Q&A with Mississippi-rooted sonic alchemist Afton Wolfe, the roots of American music are in his DNA

"Music is the greatest way that people can connect in a way that is irrespective of their prejudices or biases about politics or religion or culture or race or economics. The language of Music is more capable of bringing people and ideas together than the words and fictions that make up society. Those once useful tools have become inadequate to reach agreements and understanding with each other."

Afton Wolfe: The Philosopher's Stone

Having Mississippi-rooted sonic alchemist Afton Wolfe will be released on June 18, 2021 his first full-length solo record “Kings for Sale”. Following on the heels of his 2020 debut EP, Petronius’ Last Meal, Kings for Sale defies genres while being consistently personal and distinctly Afton. Kings For Sale was produced by Grammy winner Oz Fritz and features an enviable line-up of some of the best musicians of Tennessee and Mississippi. Born in McComb, and growing up in Meridian, Hattiesburg, and Greenville, Mississippi, the roots of American music are in his DNA. Mississippi is the birthplace of at least three American art forms: country music, blues music, and rock and roll. Meridian is the birthplace of Jimmie Rodgers, while the Mississippi Delta is the birthplace of the blues, and the first rock n’ roll notes ever played according to intelligent music historians, came from Hattiesburg. Additionally, he spent his musically formative years in and around New Orleans, where the humidity of the Mississippi combined with the Cajun seasonings, the jazz, zydeco, creole, and gospel music and his Mississippi roots coalesce to add resonance and depth to his blues/country/rock influences.

(Afton Wolfe / Photo by Anana Kaye)

Afton’s first band experience was back in the late 90s with Hattiesburg post-alternative pop outfit Red Velvet Couch (1998 to 1999) where he developed his stage presence and released his first album. After a short break, Afton returned with the avant-garde, instrumentally diverse Dollar Book Floyd (2001 to 2002), which featured Amy Lott, Tim Keith, and Mike Stokes and released the album, Red and White. During this period Afton began to incorporate country music and delta blues into his musical playbook. After the Dollar Book Floyd project ended, Afton moved to Nashville and formed The Relief Effort, a rock power trio, with whom he recorded two more records: Don’t Panic (2004) and At Your Mercy (2005). After a hiatus from performing and recording, Afton wrote, composed, and sang all the songs contained in Petronius' Last Meal. This was recorded in 2008 with Charlie Rauh, Craig Schenker and Dan Seymour. Alcohol, academia, the quest for a better mix and a perfect album cover, and a voyage across the country to live in Washington for a few years kept this project on hold for over a decade.

Interview by Michael Limnios          Special Thanks: Afton Wolfe & Geraint Jones

How has the American Roots Music and culture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

The roots of American Music all originate from (or near) my home state of Mississippi. So, American Roots Music has been a part of my entire life. I have to admit, though, that I have come to a much greater appreciation for that in adulthood than as a child. I had always been exposed to the older styles of Music – gospel, blues, country – and I appreciated all of it Musically while also being knowledgeable about the history. But I was not as passionate about that kind of Music until adulthood. When I was in grade and secondary school, my primary Musical motivations were curiosity and consumption. I listened to everything I could get my hands on, and the newer more obscure and unusual, the better. This led me to Jazz and Hip Hop and Metal and all other sorts of Music, but it took me away from country and blues, which I think I took for granted. But the deeper appreciation that I have gained from looking back on my roots as an adult has only enhanced my appetite and curiosity while grounding me in my Nature.

How do you describe your sound, Music philosophy and songbook? Where does your creative drive come from?

I can really only try to describe my Music song-by-song, because often the only unifying factor in any group of my songs is me. I’ve come to realize that Mississippi is in all my Music as well, but that also encompasses a plethora of genres and styles as well. So, shall we say “bluesy-jazz that’s neither blues nor jazz”?

My creative drive is really a combination of the facts that: A) I’ve always found writing poetry (or just activating the release valve on the verbal noise in my mind) therapeutic or possibly compulsive – even before I ever wrote “songs” in the way I try to now, and B) I always loved singing – singing in church is one of my earliest memories, and singing is just fun. So, I learned to play guitar and started singing the words I had written. Then I found out songwriting was a way to do both and also make a connection with people through the things I loved. I learned that some people were good at creating Music and had their own styles and philosophies, so I tried to develop my own.

My philosophy when it comes to Music is to try to create a feeling with a song - to make a combination of words, rhythms, melodies, textures and harmonies that gives me an emotional reaction – preferably different, more nuanced, or expanded on than those emotions I’ve experienced before. My favorite emotional states aren’t necessarily the ones I look for as a Listener or attempt to recreate while making Music. Wonder, curiosity and epiphany are among my preferred reactions to have while listening to and invoke when writing or performing Music.            (Afton Wolfe / Photo by Scott Willis)

"When people connect through beauty and Love, like the connection the Musician has with the Listener, the things that separate us are exposed as illusionary tools that are now used by institutions and egos and leaders and charlatans to keep us disconnected from each other and from true reality, which is in Music and Nature and Love, not borders and race and religion and partisan politics and money."

What do you hope is the message of your Music? What do you hope people continue to take away from your songs?

I hope the songs trigger the same or similar feelings in Listeners as they do in me, or at least inspire an empathetic or complimentary response to observing the experience I was having while writing the song. I hope the melodies linger like they do for me when I connect with a song, and I hope my words inspire them to paint new pictures in their heads that were never there before. Then it’s a genuine collaboration.

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

The recording of the new record is still very fresh on my mind. That process and experience was so unique and unusual for me, because the pandemic made everything much more difficult – requiring a ton of pre-production between myself and Oz and the folks playing on the record. We did all the tracking in 3 days, but worked preparing for those 3 days over a period of several months. I’m really proud of it, but probably most proud that, after tracking 15 people on 9 songs in 3 days, nobody that was there got the coronavirus.

