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A Short Conversation with Afton Wolfe

1 May 2021

As always, I’d like to start with a bit of background. What music path got you to where you are today and what artists influenced and inspired you?

Afton Wolfe: Like many I knew, I grew up singing in church, and it’s the earliest memory I have – singing a duet with my Mom in a Christmas musical at State Boulevard Baptist Church in Meridian, Mississippi. My folks were both musical (met in the marching band), and it was always around me, even more so than I appreciated at the time. I’ve always loved singing, and I started writing poetry or journaling or just releasing the valve on the verbal tank in my mind when I was really young as well. Then I put those together. From there, I became enamored with songs and therefore songwriters. In Meridian, where I went to grade school, we took regular field trips to the Jimmie Rodgers Museum and other landmarks celebrating him, and I was fascinated by those old yodeling tunes and those crackly recordings that seemed so much more real than Music on the radio. My Dad and Granddad told me about the Blues and Clarksdale, right down the road from where I spent my summers in Greenville, Mississippi. Those Blues players seemed like mythical gods to me and the sounds they made supernatural. I spent hours crossed-legged next to my Mom’s record
collection with headphones on – reading every album insert and dissecting the lyrics, chord progressions, harmonies, and arrangements. Early on, some of my favorites from my folks’ records were John Lee Hooker, Van Morrison, The Beatles, John Prine, The Rolling Stones, The Band, David Gates, America, Chicago, Springsteen

In adolescence, I absorbed plenty of the contemporary Music around me; I wore out Pretty Hate Machine, It’s A Shame About Ray, Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, and several other cassettes I’m sure (I didn’t have a CD player in my car for a long time). But I had a particular affinity for the “alternative” Music with a southern/country feel to it – Blue Mountain, Cracker, Uncle Tupelo, The Jayhawks, etc… That led me to that real Country Music, with the songs that knock your heart out, a la Townes Van Zandt, Jerry Jeff Walker, Guy Clark, and Billy Joe Shaver, to name a few. Then, an older friend, Keith Kujath, in the first band I was in when I was 17 – Mulligan Stü – gave me a copy of Rain Dogs, and that was just about the time that I heard Elvis Costello for the first time as well, after having randomly purchased Trust at a record store (that was a tradition of mine – to just go to the Sound Shop or Camelot in the mall and go to the “Alternative” section and just randomly pick out an album or three after getting paid). I can still remember the rainy afternoon I sat in my room with my Discman connected to my ears by gigantic headphones and listened to both of those albums. “New Lace Sleeves” and “Walking Spanish Down the Hall” changed my brain chemistry somehow, and I was compelled to ingest everything that Tom Waits and Declan McManus had ever created. Those next few months were life-changing, and probably the most important time for me as a songwriter. Costello and Waits are still my favorites to go back to for nostalgia, inspiration, and/or rainy afternoons.

“Dirty Girl” gives us a glimpse of what the album Kings For Sale has in store, is this lead single representative of what’s to follow and what else does this debut have to offer?

Afton Wolfe: Well, I guess I hope you like it because there’s not much more like it on the album. Insert awkward chuckle and Homer Simpson backing into the bushes meme.

I suppose it is representative of what’s to follow in that it’s personal, and this new album is all very personal (even though I didn’t write 3 of the songs – but even those 3 are very personal to me in ways that are as important as the songs I did pen). But “Dirty Girl” is a Blues song that morphs into a Jazz jam, and neither of those things really happen elsewhere on Kings For Sale. There are 9 tracks – an upbeat jazzy pop number, a barroom country slog, “Dirty Girl”, a sad confessional waltz with a ukulele and French Horn and flute, the greatest rock n roll song ever written (penned by Billy Wayne Goodwin, Jr.), a Southern klezmer story song about the post-segregation South, a slow, moody, spacious ballad with pedal steel, Stroh violin, bowed double bass and French Horn, an epic Blues-meets-Rachmaninoff thing, and a hymn about the new state flag of Mississippi.

And the single is a classic road trip, blues odyssey; do you tend to write from experience, imagination, or do lyrical ideas come to you more randomly?

