An Interview with Adia Victoria
Words by Lindsay McDuffie
Photography by Darrell Nance
Standing around The Syndicate Lounge, I could hear Adia Victoria before I could see her. She talked loud and quick, sometimes in exaggerated Southern twang, sometimes in exaggerated Ghetto-speak. “I’m such a Black girl,” she added after one such occurrence. Draped in a zip-up white moo-moo, a sleek honey-brown wig, her steps accented by yellow Converse, Adia (Uh-DEE-uh) pulled her guitar over her shoulders for soundcheck. Cue “Smells Like Teen Spirit”–after, of course, dialing in a few originals.
She stopped, smiled, looked up from her guitar, joked about playing the next song. “Like uh, with Grateful Dead pedals!” she said, with exaggerated gestures. The guitarist next to her, Mason Hickman, tapped his foot across his board, began playing wah-wah sounds à la Jerry Garcia. Having played two of my favorite bands consecutively, two that had no earthly business being played consecutively, all I could think about while reviewing my questions was, “Try not to gush. Try not to gush.”
“Hey, are you Lindsay?”
Try not to gush. “Yes.”
“Hey, I’m Adia,” she said with an outstretched hand. “Are you ready?”
“Yes! Let’s go back to the greenroom.”
[Mother Plug Music] Welcome to Birmingham!
[Adia Victoria] Thank you!
The last time you played here was at Secret Stages, about two years ago. I was there, but I didn’t know about you then, so I didn’t catch your show. Was it just you, did you have a backing band?
We had a four-piece at the time. Alex, our keyboard player, was not there, and Jason our bassist wasn’t there. It was our original bassist, Ruby Rogers. But yeah, I mean, the songs were the same, just now they’re better played [laughs]. A little more proficient.
Tell me about the newer things you’re working on. I heard you’re doing some work with Jack White?
I mean, I know Jack White. He’s a peer in Nashville. We’ve done a few speaking engagements together. But I’m not recording with him–yet. I’ve done two projects with him. One was the Paramount Records collection that he did, all the old blues recordings. So we both were on a panel at Yale for that. That was two years ago, right around the same time as Secret Stages. Then, I also appeared at Third Man records for Third Man Books; they have a department for books. It was their one-year anniversary, so they had a few writers from the community come out. And I write poetry, so Jack and the gang asked if I would come and read some poems. And I was like, Yeah! And that was actually the most terrifying thing. It was even more scary than playing. Because I was like, I’m just gonna recite some poems and there’s Jack White.
Badass. What kind of poems do you write?
I mean, little ones. A little of this, a dabble of that.
I read in a Wondering Sound article that you were reading War and Peace. Did you finish it?
I did finish it. It was in French. I haven’t read it in English yet. It’s on my to-do list to go back and read it in English, then re-read it in French.
Oh, wow. I’ve never read War and Peace, but in a lot of Dostoevsky’s novels, he ends things with marriage, a happily-ever-after, love-cures-all kind of thing. Having listened to your lyrics, I’m curious to know how that compares to your own ideas of love.
I think that was a really big theme back then. That if everything ended in marriage, it was happy. But as far as love is concerned, I’m still finding out what that means. I think we’re given a very skewed idea of what love is, what romantic love is. You know, like, you make me feel good, I make you feel good. But I find that as I grow up, it’s more about taking care of the other person. And there’s a reciprocity that needs to be there. But I find that I don’t love looking for that in return. I love because I can. But it starts with myself. As I went through my twenties, I had to kind of learn how to love myself. Cuz I was like, [ghetto speak] How come I can’t be in a relationship? You know–you’re kind of tragic towards yourself! It has a lot to do with respect as well, for yourself and the other person.
And trust, too, I’ve found. Once that goes. What other things are you reading, in English or French?
Right now I am reading, I forgot his name, he’s French. Sorry, it’s on my iPad, I just started it the other day. It’s a French theologian and philosopher. He talks a lot about the foundations of the Bible, its history, through Pagan history, leading up to how it’s influenced Western civilization. I’m really interested in unpacking my religious beliefs that were bolstered on me really young, before I even understood what I was learning; and it shaped my whole world. So now as an adult, I’m just like, Wait a minute, let me go back and try to understand what I was taught. Because it influences the way I think, and I want to understand how I think. So I’ve been reading a lot of his work. I’m always neck deep in Flannery O’Connor. I stay about some Flannery. And then in French, I just finished reading A Very Easy Death by Simone de Beauvoir.
How was that?
Gutting. It was, ahhhh, yes.
Yeah? I’ve always wanted to read that.
Oh, you have–It’s an easy read! I don’t even think it’s 100 pages. It’s very thin, very well written, it just flows beautifully. I have it in French and I have it in English. She’s talking about her mother’s death from cancer and watching her mom die. This was in the 1950s, in France. She’s basically just going back and getting to know her mother as her mother is dying, and looking back on their relationship. It’s…heavy.
Do you have a favorite French word or phrase?
