When Victoria Canal returned to her family home in Amsterdam for the pandemic, the 24–year–old singer, songwriter, producer and activist had just finished a tour after a period of busy music–making in the studio – something she’s been doing since she was a teenager. Born in Munich to Spanish and American parents, Victoria lived a nomadic existence, traveling across the world with her parents and siblings, living everywhere from Shanghai, Tokyo and Amsterdam to Dubai and Atlanta. In between the traveling, she studied music in Barcelona and New York – including a stint under legendary voice coach Jan Smith, who’d worked with the likes of Drake and Usher.
Lockdown was the first time Victoria had spent an extended time in one place and she retreated to the basement, setting up a make-shift studio to record. “It was a very stripped-back set up,” Victoria recalls from her home in London, where she now lives. “I ended up writing all these songs and singing quite quietly into my mic, not wanting the rest of my family to hear,” she smiles, saying things got a little crowded: as well as her parents, her two siblings also returned home when the world shut down. “My voice actually changed over the course of the year through this,” she laughs. “I used to sing really loud but over lockdown, I became more hushed. I changed the way I approached recording music.”
There was another reason Victoria’s powerful voice was more muted too. When she entered the basement to write the songs that now make up her upcoming EP, Elegy, she was certain these deeply personal and emotive tracks would never be heard by anyone at all. With news that a close relative was sick with incurable cancer, Victoria wrote the songs as a means to explore her own feelings of sorrow, helplessness and the anticipatory grief that comes with knowing a loved one won’t recover from a terminal illness.
“It was a very inward process and nobody else was involved in the writing,” Victoria says, “I was so weighed down by the insane weight of uncertainty and grief, not to mention the sadness at what they were going through, the suffering, the pain. Initially when I wrote the songs, they were so raw, honest and so painfully real, I was just certain I wouldn’t show them to anyone at all.”
When she finished writing the songs, Victoria says she realised she had a complete “body of work”, but still wasn’t sure about sharing them at a time when she was still processing the news. In lockdown, she’d started an online series called ‘Mellow Tunes’ – songs composed in just five minutes – both as a means to keep creating at a time when live music was at a standstill, and as a way to cope with what was happening to her relative. One of the clips found its way to Coldplay’s Chris Martin. A year later when lockdown lifted, he invited Victoria to a Coldplay recording retreat where she was encouraged to work on her own material. Chris also introduced Victoria to Parlophone and soon after, she signed a deal with the renowned label.
“I was like Chris Martin’s biggest fan way before this,” Victoria laughs. “I’ve grown up with Coldplay and every time I’ve sat down at my piano over the last ten years, I’ve always asked myself: ‘What would Chris Martin do?!’” Martin became Victoria’s mentor and encouraged her to be more open and honest in her songwriting or “encouraging me to be me,” as she puts it. Another mentor came in the shape of Jon Hopkins, who Canal befriended in an attempt to surround herself with creatively like minded artists and mentors. “Even though our styles are completely different, he also encouraged me to be authentic, to be myself and that’s what I’ve tried to do with this EP.”
After thinking about how to give more of herself over into her music, Victoria decided to share the personal songs she’d written in her basement. “Over lockdown I’d read books by people like Elena Ferrante and Isabelle Allende, both of whom had written a lot of literature about family, loss and what happens when people pass away. Those books helped me to get through that difficult period and I started to understand more about how art can help a person struggling with grief.” Victoria decided to share her songs in the hope they might speak to people who were going through similar situations.
Listed in order, the songs on Elegy tells the fictitious story following a good man finding out he is dying, inspired by the events from her own life. The first song, ‘own me’, is a vulnerable piano–driven track that explores feelings of anger when someone we love is being taken away for no apparent reason. “The principle of this song is a reckoning of sorts,” Victoria explains. “Someone’s been an amazing person their whole life and then for no logical reason whatsoever, their life is taken away. It’s about bad things happening to good people and the song also asks the question: how much are we really in control, verses how much we really are pawns? There’s some quiet anger here,” she says, which is perhaps most apparent at the song’s soaring string–driven crescendo.
The EP’s second track, the stripped–back acoustic–guitar led ‘pity season’ takes the listener inside a conversation between a sick person and their son over dinner, where he breaks the news about his illness to the family. Part of the song also sees the son exploring how he measures up next to his father. “It’s that fear of a loss of identity when the son wonders ‘How can I be like you, measure up to you, if you’re not around for me to observe and follow your lead?’”
This leads onto ‘swan song’, a haunting piano ballad that results in the acceptance of an illness – from the father and the rest of the family. “It’s the last words between a father and a son and it comes from a place of peace and acceptance. I think this one is the most special to me on the EP,” Victoria continues, “It somehow captures the essence of my relative the most.”
This song, like the last on the EP – the delicately layered ‘driving your car’ – are written much more from Victoria’s perspective and capture what she says is her “lack of life experience when it comes to dealing with loss and grief.” She explains: “My relative is still thankfully here. It’s been a slow decline and talking about grief, or writing about it, is confusing because it’s the anticipation of it that is so challenging to deal with. It’s a strange no–man’s land of emotion.”
Victoria compares it back to her earlier work, such as when she was supporting Leslie Odom Junior on his tour just before the pandemic. “My show was really sort of fun and dynamic” she says, recalling how her merch would sell out each night to audiences of 2000 or more fans who would enjoy her buoyant show. “But it just wasn’t deep. The pandemic and the experience with my family member cracked me open as a songwriter – everything about me and them is in those songs. I came to realise that the songs I was scared to show people were the ones that connected with people the most.”
It’s also married her life away from music more with her career. When not making music, Victoria is a passionate activist for the disabled (Victoria was born with one arm) as well as women and the LGBTQ+ communities as a queer musician. Now, she’s finding a way to include this side of her life with her art too. “The last two music videos I made, the child actor playing me has a little arm like me and I’m hoping to be able to include people with limb differences like mine, as well as others with disabilities too, so we keep increasing the presence of those with disabilities in society.”
Victoria says growing up without seeing such visibility was tough. “There was nobody who looked like me on screen. It was the same not just with that but with women, and queer women too. In my latest video, I have women, trans and non–binary actors in the parts as well as more people of colour. I didn’t see anyone like me in the public eye as a teenager, and I think being that person for someone else might be really cool. In terms of my queerness, it’s all just about being open about who I am, throwing away any labels that might be restrictive in the hope that might empower or inspire others to do the same.”
For now, she wants to turn those basement sessions into a new career blueprint that sees her being the most honest and open she can be. “I’m trying to be the most authentically version of me I can be,” she smiles. “I’m excited to see what part of me I’ll be able to share next.”
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Fremont Abbey Arts Center
The Great Escape 2024