Afton Wolfe: That’s a great question I’ve been trying to answer for a while. I do write from experience a lot; sometimes I draw from others’ experiences, and sometimes it’s really just a release from the random noise in my head. I’ve learned to focus that noise as I’ve gotten older with meditation, self-medication, and liberal use of the release valve of writing, but the noise is never-ending. Sometimes the noise is more clever than I’ve ever been, but luckily it was my noise, I was the one to hear it first, and/or I was the first one to write it down. My favorite things I’ve ever written have usually started with that random noise and grown from there.

My goal is always to evoke a feeling. Sometimes the way I’m feeling dictates that, but sometimes it’s the way I heard the lyrics the first time in my head, or it can come from trying to practice/noodle/write on the piano or guitar. I wish I had a method sometimes, but when I’ve tried to organize this part of my mind or “schedule” my creativity, it has never really worked. I don’t really think that I am the kind of songwriter who can just sit down and “write a song.” I feel more like I try to be open to the songs and interpret/transcribe them when they come to me, and that has always worked better for me.

For the single, you have surrounded yourself with some fantastic players, not least Cary Hudson and his exquisite guitar playing, how did you assemble such a cool band of players?

Afton Wolfe: Luck, magic, synchronicity, or maybe just my undeniable charm…? I’m really not sure, but I’m incredibly excited for the musicianship and flavor that ended up on this record. I’ve known Cary for over 20 years in and around the Mississippi scene. I grew up very much admiring him and Blue Mountain, as a part of that aforementioned time when I was getting into “Alt-Country.” I snuck into Tal’s Dart Bar in Hattiesburg to see them before I was of age. Then I got to play several shows with him and/or Blue Mountain in my twenties, and we’ve been friends since. When I decided to make this record, I had a wish list of things that I wanted to include, and having Cary on the record was one of the most important. The two songs on the record about Mississippi – “Dirty Girl” and another called “O’ Magnolia” (about the vote to change Mississippi’s flag from the loser Confederate flag) – both have Cary on them. And he’s predictably brilliant with his playing, not to mention the serendipitous recording I got of him explaining his theory on the ancient big cats’ influence on Mississippi.

In addition to Cary, I had the honor of having Ben Babylon fly in from California to play piano, and he is amazing. Find him and pay attention. I don’t know his birthday, so I don’t want to misstate his current age, but he was 23 when we recorded this, and I was tempted to ditch the project and just make a Ben Babylon album after hearing him play in the studio for the first time. The other musicians on this record include the rock-solid foundation of Daniel Seymour on bass, who I was lucky enough to meet right after he moved to Nashville some dozen years ago, the young phenom Blaise Hearn, whose Mom I knew from years in the Nashville bar and restaurant scene, Adam “Ditch” Kurtz on pedal steel, Tommy Stangroom on drums, Kristen Englenz, an extremely talented multi-instrumentalist, and fantastic songwriter and performer, on the French Horn on a couple of songs, the brilliant young Seth Fox, who I met during the pandemic, on woodwinds throughout the record.* Laura Rabell*, one of my favorite artists in Nashville, adds vocals on a couple of songs, and the lovely Rebecca Weiner Tompkins snuck in to provide her violin texture to a few songs. Wess Floyd (senior statesman of Nashville’s rock scene), Joey Dykes (excellent trombonist and mixologist), Patricia Billings (former collaborator from South Mississippi who now restores vintage record players while still creating her own beautiful Music with her fantastic voice), and Mike Stokes (former bassist for Dollar Book Floyd and smartest dude I’ve ever known) all also lend their immense talents to this record.

What I may be most proud of, in addition to the fact that this excellent group of musicians was willing to play these songs with me, is that in the 3 days we tracked the 15 musicians (liberally including myself) on Kings For Sale, in November of 2020, we were incredibly prepared and careful, and no one got COVID from the sessions.

After years of playing in a band format, Petronius’ Last Meal seemed to mark the move to a more solo path but why did it take so long to see the light of day?

