Angelica Garcia was a Latina teen growing up in L.A. before her parents uprooted the family and moved to coastal Virginia. In 2011, her stepdad accepted an assignment as an Episcopalian minister, and the singer-songwriter quickly became a minority.
In Accomac, where her family lived, most Latinos were migrant farm workers. Food options were also limited. And Garcia, who was 17 at the time, dealt with several awkward encounters with locals. Still, she focused on the positives.
“I think it’s good for anyone to go to a place that’s out of your comfort zone, said Garcia, whose critically lauded blues rock and soul debut album, Medicine for Birds, was released last fall on Warner Bros. Records. “I’m first generation on one side and second generation on another side, but I’ve grown up in the States my whole life. I speak English, and I speak Spanish, too. So for me, it was a good opportunity to teach people that don’t know about my culture.”
Garcia, 23, gets her outlook on life and the music industry from her parents. Her mother was also a singer, with a Top 30 hit. Before joining the ministry, her stepfather was a music executive and artist manager, and worked with artists like Dwight Yoakam and Los Lobos.
The shift from sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll may seem extreme, but it isn’t to Garcia.
“The older I get, and the more invested I get in the business myself [and] the more I realize exactly why that wasn’t such stretch,” she said. “When you’re a manager for an artist, they’re just beginning their career at a very strange, tumultuous point of their life, where everything they know is kind of upside down.
“When you’re starting off like that, your manager, in many ways, is your counselor. They’re your No. 1 champion,” she said. “They help you through really difficult times that are confusing, that a lot of your friends that aren’t in the industry can’t begin to relate to. … When you think about that and think about counseling and consoling, that’s pretty much the premise of being a priest. You’re there for people’s most important parts of their lives or the most difficult parts of their lives. So it doesn’t seem as farfetched when you look at it that way.”
Garcia’s stepdad left the music industry for the priesthood in part because he identified with artists more than he did with label executives. He had grown tired of going against the wishes of musicians, but never lost the desire to counsel. Garcia’s parents encouraged her to sing, but also showed her there were other options.
After the move to Accomac. they were met with culture shock; “everything from social norms to cultural differences.” The family was housed in church-owned building dating to before the Civil War. During the war, it housed Union troops in Confederate territory.
“Because it belonged to the church for years and years, sometimes people would just walk in and not even tell us,” Garcia recalled. “We’d come out of the shower and be, “Oh! OK! How are you doing?” We didn’t know people were just going to walk into our living room.”
The family’s church community in Los Angeles was strong, but distance prevented the kind of physical closeness Virginia offered.
“One time we came out and there was a pie on our front step,” Garcia said. “Sometimes our neighbors would … bring us fresh shrimp.”
Garcia was introduced to public singing through churches in L.A. and again in Virginia. While her parents let her listen to pop, her dad—who grew up in Kansas, Tulsa and Nashville— also encouraged an appreciation for country and blues. Willie Nelson was an early favorite, and she memorized his lyrics from a young age.
“What really inspired me most about country writers growing up was the dedication to lyricism and storytelling,” she said. “Some of my very favorite writers are just so clever. It’s this wonderful combination of respecting the rules but not always sticking to them. Nelson … has these very tight, well-thought, detailed rhymes, and then he’ll throw in some big word you’d never think you’d hear in a country song.
“His song “Bloody Mary Morning” reads like poetry: ‘As we taxi towards the runway the smog and haze remind me of the way I feel/ Just a country boy that’s learning the pitfalls of the city are extremely real.’”
Inspired by the rich history of the area, Garcia began writing and recording her own songs in Virginia after finding GarageBand on her laptop. She stole away in the old, church parish house, figuring out the instrumentation one at a time. The house itself, as well as the countless cemeteries in the area added a new dimension to her songwriting. The headstones, which she stopped to read sometimes, made her wonder what life was like for people who lived before her and imbued her a feeling of connection to the past.
Out came a group of Americana- and blues-tinged, reverbed pop songs about overcoming the isolation following a cross-country trek (“Magnolia is Medicine’), fleeing the nest (“Bridge on Fire”) and facing fears (“The Devil Can Get In”).
The way the pedal steel and strings sway back and forth on several songs, Garcia combines country with jazz and her Latin influences as well as Carrie Rodriguez with Bill Frisell on Seven Angels on a Bicycle. In the future, Garcia said, she plans to write some songs in Spanish, as an experiment.
While writing her demos, Garcia signed with Warner Bros., and recorded the album with producer Charlie Peacock (The Civil Wars, Switchfoot), who protected her original sound and voice. Like her favorite songwriters, Garcia carefully constructs her lyrics. Like other pop wordsmiths, she conveys rich emotion, but she does it while adhering to structure and delivering poingiont or humorous punchlines.
On “Loretta Lynn,” for example, Garcia weighs how relationships can entrap some: “They told us we were their heiresses/ A trick to conjure submissiveness/ So we’d be lame, but great in appearances.” On “Orange Flower,” she debates the reasoning behind a man’s attention: “He gave me an orange flower/ What, what in the hell does that mean?/ Am I halfway to red/ And halfway to yellow/ Am I his mother or his lover?”
If it reads like poetry, it’s because Garcia planned to be a writer long before she chose music. She was accepted to the University of Virginia American Studies program, a combination of language, sociology and history. She never went, though, because a week later is when she signed her label deal.
“I have just always loved words and language and what they taught me about myself [by] reading other writers,” Garcia said. “[Writing was] not a career choice they [encouraged] in high school. … At the same time, that’s what was most valuable to me as a person.”