Adia Victoria Puts the Balls Back in the Blues
Nashville-based singer, songwriter, and guitarist Adia Victoria Paul has made strides towards critical and commercial acceptance in 2016 as a blues singer. She’s not merely a rocker who has learned a few blues riffs and fervently listened to a Robert Johnson compilation. She’s a genuine blues singer and composer, inhabiting a spot in the music industry at age 30 that was seemingly reserved beforehand for a few living legends.
Despite reviews and features that liken her music to country and punk rock, Paul’s music and lyrical content stems directly from African-American musical traditions. The songs on debut album Beyond the Bloodhounds, issued in May by Atlantic Records, update classic blues song topics for modern times and reclaim the ferocity that birthed rock ‘n’ roll. “I feel like the blues has been appropriated by a lot of white artists, and it has kind of had its balls chopped off a little bit,” Paul says. “It’s been made comfortable – background music for when you’re at a BBQ joint eating ribs. That’s not what the blues is. It’s the original punk music. It’s protest music. It’s music for people who the only way they could express themselves saying things they couldn’t say because if they said it they’d be killed.”
Off-base comparisons to country artists or “Southern gothic” songwriters frustrate Paul, who has a certain sound and audience in mind. “They see I live in Nashville and I wrote a song called ‘Stuck in the South,’ and they’re like, ‘Oh, country!,’” she says. “No, it’s not country. That’s nothing against country music. I love Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, and all of that shit. I’ve been adamant about shaking off that country label because they’re trying to tailor make me for a white audience. What I’m doing is very much black art that speaks about the experience of a black girl growing up in the South, and I want to share that with other black girls. I want to be able to find them, so I don’t want to be raptured away from them into the country music scene. Let’s be honest: they’re never going to find me there. And it’s just not my sound and my passion. My passion is the blues.”
Paul reached her own blues crossroads while living in Atlanta from 2007-2010. She moved there from her home state of South Carolina during the recession, around the same time her mom and sister relocated to Nashville. While living in Atlanta, one of Paul’s friends gifted her a Washburn acoustic guitar around the time she fell in love with classic blues sounds. “I listened to the Black Keys and the White Stripes, and I wanted to go back a little further and see who their influences were,” she says. “That’s how I discovered my influences – Skip James, Robert Johnson, and Victoria Spivey. That made a huge, lasting impression on me.”
Instead of chasing the blues at Blind Willie’s or the Northside Tavern, Paul spent most of her spare time away from her telemarketing job holed up in her apartment, learning to play guitar and listening to blues albums. This dedication to learning the blues positioned Paul to become a regular performer at cafes and open mic nights after an unexpected job loss set her on a path to Music City. “The reason I moved to Nashville is I lost my job in Atlanta, and I was on unemployment,” she explains. “I wasn’t doing anything, and my mom was like, ‘Why don’t you come be with your family now?’ When I got here, I had my guitar and some songs, so I thought I’d go play some cafes just for fun. It all happened organically.”
With Café Coco’s open mic night just down the street from Paul’s home, she’d walk there with her younger sister coming along for moral support. Those experiences were the genesis of her current sound and sharpened her stage presence. Unless of course you want to credit whoever in Atlanta fired her or cut her job with inadvertently tipping over the first domino.
Paul grew up attending church services and school at a Seventh Day Adventist Church. Although churches in the South helped birth popular music, what she sang as a child didn’t exactly set her on a path toward raw, carnal blues music. “I grew up in a very white Seventh Day Adventist church,” she says. “There was no soul there. It was as white as you can get.”
What she did learn in church that still drives her as a performer was the rush that comes from singing to an audience. She joined school choir at age five, and often sang solos in church. “I remember how I felt special going to the front of the church and singing for people,” she says. “It was kind of like I was entering into an agreement that I was going to communicate to you, and you were going to listen. At big services, for Christmas especially, Mom would get me a new dress and press my hair, which was a very special occasion because she didn’t press my hair often. That was the ritual of preparing for the stage. I felt that transformation happening when I’d go to the stage and sing. I felt elevated. That stayed with me, and it’s a feeling I haven’t been able to shake my whole life.”
Paul’s reverence for the stage did not diminish after she started performing secular music live. If you’ve seen her live or caught her June performance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, you surely noticed that Paul and her band dress to the nines, usually wearing all white. “I like the way that white looks aesthetically. I like that it’s clean,” she explains. “The thing that I refuse to do as an artist is go up there and wear whatever clothes, like ,’This is what I wear sitting on my couch, and now I’m here to play a show for you.’ That’s kind of a thing right now with a lot of Millennials and hipsters where they are scared to make a statement. They are scared to show intent. They are scared to dedicate to a statement, so they get up there and where crappy, ironic clothes. For me, I come from a background in performing arts where I respect the stage. The stage is like a transformation for me. I tell my band to wear all black or all white because we’re not just our normal selves on stage, and that comes across to people.”
The Late Show appearance was one of Paul’s biggest breaks to date, and it connected her with another progressive-minded South Carolinian. “I thank Stephen for allowing me to have my debut on his show, and I appreciate that he believes in what I’m doing,” she says. “We’re both from South Carolina. After we performed, I was so full of adrenaline. He asked me to come over and sign a record for his daughter. The only thing I could think to say is, I whispered, ‘I’m from South Carolina, too.’ He looked back at me and whispered, ‘I know.’ It was an acknowledgement between the two of us that we’re these two really Southern people from South Carolina, and we made it out.”
Paul’s album and late night television debut culminate two years of plotted and socio-political minded moves. “I felt compelled to release my art at the time I did back in 2014,” she says. “It’s when the Black Lives Matter movement was just starting to take off. I wrote ‘Stuck in the South’ back in 2013 at a particularly oppressive time in my life. I was experiencing the passing of my aunt from cancer. I remember feeling very much that I was being attacked and ripped apart. I remember feeling that I was prey for something. I didn’t want to sit and write a mopey song. I wanted to make it into a bigger statement. Like, this is also how I feel in the South. Because of my skin and because of white supremacy, I have been preyed upon.”
With a message that pertains to other young black women, Paul feels a special connection to audience members who have lived the stories and felt the feelings that define her as a songwriter. “At every show, I’ll see a young black girl in the audience and I’ll know she’s experiencing my art on a different level than my white audience,” she says. “I appreciate them as well, and I appreciate that I can bear witness to white people. But there’s something almost spiritual about seeing a young black woman or a black man in my crowd where they see me holding a guitar and singing songs I wrote, and I’m not showing off my body. I’m using my voice. I hope that it touches somewhere in them. Then they come up after the show and express gratitude and thank me for telling the truth.”
This truthfulness conveys the authenticity that’s long set aside blues singers (and yes, county crooners) from the average pop or rock performer, and it’s something that makes Paul’s bullshit detector-proof music something special. This earnestness extends beyond Paul’s songwriting. When asked something extremely idealistic and naïve about performing music with a message to a growing audience and not just to café patrons, she remained boldly truthful. “I’m trying to pay my rent, honey,” she says. “I’ll be real with you.”
Photo by Jack Hedges.