Afton’s love of music started early. “I always thought I had great music taste, and I prided myself on that,” she said with a playful smile. “I loved finding new bands and felt very connected personally to the artists that I listened to growing up.” Afton now looks to establish that same connection with her listeners through her music, actions, and online presence.
Her dream of building a life as a musician took off seven years ago during a show in a small bay area arts space. After her performance, Afton was approached to record her song, “My Own One,” for an ad. Within a month the track was featured in a Nature Valley granola commercial. This spot gave Afton the confidence to dive headfirst into a career in music, fueling the effort that culminated in her 2016 album, Archetype.
With one album out and an EP on its way this summer, Emily has come a long way from her early performances, busking her way through college on Pacific Ave in Santa Cruz. I experienced one of her shows last fall in a cozy, dimly-lit SoMa loft, where Afton performed a moving arrangement of Frank Ocean’s “Thinkin Bout You.” She started with the background, looping and layering breathy, haunting vocals, immersing the audience in sound. On the verses, her voice simmered with a comforting huskiness—almost as if singing through a San Francisco fog—before springing forward into the highs of the chorus. She had the crowd speechless at first and then singing along as if huddled around a campfire.
Afton, no stranger to small intimate shows, has also captivated large crowds. At the 2017 Women’s March in San Francisco, she performed for an estimated forty thousand people. She finished her feature track the night before, an angsty protest anthem with the demands: “Keep your hands off of me / Try and grab us, we’ll take you down.” For Afton, “the emotional part was that people really resonated with the lyrics.” As an affirmation of this, her performance ended in raucous applause.
Afton’s “Archetype” album, and her track “Lost,” featured on an episode of the hit show “Riverdale,” have the quality of being at once dreamy and introspective, wistful, yet purposeful. A more recent single, “Back in San Francisco,” contrasts Emily’s reflective vocal style with a sunny, upbeat tone. Backed by garage-rock style guitar riffs and defiant pop hooks, this latest release sounds like a love song, but is just as much about the strange feeling of a changing city. The chorus begins: “I usually wear my heart on my sleeve, but now I got just a chip on my shoulder.” She hints at a lost love, but dances around it with faded, joyful vocals, and a beat that would make anyone move. This version of Afton is both longing and aloof, a difficult duality to hold, but one that leaves us with a fun and complex single. “Back in San Francisco” gives us a taste of Afton’s upcoming 2019 EP, recorded at Oakland-based nonprofit studio, Zoo Labs, after her 2017 residency. The core of the new project is the duo of Emily Afton and drummer/co-producer Patrick Aguirre, but many local artists took part in its creation. “We’re so lucky that the Bay Area is just bursting with talented musicians,” Afton said. The resources and environment provided by Zoo Labs gave Afton a home base and plenty of inspiration. “Every time I walk through the door I feel like I am becoming a better musician and know my place as an artist in the world a little better,” she said.
A major influence on Afton’s work is Fiona Apple, another singer-songwriter who writes love songs with an empowered female identity. Much of Afton’s work has taken that tone, telling intricate stories as a way to break stereotypes and inspire other young women.