For the second installment of The Cultural Reset’s ‘Artist Interview’ series, TCR spoke with Spanish-American, singer-songwriter Victoria Canal on her recent EP release Victoria. TCR’s Nick Lee and Shannon Ervin sat down with Victoria to discuss her upbringing, artistic process, and experiences navigating the music industry as a differently-abled artist.
Shannon: Welcome, we're so happy to have you here at ‘The Cultural Reset’. My name is Shay Ervin, the Assistant Director, and this is Nick Lee, our Creator and Editor-in-Chief. Our mission with this platform is to uplift BIPOC and LGBTQ+ artists through album reviews, artists interviews, and playlists and we are so excited to have you here. I'm actually going to be writing a review of your album, “Victoria”, for our Album Review series which I have to give you compliments for. I felt like I was waking up in your shoes, listening to the birds in the morning and going through the day with you. It was great.
Victoria: Thanks. I'm so glad that you caught that, that detail of the birds and the first song being very morning-esque actually.
Nick: Agreed huge compliments. Let’s start off by talking about where and when your creative journey started!
V: I was introduced to music when I was around 4 years old or three years old as my first memory. My grandma played piano at church and taught music. We would drive up to the mountains and see her in her little cabin. She had this beautiful upright piano that had engravings on it that I just absolutely loved and used to stare at all the time. I'd sit on her lap as she played, and I just watched, and I wanted to know what she was doing. I sang before I actually put my hands on the piano, and I was always singing in harmony. She noticed that I had a natural inclination towards harmony and music so she became my first teacher and then I became self-taught and I trained in classical and jazz. And it's been a love affair with pop music ever since.
S: You've lived around the world. Where were you at that point?
V: I was born in Munich, Germany, and at that point we were living in Madrid. I'm what they call a third-culture kid, which basically means that I'm born to an American parent and my dad's Spanish, but I grew up going to international schools. When my parents met they had this dream of traveling the world together by bicycle, then they got pregnant. The plan didn’t change, they just decided to take me with them. I've had the opportunity to grow up going to international schools in Shanghai, Tokyo, Dubai, Madrid, Barcelona, London, Amsterdam, and I didn't live in the United States until I was 18 and then I went to NYU for a year.
N: Wow, incredible! Could you tell us about your artistry? What would you say, as an artist, is your mission?
V: I feel like my main mission as an artist is to hold space for people in their truest form. When I play and when I write and when I sing for people, I think one of the most powerful things that can happen is this feeling of acceptance, not only from my end, but from theirs and to empower others to feel heard and to use their voice. I think there have been many moments in my life where I've been challenged to hush myself, or to shrink in the face of others or what others expect me to be as a differently-abled person or as an LGBTQ person. I think really taking pride in who I am, and also acting out of empathy always in a desire to accept others as they are through my art. Just being human is where my focus point is.
S: Do you feel like you're treated differently because you are differently abled? Has this affected your career?
V: There's no real way to know. I think naturally everyone is treated differently based on what people see. I don't know if I'd say “unfortunately”, but actually in many cases, “unfortunately”, people are judged on their outer layers and I think that's even more evident in having a disability more so than it might be with somebody else. I definitely would say that it's affected the trajectory of my career because people have decided that I'm an inspiration. Or they tokenize me. I'm very tokenized a lot of the time to be the designated amputee or the designated disabled person to add diversity. I think that's definitely been evident. Whether I like it or not, it has cast me in a certain brand of artists.
I wouldn't necessarily say I'm tortured by that, because I also understand that I have a responsibility and I did grow up in quite a privileged environment. It’s really different to be a disabled person who's white or white-passing and growing up in Europe from a moderately wealthy family than it is to be a queer and black disabled person growing up in Middle America.
I have a really vivid memory of visiting India. When I was a little kid and I met a little kid, who was around my age, who was missing his arm as well. We were connected on a certain level, but then also our realities were so different. He was rejected and was begging on the streets asking for money. He didn't have anything to eat. Meanwhile, I was on vacation with my family. So there is a continual self-awareness where I think that people see me and say, “Oh, she's overcome everything on her own.” It’s very merit based. It’s like “she overcame this and good on her.” But for me, it had so much more to do with my surroundings and the luck of growing up in a certain family and in a certain part of the world. I guess part of what I think about a lot is why we cast certain people as certain things.
S: How do you feel like your activism crosses over in your music and what emotion fuels your activism?
V: That's a good question. What emotion fuels me? I would say more so than anything: the practice of empathy. You never know someone's full story or full picture; and everybody deserves to be heard, respected and helped. Accessibility is a very real issue that many people, myself included, are limited by on a daily basis. Living in a society where products and systems cater to a very symmetrical body type, we're not used to seeing anything else in the media, and we're not used to being around anybody else who's disabled because they're all marginalized to be over there and everybody else is over here.
