By Margaret Welsh
Jessica Victoria has always been captivated by stories. As a kid, she’d rush home from school, grab a snack and then disappear for hours into her books.
Music always held stories for her, too. When she was just three, her uncle introduced her to Beethoven’s symphonies. “Picture this little three year old,” she recalls, “going to sleep listening to Beethoven’s 4th, thinking, ‘Hm, what’s happening?” She imagined monsters, heroes, drama.
Victoria — who is originally from New Mexico, and now lives in Mount Lebanon — went on to pursue classical music training, including a doctorate in musical arts and a masters in vocal performance. Currently she directs the voice track of the sacred music program at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, in Ohio. She’s performed at the Vatican and with orchestras around the world. Born blind, she composes using braille music transcription.
On her new record, Songs of the Summer Realm, which comes out Friday, May 8, Victoria moves from formal classical compositions to songwriting influenced by both traditional celtic traditions, and modern rock and jazz. And at the center is one of her favorite stories: the legend of King Arthur.
Victoria was particularly inspired by Stephen Lawhead’s Pendragon Cycle series, which she describes as presenting a more “rugged” and — for her — relatable version of the stories that many of us know. And she was especially interested in Lawhead’s depictions of women. “They’re so strong and memorable,” she says. “I wanted to devote some of the songs to them and offer a different way of looking at the women in Arthur’s life.”
Songs of the Summer Realm is an ambitious work, which Victoria, with her powerful, opera-trained voice, delivers with the emotional and tonal range required to create a captivating narrative worthy of its rich subject matter. Fans of Canadian singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Loreena McKennitt — one of Victoria’s favorites — will find the approach familiar.
“I’ll never forget when I first listened to [McKennitt’s] “Lady of Shalott,” I was spellbound because she was able to bring the music and the story together … and really capture the mystery and the magic,” says Victoria. “And she hasn’t really been restricted by genre, either. She’s been able to put the genre in the service of the story and that’s what I strive to do.”
Victoria, too, incorporates other genres in surprisingly fluid ways: “The Prophecy,” for one, opens with raucous bagpipes, underscored by rock guitar riffs and bolstered by piano parts that border on free jazz. The fact that this potentially chaotic instrumentation actually works is a credit to Victoria’s broad musical knowledge and songwriting skills (Iron Maiden is another influence), and to the musicians she worked with on the record, including Lorne MacDougall of long-running Scotland-based celtic band Tannahill Weavers.
To deepen the Arthurian atmosphere, the record was recorded in the Scottish Highlands where, myth holds, Arthur spent some of his formative years. “The goal for the album is for people to have an immersive experience in the story,” says Victoria.
“I read that there was some research done that sometimes people will listen to something for seven seconds, and then move on to the next thing. And I wanted this album to be an alternative to that,” she explains. “Especially now that people are home during this pandemic, I think it’s a really good time to release it because people can listen to it once, twice, more, and still get something out of the whole story.”
For more information, visit www.jessicavictoria.com