Emily Yates grew up in a family where music was a second language. Her parents, Michael and Amy Danial, played multiple instruments. Her brother Jordan picked up a guitar at age 14, never put it down and plays professionally in the Philadelphia area. But until two years ago, Emily played nothing more advanced than the radio.
"I really, really loved music," the Iraq War veteran said recently, before performing at the seventh annual Nat Keefe Concert Carnival at The Independent in San Francisco. "I loved singing. I love all kinds of music. But I showed little interest and natural ability (in playing an instrument)."
That changed, she said, when she visited Ghana, took drumming lessons and discovered rhythm in her soul. Upon returning home to Oakland, she received ukulele lessons from her husband, Erik, a professional musician who plays in the band Hot Buttered Rum.
Suddenly, she said, "I could strum."
Yates, 30, has been a whirlwind of creative energy ever since. As is typical of her many avocations, her music is influenced by her six years in the Army, which included two tours of duty in Iraq as a public affairs specialist. Her 2008 discharge liberated her from the rigidity and drudgery of military life but not the anger that had welled inside her while she served.
She found music helps dissipate that residual frustration. She has written several songs -- enough to fill a CD, "I've Got Your Folk Songs Right Here" -- some of them sardonic missives reflecting on her time in the Army.
"It's been an amazingly healing thing," she said. "I'm not angry all the time, and I have a way to express myself."
That's a winning combination, said Jason Moon, an Iraq War veteran and founder of the Wisconsin-based nonprofit Warrior Songs. Moon seeks, through music, to promote healing in veterans.
"Music moves us in ways that conversation doesn't," said Moon, who suffered post-traumatic stress disorder after returning from Iraq. "Less than 1 percent (of the U.S. population) have served or are serving. A lot of people don't get us. We think nobody is feeling what we feel."
Moon is compiling a CD he hopes will provide messages that resonate with veterans and civilians alike, to be released July 4. He asked Yates if she would contribute a track. She responded with "Smoke Break," a song about soldiers desperate for a fleeting respite from war.
"When you do a CD with a lot of heavy, depressing stuff, you don't want to scare the civilians away," Moon said. "She has a wonderful way of addressing serious topics. This song is about finding relief in the simple act of sitting in the smoking area and how that's relaxing. It's perfect."
Yates joked that her lyrics assume the structure of the essays she used to write in the Army. "Look at my verses," she said, while coloring placards for use as props during one of her songs at the Nat Keefe event. "I can't even help it."
She freely admitted that being married to a professional musician has its benefits.
"Because of him, I'm always around other musicians," she said. "I'm so spoiled. I know it's part of how I've been able to get as good as I have so fast. Granted, I'm not going to be anywhere near as good as them by the time I die, but I can play well enough to express myself in a way people will listen to."
There's no denying Yates' piercing wit and unflinching commitment to telling the truth as she sees it. From "I Don't Want to Have a Baby," to "Shut Yer Face," to "Foreign Policy Folk Song," you don't have to wonder what she's thinking.
She performed two songs at the Nat Keefe Concert Carnival, playing to a holiday season crowd. She was accompanied by her husband on "A Northern California Love Song," him on banjo and her on a banjo strung to mimic a ukulele. Then she was joined by about a dozen musicians and backup singers -- "a combined, like, hundreds of years of experience," she said -- for her signature tune, "Try Not to Be a Dick." Long before she finished, the crowd of about 100 was on its feet and singing along.
Yates and her husband took a post-holiday Jam Cruise, combining sightseeing in the Bahamas with musical performances and workshops. But she doesn't consider music to be mere instant gratification. On schedule to complete her degree in Near Eastern Studies at UC Berkeley in May, she would like to return to Iraq some day to participate in a collaborative musical project with Iraqis.
"Music is the great communication bridger," she said. "I feel that in life, it's really about playing to your strengths. I want to do the things I love, and in doing those things make a positive impact."
Contact Gary Peterson at 925-952-5053. Follow him at Twitter.com/garyscribe.
American Homecomings, a Digital First Media project in newspapers and on websites across the country, follows the lives of eight veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Today we feature Oakland's Emily Yates, an Army veteran who served two tours in Iraq. Yates, 30, a senior in Near Eastern Studies at UC Berkeley, chafed under the rigidity of military life but finds her service has shaped her future in unexpected ways.
Online: Follow the stories at AmericanHomecomings.com.