In a city run amok with copycats, wannabes, and Luke Bryan lookalikes, it’s always a joy to discover artistic originality.
Such is the case with acoustic lounge-noir (welp, it’s a genre now) songwriter Afton Wolfe.
Frankly, I’ve never heard anybody in Nashville that sounds like Wolfe. For comparison’s sake, he could be Tom Waits’ long lost son. Wolfe sings with that deep, gravely rasp, and his lyrics take you down an Alice In Wonderland-like rabbit hole full of imagery, riddle, and rhyme. His debut EP, Petronius’ Last Meal, which just dropped July 7th, is a prime example of this.
The album opens with “Notes Written On Basil”, which hits with a low-key lounge feel, what with the distant horns in the background to an otherwise slow swaying acoustic rhythm. See if you can catch the Sam Cooke nod in this track. “Interrogations” follows, which was released as a single along with a trippy, watercolor-esque stop-motion music video. Again you get the horns and swaying, finger-snapping jazz rhythm, but this time with a percussive bongo beat to accompany the sound. I immediately envision red curtains and dim lights, and can see a collection of odd characters step in and out of the spotlights.
“Interrogations” seamlessly pours into “Slingshots,” with distant female echoed vocals and the horns wasting no time, shredding like a brass James Marshall Hendrix. At this point, Wolfe solidifies his sophistication and Bond-like swagger in his unique sound. This track gets a little more intense, and really lets loose. Then Wolfe reels it in with “Wait On Me,” a more drawn back and sentimental acoustic track. It has lullaby-like qualities and hypnotizes for a steep six minutes.
Petronius’ Last Meal closes with “So Long, Sweet Lime,” and just like that, Wolfe pulls you back into the David Lynch-meets-Tom Waits dreamworld with this final track. The electric guitar riff suggests tomfoolery and suspicion and conjures great mystery. The combination of the stand up bass, deep percussion, jazzy guitar, and Wolfe’s husky and mysterious vocals create a scandalous and appealing intrigue rarely found in modern music.
Wolfe brings a unique and original style to the Nashville music scene and beyond, and demonstrates a penchant for intellectual and labyrinthine lyrics. We had the chance to talk to Wolfe about his upbringing and introduction to music, his new EP, his creative process, and more.
So I see you grew up in Mississippi. How integral do you think where you grew up was to your musical path?
I think it was extremely important to my musical path. It’s easy in Mississippi to point to the blues, country music and Rock & Roll, and I was exposed heavily to all of those. I grew up in Meridian, MS, which in addition to being the final resting place of the King and Queen of the Romani Gypsies of the late nineteenth century, is also the birthplace of Jimmie Rodgers. My parents and grandparents came from Greenville, Mississippi, deep in the Delta. And when I was a kid, my dad lived in Tupelo, the birthplace of Elvis. And Hattiesburg, Mississippi, where I lived most of my formative years, and where I was living when I first picked up a guitar for the purpose of creating my own music, proclaims itself the “birthplace of Rock & Roll” because the Graves Brothers and Cooney Vaughan recorded some gospel tunes there in the 30s, wherein you can hear the faint early coos of Rock & Roll in its infancy. I learned about all of this – visited all the birthplaces and landmarks – from different sources, from field trips, museums, family, and friends.
I sang in Southern Baptist Church choirs and loved gospel music. There’s a rich energy in Mississippi that’s well documented. The souls of so much suffering and the artists who created out of their struggle hang thick in the air down there, like it’s too heavy to fly out of. I could talk about it forever, and I hope I carry Mississippi with me, because I love it, but I also think that being around that and being a musically curious child gave me an appreciation for genres and styles outside of those I grew up around, while still appreciating the different beautiful qualities of country, blues, gospel, and Rock & Roll. Hattiesburg is also pretty close to New Orleans, and that influence is felt strongly there. Even the lo-fi punk rock in Hattiesburg has an element of jazz in it that’s indescribable other than the experimental and free nature of the music.
Did you ever have any kind of local music mentors when you were coming of age that you admired and motivated you to pursue a life of music?
I did. I couldn’t possibly name them all, but a short list would have to include Cary Hudson, who is a great blues and rock front man and one of the best guitarists alive in the way he writes and plays with such foundation and creativity. Jeff Mills, an all-star drummer who, at the time I was in Hattiesburg, was the drummer for local, semi-famous and semi-original party band King Konga – a quintessential almost-made-it 90s band all made up of amazing musicians and people, who played in the Dave Matthews Band vein (and if I remember correctly did a Dave Matthews Band medley). The guys were great, but their music wasn’t my thing, but Jeff was the first guy to get me into the studio and show me how that all worked. Mark Mann is another. He is an institution in Hattiesburg and an embodiment of either nihilistic abandon or passionate perseverance. But he’s been in Hattiesburg, making awesome songs and putting out albums that never get the attention they deserve, but he manages to usually be the least stressed guy in just about any room. He mows grass, he tends bar, and he writes amazing music that not enough people hear. I was sneaking into his band Eulogy’s and Cary’s band Blue Mountain’s shows when I was a teenager, and I got lucky enough to become friends with those guys.