I think part of my interest in activism is being one of the only disabled people that a fan, or that someone who listens to my music, has seen at a mainstream festival or on a mainstream bill. Other than Stevie, they've never seen a disabled artist before! Normalizing that and bridging the gap between “this click” and “that one” is what I'm part of—what I'm interested in. I'm very involved in both worlds.
I feel like sometimes I have a cheat code because my arm is not that intrusive in an able-bodied person's life. As we're speaking here, you don't have to think about it. I'm communicating myself and you can't see it. There's nothing uncomfortable here, but there are countless amounts of differently-abled or disabled people who look and communicate very differently. They function very differently from what we are used to seeing every day and what we're used to being around every day. Sometimes I feel like I'm calling myself disabled when nobody actually has to cater to my disability. Part of the reason why it's important to talk about disabilities is not just because I look like this, but it's because there are people who actually need aid to be built into the systems around them. The system is seriously lacking at the moment.
S: It is. And I just want to say that I think you're doing it, and this is definitely the right place to do it because music has so much power. It has such a big image and it is so influential across generations. It always has been, it's such a powerful place to do it, and that's what I love about it. It's really amazing.
N: Absolutely. Shifts in cultural and interpersonal revelations have happened through songs or through discovering artists. I do think that artists have an amazing capacity for influencing people. That’s so very exciting to me.
S: Hence the name, The Cultural Reset!
N: Exactly! Like you, we’re trying to reset that image—that expectation—of what is, and what is not and what should and should not be. Along these lines, I’d like to ask about how the industry itself treats differently-abled people. How has being differently-abled affected your experience as an artist?
V: I feel like whenever I've been hired for a corporate campaign or something of the sort, with one or two exceptions, I've very much felt that the company said: “we need disabled people on the project, but they are not part of the main cast…”. So me and four other token disabled people of different disabilities, we'll be part of the performance. Then in private, we're not allowed to be in the same places as the rest of the cast and crew.
S: Oh my goodness. Well, that's very performative.
V: It's extremely performative. That's how I find that it affects me. It becomes apparent a lot of the time that I'm there, not because of how many hours I've put into my music, but because I'm checking off a box of what is best for business right now. So that's very frustrating. For example, having to reshoot a whole interview about my artistry and upbringing, because my arm wasn't in the shot. They had someone come over and whisper in my interviewer's ear while I'm responding and said, “we need to reshoot this whole 45-minute interview with the arm in the shot”, because that's what my client wants.
However, at the same time there's the other side of that. One where I know that some little girl is going to see my interview and feel super inspired and say “I thought that I couldn't play guitar with a missing arm” or “I thought that I couldn't play guitar because I don't feel pretty enough” or “because I don't feel like enough—yet seeing her up there doing her thing and being herself, I know that I can do that now.” So I'm almost willing to give into the soullessness of some of these corporate things and some of that stuff, because I know that on the other side, someone's going to watch it and feel uplifted to live a little bit more fearlessly.
N: That's beautiful. And I'm really sorry that you have to go through that. I can only imagine how ridiculously frustrating that would be. That's like me being in an interview and someone saying to me that I need to redo it because I'm black and I don’t look black enough in the shot. It's like “why are we here”? What you’re saying should be the point.
V: Yeah. It's complex because, it’s like in acting when you read a casting sheet there's still so much colorism and racism and ableism and sexism. Even from the roles that are being described in the entertainment industry there's a lot of ways to go. There's a lot of room to grow in that sense for us to reach a point where we're not typecasting and tokenizing people. I just think it's a matter of having more people's story stories being told and valued. That is why I love what you guys are doing. Because that's your mission.
S: We are storytellers.
N: Along the same lines, this idea of changing the industry. How do you see yourself changing the industry? Do you see yourself getting to a point where you can speak on these things freely?
V: Yeah. I'm definitely still figuring it out. It's just a matter of trying. I've been having these same conversations for a few years now. I'm still navigating what is the most effective way to make change and to empower others and to provide more accessibility across the board of the entertainment industry, in particular the media that we're consuming. But the most that I can do is start where I'm at, performing and writing music. Then talking about what I believe on stage and making sure that the shows that I play are accessible and making sure that I'm collaborating with differently-abled people and artists and designers, and constantly pushing for greater diversity.
I know that my fans are not only seeing me but seeing real people and real stories through the music and through what I post online. I also am extremely passionate about being open with mental health issues. I’ve been super open about that online, because not all disabilities or limitations are visible to other people. There are so many things that we cope with on the inside. And so I want to address that as well. I think it's a lot about tag teaming. It's about having a community of people around you, creatives, and even legislation on your side and more politically inclined people to pick up the load off each other.