There are a few memories from the recording session that will stick with me forever – having Cary Hudson, one of my Musical heroes in the studio recording guitar and harmonica on my songs, seeing Wess Floyd rock out on “Cemetery Blues” with the spirit of Billy Wayne heavy in the room, watching Ben Babylon play for the first time in the control room, and making the stomp sounds for “Carpenter” by slamming an Igloo® cooler on a wooden bench. But, perhaps the deepest sensory cut in my memory is when we arrived at the studio the first day, first thing in the morning. Oz went into the control room and, to calibrate the room and the speakers with his ears, he played “Hold On” by Tom Waits, from Mule Variations, which is one of the greatest collections of Musical recordings ever and that is one of the most beautiful songs on that album and therefore in all of Musical history. There was Oz, brilliant, kind and generous, who I had come to know through our communications about the album preparation and other common interests and who engineered Mule Variations, preparing to record my album and referencing that piece of Music with which he was intimately familiar. That was a profound and inspiring way to start the studio experience, and it was just one of the ways this project was lousy with Magic and synchronicity.

"My philosophy when it comes to Music is to try to create a feeling with a song - to make a combination of words, rhythms, melodies, textures and harmonies that gives me an emotional reaction – preferably different, more nuanced, or expanded on than those emotions I’ve experienced before. My favorite emotional states aren’t necessarily the ones I look for as a Listener or attempt to recreate while making Music.(Afton Wolfe / Photo by Scott Willis)

What do you miss most nowadays from the Music of the past? If you could change one thing in the Musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

That’s a great question. I think that technology has made listening to and accessing Music so convenient. I take advantage of it often; I’m spoiled by it, and I think I end up listening to less full albums than I used to, partly because of the convenience and partly because I have access to so much more Music than before that it’s hard to keep up with all the great stuff coming out while still feeding my need to hear my favorite music. It either results in a backlog I can never seem to get around to checking out, or I go years without hearing something that I need in my life because the algorithms didn’t know that I needed it.

I think the same things are really wrong with Music as have always been – the people that make the Music generally can’t run the business side of it effectively. There are some exceptions, of course. But the result is that you end up with the people who are effective at the business side having a disproportionate influence on the landscape of the Music. Before streaming, it was who got played, and since it’s been who gets paid. We’re making progress, because streaming and the internet has created a secondary market for people to be heard, but inevitably in either case, the writers and performers have had little say in those regards, and those decisions always have to be approved by some board of directors. But I don’t know if that is something that can or should change, because the only way to change it would be to manipulate bureaucrats and politicians, and those same people will just end up with a disproportionate influence on them as well, and they have police and armies. At least record companies and streaming services don’t have those… yet. The Music and the business are yin and yang, and there’s always going to be a balance between them somehow. You never get more yin than yang for very long, and the “music business” is the devil we know. Without it, I am not sure that the yang that might replace it would be tolerable. So, I guess my answer is award shows. I hate them beyond reason, and I would support legislation that banned all such travesties. (wink)

What would you say characterizes Mississippi Music scene in comparison to other local US scenes and circuits?

It’s underappreciated in relation to its influence on American Music. But that is understandable, because it’s been so backwards and reactionary there at the political and social level for so long, it’s been hard to appreciate the cultural and spiritual and historical relevance of Mississippi when it comes to Music and art there. That is changing and has been for some time, but it’s a long and slow process, and the rest of the world is also advancing, so it always seems to be a little behind. But Mississippi still has great talent in bars and trailers and garages, and those ghosts of the Music that came before are a seemingly infinite and engrained resource that springs from somewhere under the ground there. I’m looking forward to getting back on the road again to see it from that perspective for the first time in a long time.

"The roots of American Music all originate from (or near) my home state of Mississippi. So, American Roots Music has been a part of my entire life. I have to admit, though, that I have come to a much greater appreciation for that in adulthood than as a child. I had always been exposed to the older styles of Music – gospel, blues, country – and I appreciated all of it Musically while also being knowledgeable about the history." (Afton Wolfe / Photo by Scott Willis)

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience in the Music paths?

That if it’s good Music, it would have been good Music 50 years ago, and it would be good Music 50 years from now. Maybe not 60. That money is a stupid reason to play Music or quit playing Music. I’ve done both – played Music because of money and quit playing Music because of money. Both were stupid. That the Music is already there, in the ether or from the corona or bouncing around in the synapses and neurotransmitters in your self-narrative, plopped in there by fairies or gods or evolution or Magick. Wherever it comes from, paying attention and listening to it is the most important part of writing songs.

What is the impact of Music on the human rights and socio-cultural implications? How do you want to affect people?

Music is the greatest way that people can connect in a way that is irrespective of their prejudices or biases about politics or religion or culture or race or economics. The language of Music is more capable of bringing people and ideas together than the words and fictions that make up society. Those once useful tools have become inadequate to reach agreements and understanding with each other.

I think it’s simply that there is too much information available, and it’s doubling at an ever-increasing rate, to the point where no one can know enough about anything to really speak with the kind of arrogance and contempt that we do to each other now about political issues. Yet we do. We focus on the things that divide us instead of the things we share, and we do it in comments sections and tweets as if there weren’t thousands of years and millions of pages debating these things, and it all gets worse with more information.

When people connect through beauty and Love, like the connection the Musician has with the Listener, the things that separate us are exposed as illusionary tools that are now used by institutions and egos and leaders and charlatans to keep us disconnected from each other and from true reality, which is in Music and Nature and Love, not borders and race and religion and partisan politics and money.

Afton Wolfe - Home

(Afton Wolfe / Photo by Scott Willis)

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