Interview:, 8/16/13

Emily Yates brings her vulgar, poignant ukulele music to Westcott Theater

By Max O’Connell

Emily Yates plans to take over the world. How? With a ukulele, some songs and a whole lot of vulgarity.

The Syracuse native continues her “Eventual World Domination Tour with a stop at the Westcott Theater this Friday, Aug. 16. It will be the ukulelist’s first gig in her hometown.

Those attending will have the chance to hear Yates’ mixture of gentle music with profane, irreverent and often poignant lyrics. It’s an unusual juxtaposition, but a purposeful one.

“People don’t really listen or understand when you say things in a scary way,” Yates said. “If you say it with a smile and a ukulele, your chances are better.”

Yates didn’t start playing music until 2 years ago, when she went on a trip to Ghana with her husband, Erik Yates, also a musician. There, she learned she had better rhythm than she thought, and upon her return home learned to play her husband’s ukulele.

Music has given Yates an outlet to process many of her experiences and emotions. One of her most formative experiences was a six-year stint in the United States Army, which influenced her song “Smoke Break”, about the traumatic experiences of the war.

She says she spent years struggling after her time in the army. Her music, however, gave her a voice.

Since returning from Iraq, Yates moved to Oakland, CA and joined the local chapter of Iraq Veterans Against the War. Her music is saturated with themes of her time in the army and various social and political messages.

“It’s been my habit to use my experience in the military to make my civilian life richer,” Yates said, “To be a better person, help those who are struggling.”

Few of Yates’ songs are as somber in tone as “Smoke Break,” in which she describes taking a smoke break before going “back to war.” But others are just as pointed. Titles include “I Don’t Want to Have a Baby” and “Foreign Policy Folk Song.” And Yates isn’t afraid to offend people.

“If the worst thing I do in my life is piss someone off, I’m OK with that,” she said.

Yates categorizes herself as a folk-punk singer. Her songs are short, to the point, and more aggressive than many folk songs. She cites influences as diverse as Bob Dylan, Jonathan Richman and Eric Idle of Monty Python.

Her sense of humor comes through in songs like “Good Ol’ Passive Aggressive,” a direct song about indirect anger, and her signature song “Try Not to Be a D**k,” which gives advice like “cover your mouth when you sneeze,” and “stay out of the fast lane if you are driving slow.”

Yates also wrote an extra verse about police brutality after a friend was hurt during an Occupy Wall Street protest.

“This is what I’m trying to say,” she said. “Don’t shoot people in the head!”

Yates is doing her part to turn the song into a global movement, advocating that people “at the very least use words instead of fists.”

New video: “P0RN!”

A song about something everyone likes.

If the video doesn’t work, here’s the link:


You might be from Texas
you might be from Tennessee
You might be from way up north
in the Yukon Territ’ry
You might be from London or
you might be from Peru
It doesn’t matter where you’re from
You all like to watch people screw

It’s a unifier
Can’t identify ‘er
Poooooo- ooooo- oooorn
Everyone likes porn

You might have grown up thinking it was only for your dad
Or maybe in a church where they told you it was bad
Maybe you’ve been taught that that’s just not what nice girls do
But now that you’re all grown my friend,
I don’t see a thing stopping you

There’s a happy ending
Look at how they’re bending
Poooooo- ooooo- oooorn
Everyone likes porn

It can be for special times when you are with your mate
It can even be the end of a magical first date
It can be for holidays or when you’re feeling blue
It can be for every day, hell I don’t give a shit what you do

Might be degrading
But I’m not hating
It’s an honest living
So let’s be forgiving
Poooooo- ooooo- oooorn
Everyone likes porn

Listen/download: “Smoke Break” released on Warrior Songs compilation

Click here to hear/buy my new song “Smoke Break,” just released on the Warrior Songs “Story to Song” project! Your purchase helps to fund Warrior Songs, which paid for the recording of this and other veterans’ songs.

Thank you all for your support of my music and my activism against the wars our government starts without caring about the human toll they take. No matter who’s dropping them, bombs fuck people up. So I’d much rather drop f-bombs … and records.

This song is dedicated to all my smoke break buddies during six years in the Army, and to my incredibly inspiring family in Iraq Veterans Against the War and Warrior Writers, especially Lovella Calica, Jenny Pacanowski and Maggie Martin for creating the space in which this song was written.

Featuring Rachel Colwell on violin.
Recorded and engineered by Charlie Wilson at Sonic Zen Records in Berkeley, CA.


