Afton Wolfe is a Nashville based songwriter, recording-artist and performer with a distinct voice and a signature sound which is a mix of blues, country, jazz and some psychedelic rock sounds here and there. You certainly can´t put a label on him, although he did recently join the indie Label Twangri-La Records. We talked to Afton about his recently released album “Petronius’ Last Meal,” his songwriting process and what makes good music!
Afton, your album “Petronius’ Last Meal” was just released on July 7. Congrats on that! You recorded the album over a decade ago. What made you hold it back and why did you decide that now is a good time to share it with the world?
I was not satisfied with the mix, and the main prop for the album cover was mistaken for scrap metal and unceremoniously removed from my custody. Those distractions caused me to miss the exit to release this right after it was made, and it’s just taken a while to find the right time since. Ever since I moved back to Nashville, I’ve wanted to put it out, though. I remedied the problems with the mix and the album cover, and I complied with certain conditions of certain legal documents, and we planned to release it in May. Then the pandemic happened. But after 12 years, I was not going to let the momentum get away again. So, after COVID-related delays in production, here we are.
Amazing! I guess good things take time! What inspired the album´s title?
The album title is a lyric in the song “Notes Written on Basil”, which was inspired by a short story about a man who wanted to die on his own terms, in front of a large crowd of revelers. In that story, Petronius’ death is alluded to. Petronius was a member of Nero’s court, and probably wrote the Satyricon. He knew he was about to die, either by assassination from a political opponent or execution from Nero. So, known for his lavish and magnificent parties, for his final soirée, he sliced his wrists and slowly bled to death as the festivities raged around him. Then, when he couldn’t stand up any longer, he lay in a tub and died. That’s also the inspiration for the album cover, painted by David Noel.
Wow. That is deep! Afton, you grew up in the heartland, home to Delta Blues and Country. How much has being exposed to that kind of music influenced your own music?
The influence is undeniable. My parents and grandparents were from the Delta, then I lived in the birthplace of Jimmie Rodgers, and wound up just an hour and half north of New Orleans, so blues, country, and jazz were in the air like ghosts my whole life. And the gospel music and hymns were a weekly tradition to exorcise them. Stir in passionate curiosity, and I think it explains a lot of my sound.
Who are some of your greatest influences?
It’s pointless to avoid mentioning Tom Waits; almost immediately after being introduced to his music, my understanding of art, especially music, changed completely. The other most important influences to me were artists I looked up to once I started making music. Mississippi artists like Cary Hudson, Luther and Cody Dickinson, Mark Mann, Jimbo Mathus, and Vasti Jackson.
You have a very impressive voice and tonality! How did you find your unique style and how long did it take you to develop it?
Thank you very much. I get the Tom Waits comparison a good bit, and that’s fair, because I’ve certainly done my fair share of pretending to be him at the annual Tom Waits tribute and benefit show I’ve been lucky enough to play here in Nashville. Committing to that authenticity has had a permanent effect on my voice, but I wouldn’t trade it. I have also admired and tried to borrow from singers like Bruce Springsteen, Van Morrison, Greg Allman, Mark Lanegan, and Leonard Cohen. And, in the mix with all of that, I sometimes remember what my choir teacher taught me.
You definitely learned from the best then! I love the song “Slingshots”. It has a bit of a 70s music touch to it, which I dig! Tell us a bit about the story of the song and what inspired it.
Thank you. That song was written very quickly a long time ago. It was a night of chaos in my personal life, with panic and drama surrounding me, making time go at double speed. All the while, the television was turned on to cable news, and the volume was too loud. I had an anxiety attack, and once the night calmed down, I picked the guitar up and kind of wrote that whole song like a musical and lyrical stream-of-consciousness that just flowed out of me. I think I was trying to write a hard rock/metal song, but it came out better as a panicked blues song. Other than some of the instrumental and textural parts, that song has been exactly the same since that night. That doesn’t happen often at all, but when it does, I find that those songs have more concentrated energy than maybe some songs that I chip away at for long times.
Yeah, you can tell from listening to it, how much energy the song holds! It´s very expressive! That´s what drew me in so much! You are a great lyricist! How important are lyrics to you in music?
Thank you again. I’m a verbal person, for sure. I’ve always paid very close attention to lyrics – read the jacket, memorized the lyrics, even to the point of taking pride in knowing all the words to songs. I hope that attention comes through in my own lyrics, but I at the very least know what I’m trying to do with the words most of the time.
So, when you write a song, how do you usually go about it? Any particular routine or formula you follow or are you waiting for inspiration to strike?