Afton Wolfe: It’s difficult to recall ALL of the events that lead to the shelving of that record, but the main reasons that I didn’t put Petronius’ Last Meal out back in 2008/2009 after it was first recorded were that (1) I was not happy with the mix and was having no luck finding an engineer that really got what I was doing (though I don’t remember exactly how hard I was looking), and (2) I had a specific idea for the album cover back then which never materialized. I had purchased a clawfoot bathtub for a specific photograph I wanted, and then the scrap metal guy snatched it out of my yard before I could get the picture made. It was about that time that the guys I had been playing with in that, my first attempt at a “solo” endeavor, were looking to me to do more to progress the project. It started to feel like a band, and I really didn’t want that pressure or commitment again. So, between all of that, I just shelved the recordings and went back to school. (Don’t do it, kids. Keep making Music; college is a scam).

When I moved back to Nashville in 2017, I asked Daniel Seymour who played bass on Petronius’ as well as on most of Kings For Sale, if he knew someone that might mix this the way I wanted it. He introduced me to Mark Robinson, who I’d known of for years in Nashville as a first-rate guitarist, but who is also a very talented studio engineer, mixer, producer. Mark8 has a lot of very diverse studio experience, he actually listened to and understood my vision for the soundscape of it, and he was perfect to finish the mix on Petronius’ (he also mixed Kings For Sale). I commissioned my buddy *David Noel to paint an album cover, and he overdid it perfectly to create the awesome surreal cover, which is exponentially better than the photograph I had envisioned, which probably wouldn’t have turned out how I wanted it anyway. I was always proud of the songs and performances on that recording, and once I had the right mix, which Mark handled, and the appropriately inappropriate album cover, which David Noel took care of, it was finally time to release Petronius’ Last Meal. Couldn’t have happened a moment sooner, though.

Do you prefer working from a more solo perspective, do you miss the more collaborative nature of the band environment, and what are some of the pros and cons of each?

Afton Wolfe: Another great question I feel like I could write a treatise on. But I do prefer the solo perspective, for sure. Bands have several features that I don’t really feel fit with my approach to Music anymore. First of all, I think that often “bands” are expected to be somewhat sonically consistent – either with their genre, instrumentation, and/or mood, at least from album to album. I don’t like those kinds of restraints, and my songs are not always consistent in genre, instrumentation, or mood enough for those expectations about a band’s “identity.” And just talking about that reminds me of all the buzzword/branding/marketing part and gives me a mild headache.

With the band configuration, also, there’s too much democracy for my tastes when it comes to the songwriting. In bands, I would bring a new song I had written in to work out, and understandably, the band wants to contribute creatively, because they’re creative and because we’re a “band” and they’re accountable for the quality of the songs as much as I am at that point. But with a band, the relationships can become strained when the veto power over decisions like that gets concentrated, even if it is with the primary writer of the songs. I embrace collaboration, input, and even criticism (to a point of course – I’m only Homo sapiens after all), but that takes on a different meaning when it’s a “band” because of the aforementioned expectations and accountability. Peoples’ feelings don’t tend to be as vulnerable when you veto their ideas on your song when it’s an individual’s name on the album cover or the marquee, because the buck can be passed to the owner of that name. I’m happy to make that trade-off, and with Kings For Sale, I don’t think I rejected many ideas or input from these great players, because I got people that were really good at what they did. But it was still a much easier conversation than had it been a “band” in the studio.

And finally, where next for Afton Wolfe?

Afton Wolfe: It seems that the doors are starting to open back up and the lights come back on after the pandemic, so I’m excited to get out and promote this on the road, which is in the works now. It’s been quite some time since I’ve toured, and I am idling in sixth gear to get back out there and do that again. I love driving, I love hotel rooms, and I love bars that aren’t open yet that still smell like the night before. I also still have plenty of songs that I would love to get back into the studio to record as soon as possible. The embryonic phase of another album is already happening, and there are some other recordings that were made with some friends of mine in New York and Los Angeles that may be on the horizon as well, but I don’t want to say too much other than to note that Sade and I have never been seen in the same room at the same time…

Thanks for taking the time to tell me all about your musical world and good luck with everything in the future.

https://aftonwolfe.com
https://linktr.ee/AftonWolfe