COVER STORY: Yola

The Soulful Powerhouse Who Literally Emerged From The Flames to Create Stunning New LP

“Sitting alone in my bedroom/thinking about the trip to come/My bags are packed and I’m ready/ I think I’m gonna make a run, oh lord.” Do you feel that? The sense that something’s gone terribly wrong, no one is coming to save you, but you’ve made a plan, you’ve packed, you’ve got this, you’re going to grab the world on your terms. 

That’s Yola

Those are lyrics in “Walk Through Fire” from Yola’s debut album of the same name–inspired by her horrific experience of narrowly surviving a house fire–produced by Dan Auerbach (Black Keys) on his Easy Eye Sound label. Some will tell you that “albums are dead” and singles rule all; make them sit down and listen to every one of these twelve tracks. It’s a story of tragedies, abuse, remorse, even literal fires, but most of all, triumph. It’s a soundtrack for everyone who’s ever hastily packed up a car in the middle of a cold night to hit the road in search of a better life. It’s a love letter to the late ’70s when sad songs made you feel better because the singer touched your soul. 

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The entire record feels like a night of sipping whiskey sitting in a worn-in easy chair while crying over faded pictures and smiling in front of a fireplace fueled by burning love letters. 

Walk Through Fire has earned a Grammy nomination for Best Americana Album, which is no surprise as the songs are all primarily penned by Yola and Dan Auerbach with additional writing by heavy-hitters such as Joe Allen, Dan Penn, and Pat McLaughlin. In addition to some thoughtful producing by Auerbach (earning him a Grammy nomination for Producer Of The Year), the eclectic sound is shaped with appearances by legendary sidemen such as Dave Rowe, Billy Sanford, Bobby Wood, and more, all contributing to the sonic magic. 

You can feel the country on this record with echoes of early Elton John (and her rendition of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road on the Deluxe edition is the best I’ve heard). I hear a lot of classic, old-school pop in the tradition of Cilla Black with grand production and soaring vocals. There’s plenty of blues and soul, strings and fiddles give it that Americana touch, and there’s a bit of Stax magic in the production too, but it’s so much more than that. Yola is so much more than that. This is singer-songwriting at its best. My hope is that every little boy and girl picks up a guitar and belts these tunes out in whatever style they see fit. 

“Faraway Look” is the standout lead single and is deservedly nominated for two Grammys, Best American Roots Songand Best American Roots Performance. The follow-up single, “Ride Out In the Country” is worth your time, especially the video. There is literally something to praise in every single track, whether it’s the perfect slide guitar, the swirling Wurlitzer, the array of tremolo-drenched guitars, the warmly mixed reverb, or Yola’s own powerful voice that grabs you like you like a preacher tryin’ to save your soul. 

Let’s pause on Yola’s voice for a moment. It’s incomparable in every sense of the word. She has created a vocal style that transcends genres with a delivery so damn honest it makes your face squinch up. Let me guide you to some of the deeper cuts. “It Ain’t Easier,” with its rousing chorus, reminds us all of how we all can take love for granted. “Keep Me Here” is one of those special songs and performances in the grand tradition of ballads that are supposed to be sad but make you feel in love; it feels like a hit across the decades. If the male voice sounds familiar, it should, that’s Vince Gill on there! 

The Queen of Country-Soul came up from hard-scrabble beginnings in Bristol, UK, the child of an immigrant, and haunts Nashville these days in-between touring the world as a headliner (see tour dates below) with the wind of four Grammy nominations at her back, including Best New Artist. Yola’s already shared the stage with Dolly Parton and Mavis Staples, written for Katy Perry, and been blessed by James Brown who said, ““Soul’s a thing and you got it!” She’s even an honorary member of The Highwomen–Amanda Shires, Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby, and Maren Morris– contributing on the self-titled single alongside Sheryl Crow. 

And she’s just getting started. 

She’s not an up and comer. 

She’s not about to make it. 

She’s here, and you’d better pay attention, she ain’t going nowhere. 

I wanted to get her thoughts on this whirlwind of a year, delve a little deeper into her creative songwriting process, and learn about this big headlining world tour. 

YOLA CARTER AT EASY EYE SOUND

What a wild ride you are on; nothing like making it after a decade plus, huh? I know you’re still in the middle of the madness, staring down big things for next year, but what are you feeling like right now? Are you just enjoying the ride, any nervousness?  Is any of this seeping into the new material for the next album?