I do try to make myself sit down with pen and paper and/or with a guitar or at the piano to write, but never to force it. If I don’t have lyrics in my mind, I don’t try to write lyrics. But I will noodle on the guitar or piano in those sessions, and that can often lead to a musical foundation or refrain. Otherwise, it’s just trying to pay attention, because, as cliché and cheesy as it is, there is music all around us all the time. Rhythms, melodies, harmonies, and how those things interact with our individual temporal lobes and cerebral cortexes is where songs come from.
Very interesting way to look at it! So, you probably don´t force yourself to write songs from beginning to end in one session, but rather allow for them to come together over time? In that way the songs are a bit of a “time-compressed” version of reality. What was the longest a song took you?
I think that’s an accurate description. When I’m in a flow state, I can write a whole song in not much more time than the song takes to play. But that usually happens when I’ve had a lyric I’m hooked on or a melody I’ve been obsessing over in my head for a while before I sit down with pen, paper, and piano. But yes, I don’t force it, and I will pick at songs for weeks or months if I haven’t played them in front of anyone. Once I play a song in front of someone, it’s basically done. That’s how I view it. I can’t say for certain what the longest time I’ve ever spent working on a song is, but I know that I’ve had songs where I wrote a verse or two or maybe a verse and a chorus, and then I kind of forgot about it or shelved it for whatever reason or distraction, and then I came back to it years later while going through a notebook. Going through an old notebook or old scraps is sometimes a great way to get my brain moving in that direction, and it still sometimes yields results. “So Long, Sweet Lime” from the record was written that way; I wrote a couple of verses right after I saw Wes Anderson’s film, “The Darjeeling Limited” (which is where I got the line “So Long, Sweet Lime”). But then months later, in a band practice, I started riffing on the progression with bandmates, and it inspired me to finish the lyrics.
In your opinions, what are some key ingredients that make a great song?
In my opinion, one ingredient to a great song is authenticity, which expresses itself in vulnerability and passion. Another thing that I personally think makes a song great is details. The details that create the images in your head can be alienating to people not paying attention. But to me, the details represent the intersection of the universal and individual natures of music. I may not know exactly what the author is referring to, but I know that the author knows, and I know what it feels like to know.
You work as a lawyer by day and a songwriter/performer by night! How do these contradictive jobs come together and how does this affect your music? Does it at all?
Well, music is an escape from that profession, which can be very stressful. I keep the two very separate, for my clients’ sake and for my songs’ sake.
You live in Nashville. Has this city been beneficial to your creativity? How is life in Music City?
Nashville is a great place. It has changed a lot over the time I’ve lived here, and there are pros and cons to that, like anything else. Bachelorette parties and pop-country theme bars are a vanishingly small but gaudy part of this city. The people that live in this city are my favorite people, though. As it is, I’ve chosen to live here, left, and then come back again, so whatever beefs I’ve had with Nashville, I’ve resolved them enough to be happy here.
Are there any tips you would pass on to fellow songwriters or beginning writers, that you wish you´d been given earlier?
Probably not. Not to be dismissive, but I don’t know that I ever got many tips as a songwriter, and I certainly don’t remember any of them. When I got to Nashville, I was given a lot of advice about song length, relatability, and marketability, but those weren’t tips about writing – it was advice about marketing and selling, which is not my job. If I were to give any songwriter (or creative in general) advice, my advice for anyone is just to create. Keep creating. It’s the goal of all forms of life for all time – to use the limited time we have to make new things. And pay attention.
Totally agree with that! One question I ask a lot: What is one song you wish you´d have written yourself?
That is a very interesting question. It calls into play so many variables like quantum physics, superposition, time travel and multiverse theory. Would I want to have written a Beatles song just for the experience of being Lennon or McCartney for a brief time? Would I have written Chelsea Hotel, so I could’ve had that moment with Janis? But I guess, in my assumption of the spirit of the question, the song I wish I had written would be “Thunder Road.” It’s so good. Final answer.
Last, not least: What are your plans for the coming months? Will you be touring or gigging a lot or focusing on more studio work?
Obviously touring and gigging are big unknowns right now with what Mississippi people refer to as, “all this going on right now,” but I do miss that, so it will be a priority once it’s a possibility. There is another studio project in the works, and I’m very excited for what is already lined up for it in this early stage. All indications are that recording will be going on before the end of this year to be released early in 2021.
Thank you for the interview Afton Wolfe and much success!
Thank you so much, and same to you!
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