There's only so much I can do artistically and personally before I'm exhausted. And then I can talk to my friend who runs desk accessibility at JetBlue, for example, and then see how we can collaborate. Or talk to my friend, Chris, who runs “Special Books by Special Kids”, which is an amazing YouTube channel dedicated to sharing stories of differently-abled kids. I think it's just a matter of learning and speaking out. Even when I'm afraid of making mistakes, or not being well informed enough because I still have so much to learn because disabilities are so complex, it's just taking it one day at a time and figuring out how to best lift each other up.
That idea of using the people in your network specifically to band together and fight collectively against that type of discrimination and ableism is really powerful. Even just having the conversations one-on-one every day. I almost never meet a person who doesn't ask me about my arm. Almost on a daily basis I come into contact with a kid who stares at me or who cries in front of me or who's comparative, or practicing empathy. I communicate with children and adults alike to say: “Look, here's how I personally appreciate being treated. Here are the ways that I need aid and here are the ways that we don't need to talk about this stuff.” That's me and I don't speak for all different people. My mission is to have able-bodied friends know more than just one disabled person—meaning me. You shouldn't have just one token black friend. Or your token gay friend, or your token differently-abled friend. That's not the goal. The goal is to surround yourself with people of all different backgrounds and all different stories. Because that will open your mind to just how similar we all really are. Second of all, I know how important it is to connect with each other, like outside of our intimate homogenous circle.
Photo by: Sarah Pardini—"Victoria Canal"
"My mission is to have able-bodied friends know more than just one disabled person—meaning me. "
S: Absolutely. Thank you so much for sharing that with us. I’m really glad that we can create a space for this, and I'm really appreciative that you're willing to talk to us about it. I also want to focus on your music because I think that’s also an incredible part of your mission.
So your new album, “Victoria”, let's talk about that. First of all, why the name Victoria?
V: It’s a first introduction to my nature as a human being. What I feel on the inside. The project is really a self-worth exploration. I think each song I'm either coming to terms with who I am or challenging who I am, or resenting who I am or, something loving and embracing who I am. I go through the waves of being a human. I wrote the EP when I was 20 last year. It just feels like my first true statement as an artist and also the title track is called “Victoria.” Which I think is a really dope song.
I think the reason that I went for that song and then ended up naming the EP after that track was because that song in particular, in terms of the waves, is the song where I'm looking at myself in the mirror and saying, you are the fu*king dopest thing in the whole world. And I got your back and nobody else does. So let's do this, it's you and me against the world. I just kind of wanted to go forward with the project with that energy. I don't know why; I just thought it'd be fun! I definitely feel like it's a bit of a playful jab at being alone and being highly chaotic in my mind and just wanting to be a friend to myself.
N: It was lovely. Journalistic professionalism aside, I have to say the album was the bomb. I’d love it if you could break it down for us. Shay and I were talking with each other about “Victoria” specifically. It’s clear it’s a personal piece that has deep meaning for you. I can’t help but wonder what you want other people to take away from it?
V: I want it to be validating the fact that people talk to themselves a lot. I want it to have a song that made it very clear that I am kind of a lunatic who talks to herself a lot, but then again we all always have this inner voice who's either talking shit about us or high fiving us on the inside! I just wanted something where somebody could listen to that and be like, “damn I’m like Victoria and I have the exact same thoughts.” I wanted to create a world where you can go in and rock out. It's some frantic energy. The reason that I put it into a song was because I wanted other people to resonate the whole talking to yourself thing and kind of like loving your own company over anybody else's sometimes.
S: I definitely felt built up because of it. Not only because of your lyrics, but the tune of the song is self-empowering. It's something I would listen to while walking down the street and feel like I'm the best!
N: I definitely feel that. What was the creative journey like for the EP?
V: I was living in Fort Worth, Texas for a few months. I'm a backpacker by heart. I've never lived anywhere longer than a few months, especially as an adult. I decided to spend a couple months in Fort Worth and a couple of months in LA and now I'm in Amsterdam for a few months. When I was in Fort Worth, I had my favorite writers and producers through and had them sleep on my couch one at a time and write two or three songs a day for a few days. Then I had Martin Luke Brown come over from London—a good friend of mine. We wrote a ton of songs and they were all the songs on the album. They came out one after another. I disregarded the rest of the songs that I'd written with the other writers. It was a cool sense of collaboration. I feel like out of everyone that I've worked with, Martin brings out the truest essence of what I'm feeling. He makes me feel safe in the studio space. I was showing him all my ideas and being like, “this is crazy and kind of loony, but what do you think of this?” And he's always hyped on everything. I play more of a producer role on this record than I have in the past. The stuff that I'm working on right now, I'm completely producing myself, which is super exciting for the next release.
