As he welcomes the new year with his new EP Twenty-Three, the Nashville-based Afton Wolfe dropped his latest EP Twenty-Three in March 2023, and today we’re going to dig deeper into it as we have a chat with Afton Wolfe himself.
- I believe everyone has an interesting story about the first moment they decided to kickstart their Music career, can you tell us about your main influences? And how did you take the first steps toward being a professional musician?
My first memory is of singing in front of my Southern Baptist congregation in a Christmas musical, in a duet with my Mom – I don’t recall practicing for it or anything prior to being on the stage with Mom singing to a packed crowd. My Mom loves Music and loves to sing. And her encouragement and record collection have been essential to my love for Music and my pursuit of a wider connection with my Music. Both my parents were in the Greenville, Mississippi High School Band. Between genetics and geography – all American Music, except hip hop, originated in Mississippi (if you count New Orleans as “in” Mississippi, which I do) – those were my main influences.
Consumerism, rebellion, and infophilia also played a part in my development as a musician. I loved going into Sound Shop or Camelot in the mall and going to the “Alternative” or “Rock” or “Rap” sections and picking something at random or based on the album cover. Aside from my folks’ records, that was how I found most of my favorite Music. Of course, MTV and the radio were also viable options for finding new original Music back then, too. Cue Old Man screaming at cloud memes.
- You’ve been a key element in the annual Tom Waits Tribute shows, how did it all start? And at which volume do you think you gave your best performance?
This past year was the 17th annual event. I started on the second year, and I’ve only missed one other one since then (I think). It all started when David Noel, an artist who was hustling as the door guy to The Basement at the time, got into a conversation with Justin Townes Earle, Brian Richey and Chris Crofton and some others that led to the first event. I went to that show and I (likely pretty aggressively and obnoxiously) told David that I had to be a part of the next one, and that if I was not, I was likely to do something reckless and harmful. After I did my thing, probably the best Waits impersonation in this town – though that’s not really a brag as much as it is probably a medical condition – I’ve been a regular at the event ever since. Mary Sack took over the planning and coordination of the event when David moved away for a stint. Her and I have co-emceed the event for the last two years, as we try to make room for all of the people who want to play the show, which will take years to get to.
I have had many many really fun memories from my own sets. But my favorite was probably the one year that we didn’t have either The Basement or The 5 Spot (where it was moved for the 6th year). We did it at an obscure art studio in East Nashville. It was freezing cold; we had a giant heater blowing heat like it was the exhaust of a jet engine. But everything away from 5 feet of that thing was still bitterly cold. Instruments were going out of tune, and people were sitting in the audience bundled up in groups of 4 and 5 each to keep warm. I always do something a little “extra” to make it more Waitsian. E.g., I have brought a shower curtain and bubble machine for “Innocent When You Dream,” the band once marched across The 5 Spot at the end of “Anywhere I Lay My Head,” and other sorts of antics like that. Well, for this show I’m talking about, I had arranged for a local burlesque dancer to do a strip tease during “Temptation.” So, during this freezing-ass performance of an out-of-tune Tom Waits rhumba, this poor woman is taking her clothes off. She was a brilliant performer and a true champion. She toughed it out, and I think we sounded ok, but I’ll never forget that woman’s performance and the courage it must have taken, especially wearing pasties in that cold…
- With a full-length and an EP up your sleeves, I’d like to know more about your writing process, and who else was involved in those releases?
As for my writing process, it’s pretty nebulous. I think of writing as discovery, and it’s just a matter of finding the time to wander the depths of my mind and spirit, looking for the words and/or melodies that give rise to a song. I don’t have a strict regimen, and I rarely try to write something without something I’ve found that inspired the rest of the effort to make a song. No matter what, writing a song will never be “work” for me.
For the second part of that, as much as I’d love to mention everyone involved in both of those projects, it’s a long, long list. For Kings For Sale, there were 15 musicians that contributed to that record. Producer Oz Fritz and the crew at the studio, Welcome To 1979, were also instrumental, as were a number of other people on my team and in my circle of family and friends. And for Twenty-Three, Brett Ryan Stewart and I recorded those 5 songs with almost as many people.
