Tell me about your new album Kings for Sale. What does the title refer to and how does the music reflect that theme?
Afton Wolfe: It’s a very personal record that I’m proud of. The title is actually a lyric from the first single “Dirty Girl,” where I sing “Razorblade and Shankerman and Kings for Sale/Ain’t nothing we can do, it’s all for the family now, in old Clarksdale.” It seemed impossible to use any of the song titles as the name of the album because no single track encapsulated it – and no two songs sound the same. That song refers to going back to my Mississippi roots and that’s the underlying theme. It’s about appreciating the geography and qualities of the region beyond the more difficult social and political realities. The town of Clarksdale, MS, which is considered the birthplace of the blues and houses the Delta Blues Museum, is actually a very poor town, but the folks there have so much dignity and pride.
Every time another bluesman passes away, they claim another musician is the last living blues man. Right after I moved back to the South from living in the Pacific Northwest, I ran into a friend who had been in the music business a longtime but had never been to Mississippi. When I went back, I realized that all the music came from there. Those guys I mention are real people. And the feeling of who is the king at any given time can change. The vibe of the album is me being proud of Clarksdale and wanting people to visit. There’s nobility and regality but that creates a cognitive dissonance with those just trying to survive and pay bills. I ran a list of possible album titles and Kings for Sale won out and made the most sense. It was like me saying we can all get up an make our own kingdom.
Each song tells a unique story with very precise, vivid lyrics that put us in a lot of different places and times – some in your life and some not. But what is the bigger story you’re telling?
Afton Wolfe: There are a few motifs, but I’m not sure how they’re connected. Essentially, these nine were my favorite songs. If you take them song by song, a lot of them are unique perspectives on me coming to terms with my past – and even songs that I didn’t write, like “Cemetery Blues,” “Mrs. Ernst’s Piano” and “Fault Lines,” are still very personal to me. In “Dirty Girl,” when I sing “Ah, yo0u know I took the long way home like I always do,” that sort of wraps up the entire album of me recollecting things and finishing up some unfinished business. I toyed with the idea of a concept album, but I’m not sure I have the attention span for it. A few years ago, a friend and I wanted to create a stoner rock album biography of Howard Hughes – and it turned out to be about as good as that sounded!
How does Kings for Sale reflect who you are as an artist and person right now in your career and life?
Afton Wolfe: It’s the answer to so many items on a wish list that included how I wanted to make a record, who I wanted to play on it and the autonomy I wanted to have. Its producer Oz Fritz, whose engineering credits include everyone from Tom Waits to The Ramones, was supposed to produce an album for my band Dollar Book Floyd years ago, and it was incredible to finally work with him. Another guy I had always wanted to work with was Cary Hudson, who played harmonica and guitar on “Dirty Girl” and contributed to the “congregation chorus” on the final track “O’ Magnolia.” I’ve played many shows with him and he’s a hero of mine. The vibe of Kings for Sale is similar to that of my previous project Petronius’ Last Meal, which was moodier, darker and where I was trying to write and sing like Waits. The album is about me returning to the South – Nashville, specifically, from years living in the Pacific Northwest and getting back to music after a way too long layoff. The opportunity to work with Oz was kind of like a reset to get where I like to say I “took a wrong turn at Albuquerque.”
Your bio colorfully informs us that you recorded Petronius’ Last Meal in 2008, but that “alcohol, academia, the quest for a better mix, a perfect album cover and a voyage across the country to live in Washington kept this project on hold for over a decade.” What’s the real story?
Afton Wolfe: After Dollar Book Floyd broke up, I moved to Nashville and formed the rock power trio The Relief Effort, which recorded two albums in the mid-2000s. When that group broke up I wasn’t in the mood to do anything for a while, and decided if was going to write and record I would do it as a solo artist. Bands just don’t fit the mode of personal expression I was interested in.
The path led me to a solo project which I spent a year recording. Those were the tracks that ultimately became Petronius’ Last Meal. I got my hopes up, invested money and formed a band of great musicians, and they started looking to me to take them to the next level – insert appropriate cliché here! Plus the mixes didn’t sound good – these guys I hired were trying to get me to sound like Rascal Flatts - and the album artwork I envisioned wasn’t working out. I gave it all up and went back to school, studying philosophy (major) and neuroscience and physics (minor) at Middle Tennessee State University. When I graduated, I had two choices – bartending or law school. I wrote the song on Kings for Sale “About My Falling” between my undergrad and law school days – an era I call my “thirsty period” because I learned to drink professionally.
What made 2020 the ideal time to release Petronius’ Last Meal?
Afton Wolfe: I moved away to law school in 2013 and returned to Nashville, trying to get my stuff together and get a job. While establishing myself, I reconnected with old musical friends like Dan Seymour, who had become a bassist in the Americana scene. I took some of my old mixes to him and he understood what I was trying to do. He remixed those tracks and I like the way they sounded after he took the compression off and took out the flat and thin parts. Everything sounded like it should have originally. I hired David Noel to do the album cover for a few bucks, and he reflected my vision perfectly based on the Petronius story. He was Nero’s last minister of parties and bled to death in a bathtub. David recreated that in New Orleans monster style.
I was going to quietly release the album by the side of the road, so to speak, but then got major encouragement and was talked into spending money on press and radio. Many indie artists were sitting on the sidelines during the pandemic so it was a good time to get some attention for it. It was a definite silver lining. People seemed to enjoying hear me sing about Clarksdale. The blues is about finding the beauty in adversity, the proverbial flower growing through the cracks in the sidewalk. It was the right message for 2020.
How did you develop your unique vocal style which your bio accurately compares to that of greats like Leon Redbone, Leonard Cohen, Mark Lanegan, Tom Waits and Nick Cave?
Afton Wolfe: Honestly, it’s just what comes out when I open my mouth. Growing up in Meredian, Hattiesburg and Greenville, Mississippi, the roots of American music were in my DNA but one of my earliest musical heroes was actually Bruce Springsteen. The first Halloween costume I ever chose for myself was his Born in the USA outfit! I always gravitated to voices like his and I naturally had a lower voice. When I try to sing higher notes, it feels strained. In high school bands, when I’d sing stuff like The Allman Brothers’ “Melissa,” I’d feel that strain. I was much for comfortable singing Tom Waits’ “Rain Dogs” and then I heard Elvis Costello’s Trust album and from that point on I felt like I was trapped between Jupiter’s moons Io and Europa.
I really appreciate all those guys people compare me to, from Leon Redbone’s Hamishness and refusal to embrace technology post 1968 to Mark Lanegan’s album Whiskey for the Holy Ghost and his band Screaming Trees. I’m a child of the 90s and grew up on everything from grunge and hip-hop to blues, and I loved to explore everything and absorb it like a sponge. My earliest musical memories are of singing in church making joyful noises and I once ruined my voice singing in a metal band. I also performed at a prominent Waits tribute show in Nashville for the Second Harvest Food Bank, so over the years, I kind of perfected his vocal vibe.
Will we have to wait another year or another 10 years before the next album? How do you see the future and what are you most excited about right now?
Afton Wolfe: I definitely don’t think it will be another 15 or even ten. I’ve got some things smaller than Kings for Sale, a fun project coming up within few months once the sheen is matted over the album. Once things start opening up more, I’m excited to see what touring will be like and I’m sure I’ll go back to the studio to do something new – maybe not quite as ambitious but I will definitely allow myself more time than I have in the past. Kings For Sale took shape over six months of emails and exchanged wave files with Oz, but then we only had three days at the Welcome to 1979 studio in Nashville to record it.