“It’s been a… a real crazy journey.”
That’s acclaimed singer-songwriter Angelica Garcia summarizing the events of the last several years of her life, a tumultuous yet rewarding time that included multiple cross-country moves, periods of isolation and discovery, and, ultimately, landing a coveted slot on Warner Brothers Records who released her debut record, Medicine For Birds, in September of 2016. “It seems like a lot when I list it all out, but that’s how life goes I guess,” she laughs.
This article was featured in RVAMag #28: Spring 2017. You can read all of issue #28 here or pick it up at local shops around RVA right now.
Garcia’s story begins in Los Angeles where she lived with her mother, a graphic designer, and father, a record executive. For the most part, her life ran smoothly until around middle school when her father made a decision that would change their lives: He was leaving the record industry and becoming an Episcopal priest. “He always said he was repenting,” Garcia remembers with a smile before detailing how her family packed up and moved to Connecticut so her father could attend seminary. After graduating, the family moved back to Los Angeles for a time while her father still pursued the priesthood. “That whole process takes a while,” she explains. “You have to go to seminary for a few years, then be a deacon for two years, and that’s when you start to get assessed to become ordained.”
On top of the location and career changes, Garcia’s family also had to cope with her father’s battle with cancer. “It was really difficult for the family,” she states. “It was actually really hard for him because as he was going through his treatment and recovery, he had to do time as a chaplain in a hospital.” She remembers one of his first hospital experiences was consoling the family of a man who had suffered a fatal heart attack. “He had to somehow learn how to console them and figure out the exact right thing to say, which was hard when he was going through his own serious fight with cancer,” she explains. “It was just difficult.”
Garcia also admits that the uncertain situation was hard on her and her mother. She remembers living in a big house when she was younger, something she never noticed until each house got progressively smaller as she grew up. “Our last place in LA, I could actually put my hands out and touch both walls,” she says while stretching for visual effect. But it was more than the living arrangements for Garcia. “It put weird pressure on the family because it’s the kind of job where the whole family gets involved. I would help out so he’s not doing it all by himself. Sometimes it’s making food, other times it’s getting things in order. Whatever it took, we did it.”
Around this time, Garcia was starting her senior year at an arts school in Los Angeles and getting her first taste of the music industry. Though she studied jazz and classical voice, she didn’t pursue music until her classmates approached her randomly with an opportunity. “They were competing in a Battle Of The Bands and needed a singer,” she remembers. “We had this indie pop sound, though we were all jazz kids so it had a different twist to it. People liked it a lot and we ended up winning.” One of the prizes was recording time in a studio — not a fancy one, Garcia states, but one good enough to impress a bunch of high schoolers. Eager to start, the band had one issue before entering the studio. “They were saying, ‘We can’t record other people’s songs. We have to record our own stuff,'” she remembers. “They basically looked at me and told me to write some songs. I had a bunch of poems, but I never did songwriting so that was my first real experience.”
One of those songs Garcia wrote ended up becoming popular around LA leading to the band playing a set at The Troubadour when she was only 17. “It was crazy — I’m on stage and people are actually singing my words back to me,” she says with a shocked expression. “That’s when I thought I could actually do this.” Realizing her potential wasn’t the only thing that happened that night. The band’s set also impressed an A&R executive who quickly expressed interest, even as the group’s future was uncertain. “He really believed in me even after the band disbanded since everyone was moving away,” she recalls. “He told me to just keep writing and to send him stuff. It was really a big moment. I was just a normal teenage girl with a lack of confidence so for him to tell me that, when I already wanted to write anyway… I got a lot of self-definition out of that.”
It was a seminal moment for Garcia, but unfortunately, there was little time to celebrate with graduation fast approaching and a big decision to make: She could either go to college or move with her family across the country (again) to the town of Accomac on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. “I studied music in school, but I really wanted to try my hand at writing,” she admits. “I had always loved it and I did get into a writer’s program in Vermont, though it was just the wrong time with the move and the second diagnosis.” Six months before her graduation, her father had already moved out to Virginia and by the time Garcia and her mother were ready to join him, they all had to prepare for her father’s second fight with cancer.
“That was the most stressful time because I had just finished graduating and my mom also broke her leg at the same time,” she says. “I ended up taking care of both parents and I also really thought about how hard it was to just make ends meet. I couldn’t justify spending $30,000 a year on college so I decided to take some time off and think, which ended up being the best thing that ever happened to me.”
Upon arriving in Virginia, Garcia began to acclimate to life in the town of Accomac, a community she described as “half-farmer, half-fisherman,” and while her father and mother had no problem fitting in, she quickly found problems with few people to relate to. “I was the only 17-year-old in the neighborhood so I knew I was going to be by myself… a lot,” Garcia reveals. “It’s okay though. I used that time to think about things and write. Really write.”
It’s not as though Garcia shunned herself from the community though; she helped run a food pantry with her family for migrant and seasonal farm workers, one that was the only Spanish-speaking pantry in the area despite it being the first language for many of the workers. “It was a great way to help supplement food because their income wouldn’t cover it,” she reasons, even though many at the church voiced their concern.