I finished the record with him and our friend, Matt from London. We went to Barcelona and finished up the production on the beach, in my uncle's house. There were a lot of couches and laptops. I really like moving around. I'm always staying with people, crashing on couches or sleeping on kitchen floors. I'm a very low key, backpacker, hostel dwelling kind of chick. I feel much more creative if it's on a little tiny crappy keyboard and shitty headphones than a real studio, I can't record in a real studio. It's too much pressure and it makes me feel forced.
It really has to come from the soul. I could honestly say that the EP was very makeshift and very pieced together over the course of many months and cities. But in the end it came together as a pretty cool pop project. So that's amazing, that makes you sound even more like yourself and who you are and the way you grew up, traveling all over the place.
Photo by: Cat White—"Victoria Canal"
"...that makes you sound even more like yourself and who you are and the way you grew up, traveling all over the place."
S: Speaking of the way you grew up, there was one place in particular—Atlanta I believe—in which I recall you saying you “recognized the power of music”. What happened there?
V: My grandma's from there! I have a very vivid memory of her having some of our distant relatives over and friends from church and she was playing a song on piano. I remember turning and seeing all of these people dancing, clapping and laughing with each other and having an amazing time. Then five minutes later, she was playing this solemn lullaby and people were weeping in their chairs, totally touched by the music. That's when I realized the effect that it could have on people. I wanted to do that. I wanted to hold that energy. I wanted to be a handler of energy which musicians often are.
S: They pick things up and they bring them down and they pull people around.
N: Its interesting you say that your grandma was able to transition between really upbeat stuff and really sad stuff to move people's emotions, because I definitely felt that on your album, from ‘Drama’ to ‘Favor’ there was a huge transition. Not gonna lie, I did cry a bit when I listened to ‘Favor’ because it was so good. It's just so heartfelt. And I can tell that you sing from your soul. Why did you include the demo version of Favor on the official release of the EP?
V: As a fan myself of many artists, I am so grateful when they include a little golden nugget in their album. Whether it's a hidden track or a commentary or a demo. The thing about that song was that Martin and I, one day exhausted our creative energy and went out for dinner next door to get burritos. While we were in line, we were just having a conversation. I was telling him about my romantic woes and basically being in love with someone who didn't love me back. He was like, “Man, yeah, you're just almost like, do me a favor, like fall in love with me back,” and I was like, “Hey, that's good.” So we picked up the burritos and wrote the whole song right there while sitting and eating the burritos, just on our phones recording and singing it in between bites. It was the quickest, most seamless songwriting experience. Then we went home full of burritos and in one take stacked our vocals acapella into this demo. You can hear the washing machine running in the background and an ambulance driving by. But it was just so magical, a from-the-gods moment. Such a playful, easy fluid thing. That demo just felt like the culmination of why I do music. It doesn't sound like anybody else. It's just a shitty, kind of off-tune, acapella thing.
To me that is the reason I do music. I wanted to include that for any listener who might go in and wonder what's behind “the ballad”—the beautifully sung, masterfully recorded studio song.
S: On that note, what advice would you give to aspiring creatives looking to break into the music industry? To the young creatives who are trying to get a start and who listen to that demo, they're probably like “That sounds familiar. This sounds like something that I've created, because I don't have a producer.” What advice would you give to them?
V: A couple of things come to mind. One of the most valuable lessons that I've learned is to have patience with myself through the creative process and through the days and the weeks and the months and the years, if you're too focused on what somebody else is doing you're not going to spend enough time and you're going to waste the time and energy that you could otherwise use on cultivating your voice and cultivating your tastes and your choices. So I feel like it took me a long time and still to this day, I have to practice putting down my phone, putting down social media, forgetting about the peer that's doing slightly better than me, or has a hit song.
Just don't pay attention to the other. That's not your path. Your path is your path. The most that you can do is take inspiration and pull inspiration from things that you admire. But, don't let what you admire sink you into some sort of self-sabotaging or self-discriminating vocabulary. Just keep working at it and just keep showing up for it every day. That's all that matters is that you show up every day. And that when you're not showing up every day that you forgive yourself for that, and tomorrow is the next day. Just start again, it's never too late. Just focus on the craft.
Something else that I would say is remember to be human too. It's really easy to get sucked into a toxic productivity and putting a lot of your self-worth into how much you produce and how far you're getting, and to realize that whatever you accomplish in your career and artistically does not determine your value as a person. It’s having a long and stable and fruitful life. It's imperative to understand your worth as an individual, separate from your accomplishments or your career.
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