I will tell you a funny story about my French. When I was in the south of France, I wanted to say–I was crossing the street and almost got hit by people on their bikes–and I wanted to be like, “You motherfuckers!” But I didn’t really understand how to say that. So I said “Espèce de couillon!” Which basically means “You type of motherfuckers!” And the woman I was with, she was just like, “What the hell?” [Laughs] So yeah, I think that’s probably my funniest little French phrase. “Espèce de couillon!”
You have a nice accent, too. Why do you identify with French culture, or why do you find yourself drawn to it?
I mean, I don’t know! It started when I was a little girl. This is gonna sound so cheesy, but I don’t give a fuck. It started when I was about nine, and that movie Little Princess came out, remember? And she spoke French! And I thought that it was so cool! I remember on my VHS, I wore that shit out. I would memorize her little French thing that she said to the teacher, and like, showed Miss Minchin up. I was like, Oh, I like the way that sounds, it sounds so cool! And so I was like, I’m gonna learn French! So my tie to that culture is very much from a young girl’s, just, fascination. It’s very innocent.
I’ve spent some time there, I’ve lived there for short periods of time, a few months at a time here and there. I think French people think I’m this crazy, kind of feral, wild girl, speaking my broken French. They’re just like, “I mean, okay, I guess.”
One of your song lyrics goes, “These are things I wish my mother would have told me.” What are some of the things she did tell you?
One of the things–my mom was not a woman of a lot of words. She was kind of a reserved woman. She was rather quiet. I think she was shy. And I watched my mother struggle and go through, and fight her demons–I’m not going to get into specifics about that, but–I will always be very grateful that I had a mother who showed me her humanity. She never hid behind an exterior of, Oh, I’m a wife, I’m a mother, so I act this way. She’s probably the most incredible, profound human beings that I’ve ever met, without even trying. Because she never stays down. She fights, and it has nothing to do with the world’s approval. She does what’s right because it’s right. And she stumbles. But she doesn’t pretend that she doesn’t. When I was a young girl, I was like, “Why couldn’t you just be more like the moms on TV?” Then I realized what a gift I had, and a woman that showed me her strength but also her vulnerability.
And I bet that’s where you learned how to not only tell us the truth on stage, but show us.
Which I think is a very captivating way of doing it.
Absolutely. I remember as a young girl, your mom is your world. I was obsessed with my mom, as most girls are. I remember when we were little we’d go play with go cart racing, and whenever I would get in my little car—and I was a little girl, probably like eight—the only thing I would think of is, I’m my mom, I’m driving, I’ve gotta go, you know, drop my kids off. But that’s all I wanted to do, was roll play as my mother, because she showed me what it meant to be alive. So I bring that to the stage.
It sounds like you don’t have any anxiety adding that extra layer of vulnerability.
No, I had anxiety thinking I had to hide it. Thinking I had to be something else up there. And I just thought about my favorite women performers, Édith Piaf, Fiona Apple–when they’re on stage, that shit is brutal! It’s exhausting. You’re just like, “Ugh! What’s it like to be you?” And that’s what I wanted to bring to people.
“My mother showed me what it meant to be alive. So I bring that to the stage.”
Well, for the people like myself, with my writing, I find I have anxiety lifting that veil on certain things. What advice would you give to girls, boys, who are trying to find that creative voice?
I would ask them, Who are you writing for? Why are you writing? Are you writing for vanity? Because if that’s the case, you’re never gonna be satisfied. You’re never going to feel autonomous if you’re thinking of other people while you write. Now, if you’re writing to feel known, then there’s no limit to what you can do. There’s no rules. Just tell the truth. Tell-the-fuckin’-truth!
While we’re on the subject, a central theme in my writing lately has been letting go. I base it around this character, Amazing Anne. Do you have any advice for her?
[Long pause] I think I would tell Anne that [long pause] there are no safe spots in life. I think I would tell her that there are no resting points where you are—no matter what you have in a moment, who you have—you’re still gonna die. And to just, keep it moving. Keep going.
What would you wanna take with you?
Take with me where? I mean, I’ve had to kind of reassess my whole humanity because we have this notion, this false sense of control. Especially in Western culture, accumulating and holding on to. And it’s just like, Where you goin’ with all that shit? Where are you going? What are you doing? And I would just tell her, even if you have everything you think you want, you’re still going to die and lose it. So you may as well make peace with that.
Girl, yes. All of it.
Adia Victoria Live From Syndicate Lounge 5/27/16
Photo/Recording – Darrell Nance
Audio Mix – Brian Savage
Photo/Recording – Darrell Nance
Audio Mix – Brian Savage
[0:00] “Detroit Moan” (Victoria Spivey cover)
[3:35] “Dead Eyes”
[6:10] “Mortimer’s Blues”
[11:40] “Howlin’ Shame”
[18:45] “Horrible Weather”
[24:20] “Head Rot”
[29:34] “Invisible Hands”
[34:14] “Me and the Devil”
[39:24] “Stuck in the South”
[43:23] “And Then You Die”
[50:33] Unreleased Track
[54:33] “Ain’t I A Woman”