Scott Panther, Mike Stokes, Andy MacDonald, Wes Brooks, Lhay Browning Thriffiley, Will Martin, Pat Sansone, Vasti Jackson, Webb Wilder, Jason Perry- on and on and just scratching the surface with heroes and/or friends down in the Piney Woods music scene. One more I’ll mention was Keith Kujath. Keith and I were in bands together when I was in high school, including the original iteration of Dollar Book Floyd, called Dollar Book Freud. He was a little older, but he was a New Yorker transplanted in Mississippi who didn’t know anyone in the scene yet, so he played with us younger guys. He blew us away, and it was the first time I’d ever played with somebody who had so much talent and experience. He introduced me to a lot of the stuff I’ve listened to since, including being the guy who first showed me Tom Waits. So he gets a lot of credit/blame for my musical direction for sure.
You’ve been in several different bands that spanned genres from post alt-pop to rock power trios. But your new record, Petronius’ Last Meal, is very much a departure from those things. Who or what might’ve inspired the more dark and jazzy acoustic sounds of this album?
Well, some of those songs were from back in my days with Dollar Book Floyd, which had a similar sound, but the mood of this recording is really a combination of three things: (1) the good fortune of hooking up with Charlie Rauh, who plays guitar on this record, and Craig Schenker, the guy responsible for the saxophone and flute noises on it. Both of those men hear music, in their own respective way, from such alien perspectives. It’s a joy to be a part of. Their playing really opened up a lot of things for me regarding the feel of the songs. (2) the place I was in when I wrote and recorded this was one of liberation. I wasn’t writing or recording this with a band, and I was only accountable to my vision and what I wanted to do, so I got to orchestrate everything, and it’s definitely the most accurate musical representation of my musical aspiration that I’ve ever made in a studio, so far. (3) Mark Robinson did a great job of bringing the feel out of the mix. After recording, I wasn’t very happy with the mix, so that delayed it for quite some time, but when I took it to Mark and explained what I wanted, he actualized my objective of giving the recording the space and depth that I wanted it to have.
The album art is super badass and Caligula-esque, and clearly you’ve got something of an Ancient Rome theme going on. What made you choose this theme, and what’s the correlation with the music?
The album artwork is the original creation of David Noel (@davidnoelart), a super prolific, pop-surrealist artist who hails from Nashville, also did a tour of artistry and nomadic living in New Orleans, and currently resides in Denver. I told him I wanted him to do my album cover, because I loved his work – he does a lot, and I wouldn’t pigeon-hole him at all, but often his work revolves around macabre and unearthly characters. That was what I wanted – perfect for the feeling of the music. I explained the visual impression I had, which is the answer to the second part of this question, and he made it a reality. The relationship of this artwork to the music is a winding but unbroken trail.
The first track, “Notes Written on Basil,” is inspired by a Dave Eggers short story called Notes for a Story of a Man who Will Not Die Alone. It’s a story (or more accurately notes for a story, as it’s written in a brainstorming fashion) about a man who wants to plan his departure from the Earth and die in a huge crowd of friends, family and strangers. Petronius did something similar. Petronius Arbiter was part of Nero’s Empirical Court, and he threw lavish and extravagant parties. As legend and garbled oral tradition have it, when he believed that his political enemies and alleged betrayal of Nero were going to be his ultimate downfall, he decided to end his life on his own terms. He threw his most elaborate and expansive party, slit his wrists and covered them with cloth, and drank and danced and mingled, all the while slowly bleeding out. When he was too weak to stand, he lay down in a bathtub and died while the party raged on.
I told David Noel that story, and that I wanted that incorporated somehow on the album art, and he essentially took it from there. I wanted him to have freedom, because that is when I thrive as an artist, so I didn’t really direct him other than telling him that story. The painting is absolutely his style, but the monsterish characters surrounding the dying protagonist, Afton-become-Petronius, are allusions to an 1854 painting by French master Thomas Couture called The Romans in their Decadence (which is often on the cover of the Satyricon, which Petronius Arbiter is supposed by many to have written and possibly the reason for Nero’s desire to assassinate Petronius). David Noel is fantastic, and I have that badass painting in my music room.
You’ve got music videos out for your singles “Interrogations” and “Slingshots.” They’re both super cool/trippy stop-motion(?) animation. Who helped bring these to life, and what was the idea behind them?
