Genre-Melting Jazz N’ Soul Songwriter Afton Wolfe Discusses Upcoming Album ‘Kings For Sale’, Studio Scouting, & Much More

Nashville avant-garde songwriter Afton Wolfe doesn’t just bend genres, he deconstructs them, re-arranges them, and creates a sound distinctly his own, all with a respect and nod to his southern roots. Kings For Sale, his upcoming album due June 11th, displays this in a resounding fashion.

From the soulful, horn-laden opener in “Paper Piano,” to the gospel-like anthem “O’ Magnolia” to close, Wolfe delivers an array of memorable tracks that stand out from one another, with a vast and expert arrangement of instrumentation. In a city overrun with Janey and Johnny Songwriters trying to write the next best country-pop ballad, Wolfe offers a refreshing style very niche to Nashville.

With regional musical influences from New Orleans and his native Mississippi, his sound resonates what with cunning imagery-steeped lyricism like that of Leonard Cohen, sung with the melodic grit and gravel of Tom Waits. He initially caught our eyes and ears with last year’s five-song EP, ‘Petronius’ Last Meal,’ which he was kind enough to discuss with us last summer.

Kings For Sale is the type of album that pairs perfectly with a heavy vintage Cab, fifth of gin, a pack of American Spirits, and/or deep contemplation. There’s a certain level of sophistication in his music, both lyrically and musically, that you don’t often stumble upon these days.

And a sonic journey and accomplishment such as this takes a small and trusted army, as Wolfe had Grammy award-winning producer Oz Fritz leading the charge. Along with Fritz in the engineering room was Jeremy Bernstein within the walls of Welcome to 1979 studio in Nashville. Accompanying Wolfe on the tracks were an array of Tennessee and Mississippi talent such as Daniel Seymour (bass), Tommy Stangroom (drums), Ben Babylon (piano, keys), Seth Fox, (woodwinds) and several others. 

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Wolfe has his album release show set for June 11th at City Winery’s upstairs lounge, and has released music videos for his singles “Paper Piano” and “Dirty Girl” building anticipation.

We had the chance to ask Wolfe some questions about the new album, what the future may hold for him, and more.

So last time we spoke, you had just released your EP, Petronius’ Last Meal. How would you say Kings For Sale compares and contrasts?

Afton Wolfe: It’s great to speak with you again. The two projects certainly share some similarities; I think they both are pretty dynamic and reveal my distaste for genre constraints and my affinity for unique timbres and instrumentation. Kings For Sale is different, because I used even more diverse instruments and musicians, and the styles of music vary even more widely. Petronius’ Last Meal was recorded 12 years before it came out, and the songs that made that recording all had a more somber, anxious, darker feel. Kings For Sale was recorded in November, and while it still has some darkness, the feel of the project as a whole is more balanced. And nine songs is just objectively better than five.

What was the most challenging part of writing and/or recording this album, aside from the obvious COVID obstructions?

It’s hard to separate anything in 2020 from the pandemic, and this project is no different. The main challenge to this was coordinating around COVID and still getting everything done that I wanted to do in the studio. It took a great deal of pre-production – emails between myself and all of the principles, especially Oz, preparing parts, coordinating instruments, arranging songs. I made several demos of each song and sent them back and forth between Oz and I and between the different musicians, in the hopes that everyone would come into the studio prepared to execute, and they did. We tracked 15 people in 3 days and were able to do basically everything we had planned and then a little more.

What do you look for in a producer and a studio when scouting, and how did you get hooked up with Oz Fritz?

To the first part of the question, I think it’s an important point for me that I look for a producer that will make the music sound the best it can. I hear people in Nashville sometimes shopping for producers who are “connected” and good at shopping records, and I just fundamentally disagree with using that as a criteria for choosing a producer. I wanted a producer that was on the same wavelength creatively and musically, and if the person who fit that ideal would’ve been a hobo, barista, or car mechanic, I’d have hired him. 