Some highlights of Kings For Sale were having young genius Ben Babylon on keys, one of my heroes Cary Hudson pulling some duty on guitar, Nashville rock legend Wess Floyd making an appearance on guitar, and Wingdom® Wingspert® and goat farmer Adam Kurtz on pedal steel. For Twenty-Three, I was able to get Regina McCrary to sing on a song along with Meld, the masterful Mike Miz to play some guitar on that same song, my favorite keys player and urban farmer Chad Stuible playing keys on several songs, and the mad scientist Asa Lane on some otherworldly percussion on a different song.
But most importantly to me personally, are the folks who took part in both of the projects, including the lovely Rebecca Weiner Tompkins and her violins, the great Daniel Seymour on bass who is as reliable as any Swiss timepiece you could ever find, and my canine brother Seth Fox, who I met in 2020 when his cruise ship gig ended and who has become one of my favorite humans on the planet and a staple in every project or show I do, if he’s available (he’s busier and busier these days, but he’ll still play his sax/flute/clarinet/guitar with me).
I am lucky to have worked with so many Purple folks.
- Producing a debut is always a big step for any musician, can you give us a hint of the difficulties that faced you when you were working on your debut LP Kings for Sale?
It’s actually very hard to even imagine how we did Kings For Sale now, because we did it with so many people in the middle of the pandemic. It was November 2020, and I spent so much of the time during the tracking herding cats, spraying disinfectant, taking temperatures and finger-wagging about masks. We had three days in the studio to track, and we had a very strict schedule, scaffolded by a long pre-production process that took place over email and Zoom® calls for several months prior, for the players to make sure that the studio never had too many people in it at once. It was different and difficult for those reasons, and because we never got to hang out socially much. But in a way, it was somewhat easier to get people to adhere to all of the protocols, because everyone was so excited just to be doing anything creatively and communally at that time. And it was incredibly efficient because of the protocols, and because everyone had been idling in high gear for a while, waiting for the opportunity to get back to work. I’m really proud of that record and what we did, and I’m even more gratified that no one involved in those recordings got COVID afterwards.
- Can you tell us more about the concept behind your latest EP Twenty-Three? Who was involved in its production process?
The name Twenty-Three is a reference to the ‘enigma’ surrounding that number – first really described by William S. Burroughs and later expounded on by Robert Anton Wilson and others. It’s an important number with Magical qualities.
Or it’s apophenia.
My guess is, like with most things that are either X or Y, it’s probably both. But I started planning the release details from the moment I found out that 2.3.23 was on a Friday, which is when we’re all supposed to put our Music out now for some reason.
To me, personally, it is about how nothing means anything unless you put meaning to it. So, that obviously leads to being agnostic as to its meaning to anyone else, though my interpretation should at least be considered relevant since my name and face are on this particular apophenic production. But it also suits me, because it is not a project with a particular underlying theme, other than myself, unless you find one yourself.
The production of this project was all done at Wirebird Productions in Madison, TN by the great Brett Ryan Stewart. We recorded “So Purple” (co-written with the aforementioned Seth Fox) and “Late Nite Radio” (a song originally recorded back in 2008, with the Petronius’ Last Meal sessions but lost, along with a few others while waiting for me to get my shit together and for a good mix) and released those digitally.
Then we recorded “Truck Drivin Man” (written by one of my hometown heroes, Mark Mann) and “The Moon is Going Down” (written by one of my dearest friends and favorite writers, Ryan B. Case). Those were put out digitally as well.
Then, we tackled the big production for “Cry,” which included horns from Seth Fox and Zachery Douglas, Daniel Seymour on bass, Chad Stuible on keys (x2), Madison George on the drums, and a chorus of vocals from the great Meld (Melanie Dewey) and the legendary Regina McCrary of The McCrary Sisters. Seth Fox co-produced that song with Brett Ryan Stewart, primarily helping arrange horn and vocal parts.
Putting it out piecemeal like that was an interesting process, but I’m glad we did it, because I think it has given the project multiple lives along the way and enabled me to afford to do it all without having to do a Kickstarter or something of that nature.
- How would you describe Twenty-Three’s sound? And what new grounds have you explored on this one?
