Inspiration can strike at the strangest, most counterintuitive moments. For Tori Elliott, it was a panic episode in the dressing room at the Hanes Mall H&M in Winston-Salem. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that Elliott, the frontwoman and main songwriter of the Winston-Salem band Victoria Victoria, was able to mine that experience of mental discomfort to fuel her creative process. She took what would often be a psychological dead end and rode it out to new artistic terrain.
Victoria Victoria just released a new single, “Sanctuary,” and a corresponding video this week. The band will perform two local shows to celebrate the new releases. I spoke with Elliott early this week by phone from Asheville, where she and her husband/bandmate/engineer/producer Ethan Gingerich, were spending a few days.
Elliott, 24, who had struggled with anxiety and self-image issues, ended up writing a song based on a kind of dialogue with her inner demons. Heard one way, the lyrics to “Sanctuary” can sound like snippets from a playful lovers’ quarrel: “Through the mall and to the parking lot/Come on baby, is that all you’ve got?” But it’s really about Elliott talking back to her own head, redirecting her mental pathways by changing the rules of her inner conversation.
Having dealt, as a teenager and young woman, with low-self-esteem, anxiety, poor body image and other related challenges, Elliott had imagined that moving into adulthood would mean that those problems would be behind her, somehow. But she realized that she hadn’t overcome her negative mental feedback loop and that combating her tendencies would require active work. With the help of a counselor, Elliott had arrived at a course of early-morning exertion in the form of dancing around her kitchen to loud music. It was a way of being healthy and energetic without being masochistic.
“If I could get up in the morning and just blare music and dance, it didn’t feel like I was punishing my body,” she said.
Elliott said that the musical germ for what became the song “Sanctuary” took shape after what she called “a hideous dance session.”
Self-esteem sloganeering has been its own substrate of radio dance pop for decades. People have been making groovy hits about survival and endurance and overcoming emotional obstacles at least since the disco era. “Sanctuary” is perhaps a little more coded and subdued. And it’s a bit more psychological, too, because the antagonist in the lyrics, the “you” that one might perceive to be a toxic ex or some other negative presence, turns out to be a facet of the singer’s own mind. It’s about not “setting the table” for one’s self-doubts. Don’t make negativity at home and welcome in your mind, is essentially what Elliott is saying.
As with their full-length debut, 2016’s Coastal Beast, Victoria Victoria still sounds deeply fond of easy-flowing ‘80s-ish synth pop with a heavy blue-eyed soul and an R&B component. There’s a connection to artists such as Sade and Steve Winwood, goosed with a 21st-century dash of abstraction. “Sanctuary” moves with a solid mid-tempo feel, with hints of gospel organ, a lush chorus of vocal harmonies, and a pleasingly bottomed-out synth-bass line. Rich textures that get piled on in places, but then everything goes quiet for brief moments, creating powerful contrasts.
The idea for the song may have been born in a place of self-doubt, but the music itself and the video (directed by Beth Fletcher, a UNCSA alumna) radiate a sense of comfort and joy. It features dancing, by Elliott, her younger brother Noah, who also plays in the band, and choreographer/dancer Shaina Bottoms. The video, like the song, is bouncy, bright and playful, with the bedazzled faces of the dancers turning in response to one another. Elliott grew up in Ohio and moved to Winston-Salem in 2012 when she was just out of high school. She connected with several UNCSA students once she got here, providing a network of creative collaborators. A lot of Elliott’s music has been about the hurdles of adulthood, emotional maturity, and independence. If there’s a theme, it’s this: be good to yourself.
“What’s important to me is that I’m writing songs that are honest to where I am in my life,” Elliott said.
She and the band have written and recorded a small batch of new songs. But rather than work toward one big blow-out release of an album, Elliott and her bandmates have opted for what is emerging as a new model of music promotion in the age of streaming: They share one track with the public every couple of months, maintaining the interest of fans, and getting the luxury of focusing on each individual release.
The slow-drip approach allows artists and publicists to give a little more sustained attention to the music over time. Victoria Victoria has already released two other singles off of what will eventually be a seven-track record. Those songs, like “Body Body,” have a similar theme of self-love and an uplifting generosity of spirit. Even the release schedule fits into Elliott’s mode of not being too hard on oneself.
“I can handle it single by single,” she said.
Victoria Victoria will celebrate the release of the new single with a show at Monstercade, 204 W. Acadia Ave., Winston-Salem on Saturday, July 13. They play the Oak Hollow Festival Park in High Point on Sunday, July 28.
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.