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.”