Both of these videos were sourced from afar. That was more coincidence than design, but it makes sense to me, because I’ve always valued unique perspectives, and while local talent is abundant in Nashville, there can also be an echo chamber of sorts. So, for the video, I wanted to expand the impression. The first video, for Slingshots, was made by Metamorse Studio in Indonesia (@metamorse.studio). I saw their work while searching for the right fit for Slingshots, and I loved it instantly. My wife and I brainstormed on some visuals which were incorporated along with mostly original work that Metamorse made, and I explained the meaning of the song to the artists at the studio, and they put together that video. I was incredibly impressed and grateful; I think they captured the anxiety and chaos that the song conveys. My favorite part is the one-legged fiddler hanging from the tree, though the talking heads and the sad kid petting the tree are powerful as well. The second video, which I am also incredibly excited to share with people, was created by a fantastic Czech artist named Anastasia Miasnikova (@exodus_draws_). Her video work is like Michele Gondry meets Stephen R. Johnson (the guy who did those cool Peter Gabriel videos in the 80s for the young folks in the back). Her interpretation of the lyrics and her personal style created all of this. Again, when I work with other artists, I try to give them as little direction and as much freedom as possible, and that worked in this video just as well.
And so I see where you wrote and recorded this album over ten years ago. What were your objectives and goals in that span of time that put this on the backburner?
I’ve done a lot between recording this and now, mainly conquer law school (University of Gonzaga School of Law) and marry the love of my life and best friend for 15 years (we just celebrated our first anniversary in quarantine). But nothing really put this on the backburner; I shelved it because I didn’t like the mix and didn’t have the resources or patience at the time to fix that, and I couldn’t get the album cover I wanted at the time. So, in addition to being burned out on bartending and thus resuming my education, the recording just got put in a vault until I could come back to it properly.
What made now the right time for it to be released?
The mix and the album cover. My idea for the album cover was originally to be a photograph of me lying dead in a clawfoot bathtub. So I went through a lot looking for a tub and finally found one, arranged to get it, took a friend to help me move it, and dropped it in the yard for a photo session the next week. However, before that, the scrap metal dude came by and took it out of my yard. The neighbor didn’t stop him, just reported the whole thing. Lesson: communicate with your neighbors about why you’re putting large tubs in your yard. Then the mix: when I moved back to Nashville in 2017, after law school and a short-lived job in Washington state, I fell back in to the music scene here, and I decided to see if I could finally get a mix I loved to do justice to the music, especially the playing of the aforementioned Charlie Rauh and Craig Schenker. Daniel Seymour, who plays bass on this record, hooked me up with Mark Robinson, who I knew and admired as a musician but had never worked with before, and like I said, Mark fixed the mixes.
How much tinkering and changing might you have done to it between when you initially finished it then and now?
Not much. Mark Robinson brilliantly took out some things that gave it even more of the kind of space it needed, but I was happy with the performance. Almost all of this was recorded live, just in studio isolation. I have learned to put songs down when they’re done, and these were done, all but for the mixes.
How did you get hooked up with Twangri-La Records?
I met Harry Kaplan, a great music blogger, at AmericanaFest in 2017, and I helped him with some legal work and we became friends. I shared these mixes with him, as I did with a few other people, and he said he’d been wanting to start a label and asked if I’d like to be a part of it. I love his musical palette, and I loved his philosophy on how he wanted to start this enterprise, namely giving artists freedom to create and just being a support system for what an artist does. I don’t think I could ever take too much direction in my music after having so much freedom. So, I said yes, and we’re putting this out now. I think there are going to be some other releases from Twangri-La coming very soon.
Have you been writing new songs?
Yes. It’s hardly been an option for me to stop. I fell into a hole for a couple of years, when I thought that no one particularly cared what I had to say, but even then, I came out of it rather quickly when I realized that that didn’t matter. Even in that hole, I was writing about being in the hole. I’ve realized that it is my purpose to contribute to the great song, and it’s not my job to decide whether my contributions are worthy; everyone’s are. It’s my job to create and contribute, and I love to sing.
What does your songwriting process usually entail? Maybe special places or atmospheres that aid in the process, or is it a more sporadic occurrence?
My favorite things I’ve written came to me in a more sporadic occurrence. Like everyone, my mind is hard to slow down, and often the chaos in there hits a wavelength that turns into a lyric or a rhythm or a melody that turns into a song. But I do set aside time pretty much every day to write my thoughts down, often in verse, or to play my guitar or piano and pay attention to the sounds I’m creating to see if any of those things turn into songs. As far as the age-old music or lyrics first question (which I gratefully acknowledge you didn’t ask), the answer is yes: I start with the beginning.
Do you have the wheels in motion for what’s next creatively, or are you simply focusing on getting this release out there?
Absolutely. This release is in the hands of professionals now. But another part of waiting to put this out was waiting until I was in a position to do more once this was out. I’m gathering forces and scheduling new recordings (as much as anyone can schedule anything right now, with the apocalypse and all) and have been basically since this Petronius’ Last Meal got properly mixed. I’m very excited about what’s going to come next, and I wish I could tell you more, but contracts are being drafted, plans are being penciled, vaccines are being researched, and a 2021 release is in the works, Good Lord willing and the creek don’t rise. Hopefully, recording will begin towards the end of this year.