* w/ Those Darlins
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