Oz was a perfect fit for this project and for my music, because he is a brilliant and accomplished sound engineer who has worked with artists like The Ramones, Bill Laswell, Tom Waits, and others who have inspired me. I first met Oz back in 2002, over the phone, because he was slated to produce the second record for Dollar Book Floyd (my project back then). We were introduced through mutual connections at Peavey, which is located in Meridian, Mississippi. That project fell apart right before we were set to go record. So, when I was planning this record, I wanted to check his interest level in working together again, and he was into it. He and I connected immediately on a creative, musical, and personal level, and then it turned out we shared some other more spiritual and personal commonalities. Most of all, he understood how to translate my ramblings about how sounds feel into frequencies and amplitudes and make the music on this record as close to the Music in my head as I could have ever hoped for.

Lyrically, your songs are unique and you don’t beat a dead horse singing about the same thing many others are singing about. What subjects or topics do you find yourself gravitating towards when writing a song? 

Thank you, though there is literally a song about a dead horse on this record (“Steel Wires”). My favorite lyricists have always been those with more abstract and associative lyrics – Michael Stipe, Beck, Tom Waits, and Stephen Malkmus. I don’t know what they are personally talking about, but the way those lyrics hit me often relates to me and gives me a perspective on my own circumstances, almost like a Tarot reading. So I try not to spoon feed the ideas to the listener, but at the same time convey the point somewhere, almost cryptically, in the lyrics. Otherwise, I don’t really try to include certain subjects or topics, other than the staples of love, death, and fear, though I find myself drawn to certain imagery to represent those themes – pianos, horses and rivers each make multiple appearances in the lyrics of songs on Kings For Sale.

Is there an overarching theme or motif behind Kings For Sale as a whole?

Well, as vain as it may be to assume anyone would care about this, it’s a very personal album, even the three songs I didn’t write/co-write. The songs about Mississippi (“Dirty Girl” and “O’ Magnolia”) signal what I think is the main theme – return or recrudescence – both the South, after living up in the Pacific Northwest for a few years, and to embracing music as a central focal point in my life again, which the release of Petronius’ Last Meal signified the beginning of.

I’m always intrigued by the order of songs on an album. While the ones in the middle *might* be somewhat interchangeable, I am curious as to what made you choose “Paper Piano” to open, and “O’ Magnolia” to end?

That’s just another reason albums are great, and I, too, pay a lot of attention to song order. There were several reasons for the ordering of these songs, but to your specific question, “Paper Piano” is the first song because (i) I think it is the most uplifting and positive song on the record, (ii) the arrangement and instrumentation is a pretty full exposure to the music that is to follow, and (iii) it is the oldest of the songs that I wrote on the record (written back in 2001 originally, but never given proper treatment in a studio, and thus never released).

“O’ Magnolia” was chosen to end the record, because (i) it was the most recent song I wrote that made the record (written about the changing of the Mississippi state flag, the vote for which was just a couple of weeks before we went into the studio – there was actually an alternate verse ready for the possibility of the voters voting to keep that loser Confederate flag, but fortunately that was committed to the waste basket), and (ii) I wanted a thoughtful but grand finish to the record, and with the choral vocals and hymnal-esque feel of the song, it was the right choice. The chronology of it all just reaffirmed that it was meant to be so.

Speaking of the opening track, “Paper Piano,” you have a super fun and imaginative music video for it. What’s the correlation with the childlike wonder and the pawn shop? I was hoping you could shed some light on the overall idea behind this.

Well, first of all, credit goes to Anana Kaye and Irakli Gabriel for their vision and talent in making this video so fun. And, yeah, “imaginative” is the perfect word. The song “Paper Piano” (that I co-wrote with Amy Lott) is autobiographical, about growing up on the disadvantageous side of the poverty line. My mother worked really hard, but we scraped by for a lot of my early childhood. But, while most resources are finite, there are a few that defy those rules, and imagination is one of them. So, the song is using your imagination to overcome the limits of the other resources. A “Paper Piano” can make any sound you can imagine, and a bike with no wheels can travel anywhere you can dream. 