It’s ten minutes past daybreak
I already need a smoke break
Or else I’ll have a mental break and break somebody’s face
I just found out that my friend’s been blown away
I’m not having a good day

Oh there’s no relief, no release
There’s only this pit
Where we all can sit
Fill our lungs with smoke
Fill our hearts with hope
Just crack a couple jokes and
burn a couple smokes and
then go back to war

It’s ten minutes past noon
And I think I’m gonna swoon
From the heat inside this tent that
Feels like a cocoon
And the whistle of a mortar overhead
Reminds me that I could have been dead

Oh there’s no relief, no release
There’s only this pit
Where we all can sit
Fill our lungs with smoke
Fill our hearts with hope
Just crack a couple jokes and
burn a couple smokes and
then go back to war

It’s ten minutes past midnight
And I’m finally feeling all right
The tip of my cigarette glows with an orange light
And now I hear a mortar’s hit our smoking pit
But that still won’t make me quit

‘Cause there’s no relief, no release
There’s only this pit
Where we all can sit
Fill our lungs with smoke
Fill our hearts with hope
Just crack a couple jokes and
burn a couple smokes and
then go back to war
Then go back to war.

American Homecomings: 2nd of 5 installments

Emily Yates: A veteran in search of validation*

Emily Yates rushes to the performance area for a sound check before a private home concert in Los Altos, Calif. on Thursday, July 25, 2012. Yates, ex-Army, did two tours in Iraq. Now back home, she is pursuing her passions and interests, which include her studies at UC Berkeley and music. (Dan Honda/Staff)

Oakland, Calif. –  Sometimes it’s as subtle as an arched eyebrow. Other times it’s a full-on, in-your-face confrontation. No matter how the message is delivered, it grates on Emily Yates:

You are not a “real” veteran.

“I want to be given credibility where credibility is due, that’s all,” said Yates, an Oakland resident and UC Berkeley student who served two tours in Iraq during her six years as an Army public affairs specialist. “I’m not asking for anyone to put me on a pedestal. I just don’t want anyone to discredit me when I haven’t done anything to earn it.”

Upon her discharge in 2008, Yates hopped in her car and embarked on meandering cross-country journey. She hasn’t slowed down since. In addition to her education — her major is Near Eastern Studies — she has immersed herself in activism, music, photography and writing.

But to her, the coming-home experience is diminished when her military service is dismissed as something less than legitimate. She has some theories why that is sometimes the case — why some have trouble reconciling her anti-war stance with her Army career, or why people in the VA office look at her “like, so who’s your father?”, or why she was told during a heated debate at a recent Cal Veterans Group meeting to “get the (expletive) out” if she didn’t like the way the group was being run.

First and foremost: She’s a woman.

Second: She was in public affairs. “They’ll go, ‘OK, maybe you’re a vet, but you’re not bad-ass like I am,’ ” she said.

Third: She loves to discuss politics (she belongs to the group Iraq Vets Against the War).

And fourth: “There is my reluctance to ever back down from a debate,” Yates, 29, said laughing.

Yates, who freely admits she resisted authority — not always gently — while in the Army, finds it disheartening that her veteran status is challenged most stridently by other vets. She finds it ironic that she would take so much “blowback” at UC Berkeley, an academic environment in which free speech historically has been celebrated.

“I didn’t expect that kind of mentality from people of above-average intelligence seeking higher education,” she said.

But that’s what she got at a Cal Vets meeting when she wanted to know why her posts to the group’s Facebook page were being deleted, and what the posting guidelines should be going forward.

“Two guys just got in my face and started yelling and cursing at me,” Yates said. “I did not get the sense that if I were 6-foot-2 and 250 pounds, they would be talking to me that way. They weren’t talking to anyone else that way.”

Dottie Guy served in Iraq in 2003. As an Army National Guard MP, she came face to face with high value prisoners at Camp Cropper. Currently a student at San Francisco City College, Guy describes herself as nonconfrontational.

Though she may differ from Yates in her service and sensibilities, she shares the frustration of meeting people who “have trouble grasping that I went to Iraq.

“They say, ‘What did you do? Administration? Cook? Supply?’ ” Guy said. “I say, ‘No, MP.’ I don’t feel like they treat me like the others. It’s weird having served my country, handled terrorists and people don’t even think of me as a vet.”

That’s not unusual, said Mike Ergo, a former Marine who served two tours in Iraq and now counsels veterans at the Concord Vet Center.

“In my experience, women’s military experience is typically not seen as legitimate as men’s,” Ergo said. “Although we still don’t allow women in the infantry, they’re still manning 50-caliber machine guns. In those situations, they fight the same battles.

“Also, people can be dismissed as well for having anti-war positions, which I think is a mistake. I think it takes a lot of courage to stand up for your convictions. (Yates) has earned the right to have her opinions.”

Yates knows she provokes some of the negative reaction that comes her way. When she encourages veterans groups to participate in political advocacy, she understands she is aggravating vets seeking primarily a social experience.

What she doesn’t get is the conclusions some people draw about her military service based on her civilian avocations — conclusions she doesn’t think would be drawn if she were a man.

“I worked my ass off in the military,” she said. “It pisses me off when that is written off because I’ve said one thing that somebody doesn’t agree with.”

Contact Gary Peterson at 925-952-5053. Follow him on Twitter at

*Not, in my opinion, a completely accurate headline, but whatever.