Much like Kings For Sale, and hopefully in the spirit of some of my favorite artists, it’s all over the place stylistically. First of all, “Cry” is the most emotional song I’ve ever written, and it came from a very poignant time in my life, where a friend was dealing with the initial aftershock of a tragic and unimaginable loss. His wife and the mother of his three children ‘came to a draw’ (in the parlance of Norm MacDonald) with cancer after beating it twice before (that’s a record of 2-0-1 – undefeated if you’re keeping track). I was trying to find the words to say to console him, and it was futile. Then this song appeared in my field, and it took approximately an hour to write, and it’s basically been in that form lyrically and musically since then, with very little changed.
I can’t say if the gigantic production we aspired to there was for the purpose of hiding the vulnerability I personally felt, performing a song so emotional and literal (which is not my usual M.O.) or if it is from the sincere desire I have to share this with people that it might help, because I think that the message is one that can help people – to let go and feel the pain and cry, and that it was given to me by forces beyond my mind’s comprehension. But, again, it’s probably both.
“So Purple” is the first trip-hop style song I’ve ever recorded, if I’m remembering correctly. Putting the rhythms for that together just right was a challenge, but Hayden Cotcher and Daniel Seymour both rose to that challenge.
“Late Nite Radio,” while being an older tune of mine, was reimagined somewhat with the saxophone harmonies laid down by Seth and Justin Amaral’s stellar drum parts that add a totally different feel from how it was recorded 15 years ago. Same with “Truck Drivin Man” which features Asa Lane on percussion. It’s hard to say ‘drums’ on that, because what he played was more like a drummer that had to make a kit out of stuff he found at an abandoned antiques store – strange boxes filled with rocks and marbles and all other sorts of noise-making stuff, an old refurbished bass drum with a squeaky pedal that we intentionally did not put any WD-40 on to capture the creaks, and several other alien inventions. Asa is the most imaginative drummer I’ve ever worked with. Truly an experience. Those weird drums, along with Rebecca Weiner Tompkins’ beautifully haunting five-string violin, really transformed Mark’s rock-n-roll murder ballad into a cinematically creepy thing that ended up being really cool and different.
And, finally with “The Moon is Going Down,” Daniel Seymour plays the harp, which is a new instrument on one of my recordings, which was really exciting to work in. I love Ryan’s writing, and this song was one he hadn’t put out, and I asked him if I could give it a whirl. Very glad I did. The video, by Anastasia Miasnikova, is also really good.
- How did your collaboration with Melanie Dewey and Regina McCrary start? Are you planning any further collaborations?
Their vocals were all done in one long day of recording. They are both amazing singers with very different styles, so it was thrilling watching them work out the parts together with Brett, Seth and I. It’s fascinating to take a step back from. watching the memory in my mind, we were all equally motivated to do a good job and make something that sounded great. And when a legend like Regina McCrary, who’s worked with some of the greatest American musicians ever, is just on your team and feeding her beautiful positive energy into your work with you, it’s surreal. There are no plans yet to collaborate, but I will do it in a heartbeat with either or both of them when the opportunity presents itself again.
- What are your plans for 2023? Are there any tours or gigs planned to market Twenty-Three?
There is a tour coming up in April, and at the advice of my handlers, it has a name – “Cry to the Moon – April Twenty-Three.”
For about 3 weeks, myself, Seth Fox, Madison George, and Erik Mendez are going to go up to the northeastern part of the United States, through Maryland, New Jersey, New York state, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, the Carolinas and so on. It will be from roughly April 13 through April 30, and I’m very excited about getting back on the road. It’s my favorite thing to do; Nashville’s great, but we get spoiled here.
Otherwise, I’m recording another project now, and some of those songs will be workshopped along the aforementioned tour. The rest of the year is just starting to materialize into a recognizable image, but I’m pretty ok about keeping folks up to date.
- If you would choose one song off your catalog to introduce someone to your music, what would it be?
I would have to say “Cry” – for a few reasons, but mainly because it’s where I am most recently. There is not really a song that encapsulates my ‘sound’ – my voice tends to be the only similar element to most of my catalogue – and, as I said earlier, my desire to share “Cry” with people is stronger than I’ve had with any other song, I think because, with this one (as opposed to a lot of the rest of my stuff, where the lyrics are somewhat coded), it’s not just for me as much.
- Thanks so much for your time Afton Wolfe, wishing you the best of luck. Cheers!
Thanks for the thoughtful questions and for helping me share my Music.