Serendipitously, JJ Seymour, the son of my good friend Daniel Seymour (who ironically plays bass on every other song on Kings For Sale but “Paper Piano”), uses the family’s basement (where many of Nashville’s musicians have practiced – because good bass players are hard to find anywhere, and Daniel is a great one) as his own live music venue – The JJ Rocks Club. It’s an “imaginary” music venue, but really only in so much as the state of Tennessee hasn’t required licenses, and that the currency in The JJ Rocks Club is a form of money that JJ draws and cuts out and gives out to people when they come over, so that when you need a drink, you give JJ your money (plus tip), and he brings you your drink, with better service than 100% of live music venues in the “real” world. Otherwise, The JJ Rocks Club has great shows and keeps a regular calendar of JJ’s favorites (and Dan’s paying gigs), and there are flyers that JJ himself makes for each one of them all around the Club. Frankly, I think it’s the best venue in Nashville, and that’s saying a lot.  

And there’s a line in the song, “I’m gonna burn down that old pawn shop,” so Anana, Irakli, and I thought it would be an interesting juxtaposition to have the B-Roll of me in a pawn shop (where the imagination and dreams are often left behind in the pursuit of paying debts and utilities). Many thanks to Music City Pawn Shop for letting me dance around there. Every other pawn shop I reached out to for this was decidedly NOT into it. 

How would you describe life as a Nashville musician in the current state of things right now?

Well, I was out of the game here in Nashville for a decade, and I just got back into releasing my original music a couple of months after the lockdowns, so it affected me somewhat differently. But I still wasn’t able to play these songs in front of crowds, and that is the purest experience and motivation for doing this. That is the connection that is irreplaceable by technology, and I have been missing it for quite some time. I have played scattered shows around the country since 2008, but I was looking forward to doing something more regular and purposeful until the pandemic. But, as yin and yang are rarely out of balance for long, there was a bright side to it (one I would never relish and would trade to have avoided the death, destruction and distress of the pandemic for sure), which is that I had a lot of time to work on the pre-production and recording of Kings For Sale. Now I’m looking forward again to getting out and making that in-room, live music connection, but I also have a record that I’m very proud to share that way too.

What’s on the horizon post-album release? Any light touring or show bookings?

Yeah, that’s the immediate future. An album release show on the 11th at The Lounge at the City Winery here in Nashville, a trip back home to Hattiesburg, Mississippi, for Record Store Day at T-Bone’s Records the next day, followed by gorging myself on my Mom’s food and relaxing for a short time before getting back to work. We’ve got a special bit of fun planned for AmericanaFest in September, with some touring on either side of that, and currently working on some other stuff in the space between those plans. 

I’ve got enough songs for another album, and hopefully I’ll sell enough of this one (or hit the lottery or something) to make the next one soon. I’ve also been writing and collaborating, and hopefully the fruits of some of that will be evident soon as well.

And finally, if you could share a drink, a smoke, and/or a meal with any living inspiration of yours to pick their brains, who might it be and why?

Well, preliminarily, as a fan of a good drink, smoke and meal, I’ll automatically choose the “and” of the “and/or.” The person is a tougher choice, both because that list, if I thought too long about it, would be overwhelmingly large, and because I enjoy the company of so many and don’t get enough time to spend with my favorite people as it is. 

But I suppose if the opportunity presented itself, one person, from that overwhelming list, would be Trey Parker, co-creator of South Park. I’m a huge fan of cartoons and that one especially. I think those guys are genius. And they’ve consistently been even-handed, principled, thoughtful, and hilarious all at the same time. I think that if you really want to understand the domestic political situation in the past 5 years, watching Seasons 19 thru 22 of South Park is better than reading any news outlets’ take. I think, if they ever cancel the show or die (which hopefully technology prevents either), South Park will be the subject of academic treatises for years.

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