By Sean Stroh
As a kid growing up in the rough streets of Harlem, Wolf Critton never imagined himself being a musician. In fact, the path to music didn’t truly begin until he found himself deep in the heart of the Iraqi desert as an infantryman in the U.S. Army. It was there that one of the men in his unit handed him a guitar for the first time.
More than five years later, Critton finds himself with nearly 20k likes on Facebook and endorsements from companies such Luna Guitars and Shure. With a simple, soulful style, Critton manages to maintain a sense of originality in an industry jam packed with acoustic singer-songwriters.
Coming Up Magazine talked to Critton about his unique nickname, why he decided to join the military and the personal nature of his lyrics.
As a kid growing up in New York City, you wrote poetry and even won some competitions for it. Do you remember how you became interested in poetry and some of the things that attracted you to it?
I honestly don’t know. I got really infatuated with reading in general. I was a big R.L. Stine kid and pretty much anything I could get my hands on. I think Edgar Allen Poe was someone that just stuck with me. I was just drawn to the concept of poetry and putting one’s thoughts on paper and the meaning behind those words.
What ultimately made you enlist in the military? Had anyone in your family prior to you served?
Yeah my father and grandfather served but that really wasn’t the motivation behind it. I was going through a rough patch as far as hanging out with the wrong crowd and things of that nature. I was living in Harlem and it was pretty much be in the streets and shoot guns illegally or do it legally in the Army. It was a strong decision I made especially after 9/11 and I wanted to put my energy into something that actually meant something.
Prior to picking up the guitar for the first time in Iraq and really embracing music as a profession, what did you foresee yourself doing as a career once you were done with the military?
I’ve never been a strong believer in planning ahead which is horrible. I grew up in a home where tomorrow was never really certain as far as what was going to happen. You would want to get something and never get it. I literally live in the moment and take it one day at a time. Iraq did nothing but enforce that thought.
When I started doing music it was really just for me. It was definitely a form of therapy and there wasn’t a plan on being a professional musician, singer or anything like that. There were actually never any goals with it at first really. I was in the military, I was a soldier and I left it at that. Tomorrow was never promised.
Was there a particular song or songs you learned first as a way to teach yourself the guitar or did you kind of just focus on chords? What was that process like of actually learning the guitar?
YouTube is an amazing teacher (laughs).
The first song I tried to play was a Lenny Kravitz song which I can’t remember the title of since it was so long ago. I wrote my first song using three chords and it’s probably one of my most personal songs. It was pretty much just one chord at a time and slowly my fingers started getting used to it. Eventually it got really comfortable.
Your name “Wolf” was given to you by the same man who introduced you to the guitar. Could you elaborate on where this name came from?
As soldiers we really like to rip with each other in the worst possible way (laughs).
The gentleman who gave me the nickname was Native American. He started giving us all nicknames and with me it was “Wolf” because I was so closed off and alone basically. I was very loyal though and that’s what he told me. At first I didn’t really think anything of it until we lost him. That’s when I knew it would stick with me.
One thing that struck me when I was listening to your music was how raw and open you are when it comes to your lyrics. How do you tread that fine line between music and your personal life and deciding what to share and what you choose to keep private?
I’m open almost to a fault. I can’t write a song or talk about anything I can’t relate to. I couldn’t write a song about driving a fancy car and going to a club. I couldn’t do it. It would be impossible for me. My brain won’t allow me to do it. So everything you are hearing is literally pages of my life. It’s not that I want to expose that much of myself but it just is what it is. That’s me and how I felt at that exact moment. Like I said, it’s all therapy for me. So when you hear these songs, they originally began as something to help me get through whatever trial or difficult situation I was in the middle of.
Once you realized music was the career you wanted to pursue, did take formal vocal lessons or has pretty much everything vocally been self taught?
It’s been self taught. I’m really big on honesty, especially when it comes to playing live. I want people to hear the real me including all the flaws just as much as I want them to embrace the lyrics. I never did vocal lessons. I never wanted to box my artistic expression off. I wanted to do my own thing and ended up finding myself in the process.
When you’re working on a particular song is there someone you call or go to first to get his or her opinion on the song? Someone who you trust to give you an honest opinion?
Two people actually–my brother, Daniel Dillard, and Terri Robinson, a singer-songwriter.
