Column: Teen singer releases ‘Sunflower’ song to aid Ukraine

Canyon Crest Academy senior, Emilia Vaughn.
Canyon Crest Academy senior Emilia Vaughn has recorded and released a song, “Sunflower,” with proceeds to aid Ukraine.
(Licia Vaughn)

Country’s national flower and song lyrics symbolize optimism, resilience and hope


After Ukrainians abandoned their nuclear weapon arsenal inherited during the collapse of the Soviet Union, sunflowers were ceremoniously planted in 1996 at Ukraine’s Pervomaisk missile base as a symbol of peace and optimism.

Earlier, fields of the sturdy yellow flowers were sown around Chernobyl after the nuclear power plant meltdown because the plants are known to help cleanse the environment by pulling radioactive isotopes from the soil.

Emilia Vaughn, a senior at Canyon Crest Academy in Carmel Valley, did not know that the sunflower is Ukraine’s national flower when she wrote her song, called “Sunflower,” at age 14.

Today that tune has become her way of helping Ukraine in the wake of the Feb. 24 invasion by Russian troops.

She had recorded “Sunflower” more than a year ago but didn’t release it until March 25, pledging to donate 50 percent of the first three months of streaming proceeds to two humanitarian charities helping Ukrainian refugees — the World Central Kitchen and Friends of Moldova, a tiny bordering nation to which many refugees have fled.

“It was raining, and I wasn’t in a good mood,” Vaughn recalls of the day she wrote the lyrics. “I was having a bad depression episode and an anxiety attack, so I started playing my guitar and writing.”

Vaughn, 18, is honest and open about her ongoing battle with depression and anxiety. She uses her music as therapy to help deal with mental illness. She hopes her musical message will help others cope, as well.

She called her song, “Sunflower,” she says, because the people in her life help light up the rain. “My friends and family, who made me feel better, are the sunflowers in my life.”

In a lilting, lyrical voice, she sings: “So be my sunflower, light up all the rain. Pour in every hour, take away the pain ...”

It wasn’t until Vaughn did some research shortly after the Russian attack that she discovered the sunflower is Ukraine’s national flower. “I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, the song I wrote years ago is made for this moment.’”

A viral video posted by Ukraine World showed an elderly woman in the town of Henichesk on the first day of the invasion handing sunflower seeds to Russian soldiers. What at first glance appeared to be a generous offering of peace became a symbol of defiance when the woman scolded the soldiers and urged them to put the seeds in their pockets so that flowers would grow where they died.

Sunflowers since have been brandished by anti-war demonstrators and become a symbol of solidarity with Ukraine.

Vaughn calls it a bit of a miracle that the lyrics of a tune she wrote four years ago uncannily fit so well with today’s conflict in Ukraine and that, by coincidence, her song title is “Sunflower.”

Despite having played and composed music since early elementary school, Emilia did not release her first single, “Pieces and Pages,” until this past January. “Sunflower” is her second release, and three more recordings are ready for an upcoming EP. A “Sunflower” music video is being edited for release later this month.

Emilia Vaughn, 18, of Solana Beach finds solace in her songs of hope and optimism.
Emilia Vaughn, 18, of Solana Beach, finds solace in her songs of hope and optimism.
(Dani Thompson photo with creative direction by Chlo Subia)

Vaughn plays piano, guitar, keytar (a keyboard/guitar hybrid) and ukulele. Her father, Ted, who spent a decade as contemporary music director for Solana Beach Presbyterian Church, built a recording studio in her bedroom. Her mother, Licia, works as a patent litigation attorney.

After taking music classes at Rockademy in Solana Beach, Vaughn hooked up with a recording studio, OC Hit Factory, run by platinum award-winning artist/producer Thomas Barsoe in Orange County. He is taking 16 of his artists, including Vaughn, to Nashville in May to audition for two record companies.

With all the pieces in place, Vaughn signed with publicist Dani Thompson and is moving forward.

Thompson is hopeful. Less than two weeks after the release of “Sunflower,” Vaughn’s song had worked its way up to No. 2 locally, No. 13 regionally, No. 31 nationally and No. 37 globally in the top 40 rankings of Reverbnation, a respected music distribution and promotional platform for independent artists.

“This is an impressive accomplishment for any independent artist in the industry, but even more so considering she has only made her public debut with original music in January of this year,” notes Thompson. “We have something special here with Emilia.”

“I have been wanting to do something like this for a long time with my music,” Vaughn says. “My goal is to do something involving music to make people happy and to help people with mental illness.”

There is no way of estimating how much cash Vaughn’s pledge will raise for Ukraine because she is a new artist, and each song download generates from a fraction of a cent to slightly more than 1 cent, depending on the streaming service. Nevertheless, it could be a trend-setting gesture that inspires other artists.

Fundraising, after all, is only part of her mission.

“Most pop songs are about sex and drugs and money,” Vaughn says, but she hopes her lyrics will lift the spirits of those in need and shine a positive, hopeful light during difficult and dark times.