“A lot of people were upset, saying we were helping the illegals,” she recounts while shaking her head. “My dad would just say that they were helping their fellow human beings and if they couldn’t see that, then they shouldn’t go to this church because this is the real work of God.” Garcia expressed her pride in her father for standing up, even though it led to some people leaving the church. “He made it very clear that his church was not going to use religion and God to give an okay stamp on some people’s shitty beliefs and behaviors.”
Though the congregation eventually accepted her father’s decision, Garcia began to see similar sentiments pop up around the country. “Words kind of fail me here because I didn’t realize people held that much hate,” she admits softly. “It almost seems that people are so desperate for answers and clarity that they justify terrible things. I’m definitely Latina America and proud of it and nothing anyone can say is going to change that.”
Despite this pantry squabble, Garcia found her time in the Eastern Shore to be exactly what she needed, even if it meant retreating into an isolated bubble behind the church itself. “I just realized I had a lot more time on my hands,” she explains, “so I ended up going to this little parish house behind the church where they held dinners and AA meetings. It had an upright piano in there and I just spent a lot of time back there, writing and playing, and that’s really where my music came together.”
In between attending community college and helping out in the church, Garcia spent most of her free time in that modest building, writing lyrics and tinkering with melodies. It wasn’t long before she began to record these songs as sparse demos, utilizing whatever she had on hand, and just like he had asked in LA, Garcia began to send these demos to that encouraging A&R executive.
“I sent him what I had and he just kept asking for more,” she remembers. “Eventually, we got to a point where we thought we could record stuff and show it to the [Warner Brothers] to see what they thought.” Those demos, forged in that almost remote building, wound up landing Garcia with a lengthy record contract, one that led Garcia to a Nashville studio where she would record what would become the bluesy roots album Medicine For Birds, a record comprised solely of songs written in that parish bubble.
Working alongside famed producer Charlie Peacock, Garcia set out to build upon the songs she once demoed with crickets in the background late at night. “Most stayed true to the demos, but a lot ended up in places I never would have thought of,” she admits. “These simple songs that were made in this weird, awkward stage of my life — I’m so attached to them, but I loved hearing them grow and change with a cello or pedal steel.”
The collection of songs included some of the first ones Garcia ever wrote, like “Loretta Lynn,” as well as some newer ones that helped bookend the recording like “Twenty,” a song that was finished on the last day Garcia was 20 years old. Though the songs were written over the span of several years, Garcia concedes there is a theme to the record, even if it may have been unintentional. “I guess the theme is about leaving the nest,” she concedes. “‘Little Bird’ is about when you first go out on your own and ‘Twenty’ is about how that’s not always what you expect it to be so it’s a nice start and finish to the record.”
She even admits the indirect influence birds had on the record too. “When I was a kid, my mom used to call me baby bird,” she states. “Also, I have a lot of early memories in Virginia of birds just everywhere. Sometimes a flock of birds would just come land on a house. That may sound normal here, but not when you come from LA. I didn’t really sit in my room all the time obsessing with birds and leaving the nest, but you can definitely hear that message in the songs. Maybe I’m just more metaphorical than I thought.”
A much more conscious theme Garcia implemented in her songs was the color orange, something she relates to her first memories of moving to Accomac. “My first room there had this weird peach color,” she sneers. “It was a tough time. I had broken up with a boyfriend and left all my friends behind so I just had to do something I could identify with. I chopped off all my hair and painted my room this pumpkin orange color. Pretty weird, but the more time I spent in the room, the happier I felt about that color and how it represented my personal expression.” The color is referenced multiple times on Medicine For Birds, most notably on the breakout single “Orange Flower,” a boisterous and eccentric roots composition many point to as Garcia’s signature song.
Around this time, having finished community college, Garcia left the Eastern Shore and moved to Richmond, finding instant comfort within the city’s thriving art scene. “I love how much music brings people together here,” she remarks. “For a long time, I was just the priest’s weird daughter who likes rock music, but here, in this big city, I instantly fit in.”
Going to open mics around town and crashing on couches after late shows, Garcia eventually formed a circle of like-minded friends who definitely inspired her and influenced some of the direction of Medicine For Birds. She even dabbled in other projects too, forming Whatever, Honey with close friends and fellow musicians Hannah Goad and Ali Thibodeau. “I just love that Ali and Hannah and I were able to do that, even if just for a second,” she smiles. “You really don’t know how others can inform the music you make until you combine your little bubble with their own.”
Though she doesn’t know what the future holds for her in Richmond, she’s enjoying her time here and does admit it’s home to her now. “This city is a lot more to me than just passing through,” she says leaning in. “I don’t know that I’ll live here my whole life, but I have fallen in love with it and no matter where I end up, I’ll always have a special place in my heart for the city and the amazing, inspiring people that make up the scene.”
Currently, Garcia is working on recording demos for what will make up her sophomore record, songs that she describes as being true to her Latina heritage — an intentional decision on her part. Returning home from a recent tour with alt-country star Lydia Loveless, she’s excited to immerse herself in the local scene again, playing alongside many bands looking at her trajectory for guidance… without even realizing it is Garcia herself striving to be more like them.
“There’s not one way to make it in music,” she explains. “Some bands would love to sign to a label and make a big record, but I look at these bands in town making great music and I often wonder how they do it and how I can do something similar. There’s so many different things in Richmond to be inspired by. That’s really why I love living here at this stage of my career.”
Words by Doug Nunnally. Photo credit: Joey Wharton