They are the biggest supporters in my life when it comes to hearing the songs first and giving me their opinions. They are both amazing. I call the two of them all the time since they both live in New Jersey not far from me. They will listen to a song with me and tell me to go public with it or not.
It’s always so constructive that I’m thankful when I talk to them. I embrace constructive criticism completely. I even did this thing on Reverb Nation where you can get honest, unbiased opinions about your music. My goal as an artist is not to do anything but reach the people who have been through situations that I’ve been through. So if I have 100 people telling me they couldn’t understand the message because it sounded a particular way, I perfect it until it’s on mutual ground where everybody can pick up on it.
What’s the creative process like for your music videos? Are the concepts all from you or do you collaborate with a particular director or writer?
No I’m just very artsy I guess you could say artsy (laughs). My music is very personable. It’s almost embarrassing to a point when I’m on stage. I want the music video to translate that just as much in a visual sense. Luckily for me, the directors I’ve worked with have been open to my opinions and thoughts on what I want to do in the videos.
For your latest music video, was there a change in the song title from “Jane Doe” to “Foolish Thing”?
There was! The reason why it was changed is because Never Shout Never has a song called “Jane Doe” as well. As an artist if you want to reach people with your own individuality it’s good to have an original title that a million people don’t already know of. It’s just easier to find that particular artist. “Foolish Thing” just happened to be a good title because it matched the chorus and came across better overall.
Where was your first live show as an artist and how did it go?
That’s actually a really cool question. Oh man, my first paid gig? I believe it was about five years ago for fifty dollars and I played for three hours. I think it was at The Wherehouse in Newburgh, New York. I was nervous about getting on stage. I just wanted to get up there and let it out and really embraced the fear of messing up. I guess it just solidified music as a career for me. I knew it was what I wanted to do. It was beautiful and exhilarating.
Do you have a particular city or dream venue you’d like to play at someday?
I’m one of those guys that would be happy playing at a train station. As far as dreams and aspirations in music it’s really just about reaching as many people as possible that can relate to what I’ve dealt with which is a lot. That’s about it. As far as where I’m going next…I have no idea. It comes day by day.
Are you currently signed to a label?
I’m actually unsigned at the moment but I am sponsored by a few different companies like Luna Guitars.
Do you think it’s unnecessary these days to be signed by a record label?
I think it really depends on the heart of the artist. For me, I think it’s a great thing. As an individual artist I can only get to a certain point before I plateau. I can only afford to reach so many people. I can only afford to go to a limited number of cities to perform. A label gives you that extra opportunity and boost to reach more people and get more shows.
I’ve done my own management but I now have my own publicist. I think starting out you can have a really great experience just going indie because I certainly have. I’ve been fortunate enough to be endorsed by some really big companies and it’s been amazing. I always want to reach more people and you get to a certain point where you realize that it might be time to start looking at labels and getting their attention. But like I said, I think it depends on the person. I think labels are awesome and I think indie artists without a label is awesome.
How did your endorsement with Luna guitars come about?
With Luna, I was featured on Magisto, an iTunes app. I was playing one of my Luna guitars that I purchased on my own and I tagged them in the video. They loved it. I wanted to hold an instrument that was close to me…something I could relate to.
They happen to have a Luna Vista Wolf guitar. If you look at the guitar it’s a wolf staring out into the desert which reminded me of the desert in Iraq. I told them it was a beautiful guitar and they said ‘how would you like it if we just send it to you?’ At that point, I was a Luna Guitar artist. It was like a godsend.
Are there any upcoming or relatively unknown bands you are currently listening to that you would like to give a little shout out to?
“What would you tell the person who is so down and discouraged with life that they can’t imagine ever getting back up again?”
That is a beautifully complex question. Although we go through individual torment, ultimately history shows us all coming to the same conclusion, if peace of mind isn’t found. I’ve seen brothers killed, I was cheated on while overseas and have literally watched a baby die in an Iraq hospital. My advice is this. Keep your mind busy! Take up a hobby, find something you love and put your energy there. I found my darkest days were the ones I spent doing nothing and alone in my thoughts. Find passion threw despair and avoid deep thought until the wound becomes a scar.
Thank you, Wolf Critton, for your service in Iraq and for your music.