Adia Victoria says her debut album, Beyond The Bloodhounds, encapsulates her 20s, with all the restlessness, self-reflection and emotional expansiveness that suggests.
Born in South Carolina and now living in Nashville, the blues singer-songwriter-guitarist puts it all on the table—struggle, hurt, tenderness, hope—shining an honest light on the complexity of life.
"I wanted it to serve as a representation of that decade of my life, so I feel like it jumps to a lot of extremes and it never really settles into itself," she says.
Victoria grew up in Spartanburg, South Carolina and left home for New York City at 19, her first time out of the South. That kicked off a few years of "bouncing around," exploring Paris, London, Atlanta and Tucson for a few months ("damn desert nearly done me in," she sings on "Sea of Sand").
"I didn't realize how Southern I was until I left the South and I wanted to explore that on this album," she says. "There's something to the Southern mind, you're obsessed with the past and constantly looking for ways to defend yourself from it or defend yourself because of it. We haven't really moved on much down here as much as things have changed in the world. We're obsessed with modernity and progress and technology, but as much as we like to think of ourselves as moving forward, the past has a pretty strong hold on us."
The fact the blues comes from the South as well gave Victoria a natural way into music that could explore her feelings about not fitting in, about not conforming to the sort of expectations that confine women and girls to roles determined by men.
"I started playing guitar when I got into the blues. Those two things happened at the same time. The blues opened me up to myself. There were parts that I was ashamed of because they didn't fit into the normal American story of what you're supposed to be. The blues allowed me for the first time a safe way to access these parts of myself," she says.
"I'd listen to singers talking about being broke and broken-hearted and it wasn't in this way of 'I'm going to be OK.' It was more honest than that, more brutal than that. But there was still a sense of humor that gave it its humanity, that I felt was missing from a lot of music I was listening to," she says. "A lot of the times when I was 19, 20, 21, I didn't feel like a winner. I didn't feel like a big deal. I felt like a pathetic pile of shit. The blues kept me from being so hard on myself and showed me that I could make art out of these otherwise shattering experiences."
With her own music, songs like "Stuck in the South" and "Dead Eyes," Victoria strives to pass along that same sort of assurance and acknowledgement to listeners.
"You don't have to constantly compare yourself to some approved standard. You don't have to be flawless or desirable. There's more to life than constantly being an object of desire. You can be pitiful and lonesome and downright pathetic but there's still beauty and value there in those experiences. You can be wide and full in your own messy humanity," she says. "The blues taught me how to constructively deal with my shame instead of letting it gnaw at me, instead of being so hard on myself for what I perceived as failures and shortcomings and flaws. The blues lifted that off my shoulders as a young black girl."
As she was putting together the album, Victoria discovered the fitting title in a 150-year-old book. Published in 1861, Incidents In The Life of a Slave Girl, is the autobiography of Harriet Ann Jacobs, who escaped from slavery after hiding for seven years in the tiny crawl space between the roof and the ceiling of her grandmother's cabin.
"The only things that kept here alive were her children and the thought of getting her babies beyond her master's bloodhounds," Victoria says.
"When I was reading the book I just set it down, got my highlighter and marked that phrase. I thought about that and I thought about where I was at that point in my life. I was 27 and working menial jobs and in between that trying to get into the studio to work on this album and dealing with loss and death in my family. It felt like everything in the world had set out to attack me. How do I free myself from this constant onslaught of life?" she says. "I knew all I needed was to get to a safe place to continue to make my art. That was my only salvation. This album is a standing testament to my nerve and my refusal to be put into a box, my refusal to be captured and held down to anything."
After releasing Beyond The Bloodhounds in May, Victoria embraced the stage, eager to present the songs in her preferred format, the more direct, immediate context of live performances.
"It's been a whirlwind the past year or so, taking the music out to the world and letting people see the show. For me, that's my bread and butter, performing and giving people a live component to the record. It's a little more personal, more raw. It's more me," she says.
After this stretch of West Coast touring, Victoria will go straight to Europe for a few more weeks of touring and then back to Nashville, to start breaking ground on her second album. Though she has a deep well of songs from over the years, she spent much of the winter writing fresh songs that capture the emotions of the present rather than her past.
"I didn't feel like my older songs were able to speak to what I'm feeling right now as an American, as an African-American, as a woman," she says. "I've been writing on the fly and it's been a completely different beast to tackle. I'm working with different expectations in mind and a whole new skill set after touring for two years. I'm working with a different energy."