Adult Portions with Victoria Victoria:
A full-band context lets Tori Elliot’s songs breathe
It wasn’t your typical musical epiphany. Tori Elliott was crawling, along with some friends, through a drainage tunnel â€” one of those corrugated steel deals â€” when she had a minor breakthrough. She started singing. Elliott, who is the frontwoman and main songwriter of Victoria Victoria, was working on a hymn-like song called “February.”
As it existed at the time, the song was “very structured,” says Elliott, with chord changes practically every syllable. But singing it bathed in that cathedral-like reverb inside the tunnel, she decided to simplify the harmonic structure a bit and approach it with more of a simmering drone, which is how the song ended up as it concludes Victoria Victoria’s debut record, Coastal Beast, set to be released Aug. 27. Victoria Victoria plays a recordrelease show at The Garage in Winston Salem on the same day.
I spoke with Elliott earlier this week, which has been an unusually hectic time for the performer.
“The past two weeks have probably been the busiest weeks of my entire life,” says Elliott.
A crush of rehearsals, to replicate some of the complexity and depth of the album at the record-release show, ordering T-shirts, making sure downloads of the music get sent out to the people who helped fund the project, and a bunch of last-minute details have to be tended to.
Elliott, 21, is doing this mostly on her own, but with the help of a bunch of talented friends, she points out. Even if you’re familiar with the Triad music scene, you might find yourself coming up blank at the name Victoria Victoria, and that’s, in part, because Elliott has only been doing shows under that name since January of this year. The songs were written and partially recorded when Elliott turned the project into a band. Elliott had been performing under her own name but was also toying with the idea of embracing the alter ego/band name as a way of letting the music flower in a collaborative context, relinquishing elements of unnecessary possessive control over the songs. She’s in control, but she’s into letting go too.
“Any part of me that is frantic to hold onto the idea of ‘This is mine’ is a part that is not very healthy,” says Elliott. “My songs are at least 70 percent better when other people have input on them.”
Coastal Beast is an accomplished and confident record, one with plenty of polish and shine, and even ambitious fullness. Most of the songs are anchored by keyboards or piano (the instruments Elliott writes on), and touches of gospel organ add a hint of Sunday soul to the sound. And Elliott can sing with both an appealing restraint and control but also with expressive melismatic flourishes and ornaments.
Elliott comes from a musical family.
She remembers learning piano and vocals from her parents when she was very young. After studying classical piano for a stretch, and dipping into jazz, songwriting just emerged as a pursuit early on.
“When I was 15 I started writing songs,” says Elliott. “I don’t really know how it happened. I didn’t really sit down and say ‘I’m gonna write a song,’ I just would get songs stuck in my head that weren’t a thing yet.”
The gospel tinge in Elliott’s songs might flow from her musical upbringing. Her father, in addition to being into church music, was a big gospel fan, and he brought the family to hear live gospel at services at local houses of worship.
“When I came to the table with these songs, my intention was to have strong gospel and R&B influences, because that was how I wrote them,” says Elliott.
All that comes through on the record, but there’s also a pop sheen and melodicism and a sophistication to the production â€” with bits of strings, synth, a chorus of voices and carefully processed sounds. Elliott wedges in unexpected harmonic and metrical shifts in places. There’s a complexity to the music, but it doesn’t show itself off. If anything, the elaborate layers might require close attention before they register; listen to the artful breaks and pauses on “Ivy,” the way Rhodes-like keyboard gets paired with sparse rhythmic, percussive plucked/strummed violin strings. The song opens up big, then pulls back briefly to catch its breath before pushing out again, building and subsiding. “You got poison ivy, and I got paranoid,” she sings.
Dramatic tension, ecstatic soaring and release are all present in these songs. She doesn’t shy away from the bold big gesture. But she pulls them off with finesse.
Elliott grew up in a small town in Ohio and moved to Winston-Salem in 2012, when she was just out of high school. (There’s a song called “Ohio” on the record.”) She moved here with a high school friend and musical collaborator, Hannah Riggin, who plays in the band but is leaving in September to move to California. The record is about growing up or “adulting,” as Elliott says.
“A lot of these songs were written about the frustration of being an adult and learning time-management,” she says. “They’re about learning how to do what I love and also be responsible.”
Elliott can bring to mind a mix of artists â€” some of her lovely melodies (like on “February” and “Ohio”) have a folk familiarity and elegant arc that evokes the Avett Brothers. And her more upbeat material can draw a comparison to versatile singer/songwriters like Aimee Mann and Fiona Apple. There’s even the suggestion of the suave soul of Sade. Another point of comparison might be the eclectic R&B-inflected soul pop of Francis & the Lights. Elliott points to the most recent Alabama Shakes record and to Sylvan Esso as models of how to fuse a soulful sound with synthesizers and more expansive production. The record might conjure a lot of styles and artists, but it sounds very much like a product of the present â€” its own thing.
When she was setting out on her move to Winston-Salem to pursue music, Elliott made an informal deal with her father that she’d return to school if writing and performing didn’t pan out according to a specific timeline. She’s got a couple more years according to the arrangement, and she’s already got a record out. Elliott figures her dad has more or less given up on the bargain, considering her success so far.
“The only thing that I’m really that good at is music,” says Elliott. “Not to put all my eggs in one basket, I mean I can learn other things, I’m sure. I just need to go for it, and if it doesn’t work out, I’ll reconvene there. Right now is the perfect time for me to do it. I just kind of ran with it.” !
JOHN ADAMIAN lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.
Victoria Victoria plays Saturday, Aug. 27, at The Garage, 110 W. 7th St., Winston-Salem, 336-777- 1127, www.the-garage.ws/