I’m feeling mostly exhausted. Physically and emotionally, it’s equally as challenging to absorb everything that’s happening. It’s like a blur, and you inevitably find yourself in a state of disbelief. In the moment, when I received the news that I’d been nominated for four Grammys I was definitely intermittently crying for 24 hours, of course I was! I think the emotional fall out of this year will be playing out in songs for a while to come.

Throughout your entire catalog I just keep thinking damn, what a great singer-songwriter. Yeah, there’s country, there’s blues and gospel, there’s some 70s California R&B, but it doesn’t feel strictly anything.  Marketing has to do what they do, but what do you think of the Country-Soul tag? Does it adequately square you up?

I don’t think I belong strictly in any genre, I think the classic pop is also a very clear genre included in this album but almost no one refers to it until I mention it. I think people can listen with their eyes too much at times and it gets in the way of how we really feel about the music. I like to refer to myself as genre fluid.

I know some of your background, have you had a chance to buy something silly to celebrate, something just for you?

Oh, hell yes! I went to Milan and I was a very naughty girl in Prada in the bag department and Gucci shoe department. I’m not currently living anywhere but I’m gonna look fabulous whilst I’m on the move.

I’d love to find out more about your songwriting process. Are you a notebook kind of writer, do you have bits and pieces, or do you sit down and write a whole song? Do you write with a guitar? What’s your process?

Writing for me is a matter of finding my flow state. Sometimes it’ll be before bed, it’s mostly when I’m doing housework and chilling at home. If I’m co-writing I like to bring ideas that have sprung up this way to the session and maybe see the work through new eyes. Sometimes whole ideas will come out fully formed like “It Ain’t Easier” — the busier I get the rarer that becomes. Space for boredom allows my mind to do the deepest foraging and make the most elegant connections.

You’ve been a topline writer on multiple projects, co-written on many others, and I’m sure there are sort of briefs or direction; how is this experience different when you kind of have free range to write for you as the artist? Do you find it harder or easier or harder to write without any restraints?

The freer I am, and almost more importantly the freer I’m made to feel, the easier it is for me to create ideas. The constraints of a brief definitely make the process slower, but also help you develop new ways of creating ideas. If someone comes to you to write something for them it says that they trust your output and sometimes this can make writing easier as you know you have a seal of approval before you’ve picked up the pen. You know it’s gonna get cut, you know it’s gonna get a proper campaign. Writing feels like a muscle that needs exercising in varying ways to stay fit, writing also needs the faith and trust of those participating to truly achieve its full potential. Being able to write in all these different ways as the artist, as a co-writer, as a feature artist gives me a more rounded knowledge of the craft. 

You’re a damn fine guitarist, what guitars are you liking to play on tour right now? A lot of singer-songwriters have names for their favorite guitars, do you?

My main guitar is called Huckleberry and he’s a Fender Paramount acoustic. I just got an American Classic Telecaster in shell pink — I’m still thinking of a name for her. 

After striking some gold with the first record writing with Dan and all of the other incredibly talented songwriters – Dan Penn, Bobby Wood and others, have you built in a process now? Do you bring the bulk of the songs, do y’all have writing sessions from scratch? How is that process changing now that you are on the road for the foreseeable future, are you demoing on the bus?  

With the second album we’re writing, songs are being written in many different ways; some songs are ones I’ve come up with already and had in the locker ready for this album…some songs are written on the spot there in the session. The freedom to do this I feel is going to represent who I am more and more accurately the more albums I release.

You’ve spoken about being part of this “wave” in music – I’m assuming that’s a genre thing, but also a cultural thing, right? It’s damn good to see more women getting power and especially women of color. 

The wave I’m talking about has absolutely nothing to do with genre. The wave I feel happening in music right now is one of a gentle shift on paradigm across the industry. Look at my general field category at the Grammys, the Best New Artist Category is diverse in gender, race and sexuality. It’s no accident that in an era where we are talking particularly freely about issues that affect women and minority groups that we see a surge in the success of those very groups. Feeling free to express yourself seems like an obvious boost to anyone’s art form. If I don’t feel like I can talk about gender or race then I’ll feel stifled in many other ways, too. The wave is bigger than the emergence of a genre of music by far.

If you don’t want to get political I’m fine with that, but I just feel that your story is exactly the thing the world needs to hear.  All of this current madness as it relates to you as an immigrant, as someone who hustled and worked for everything against racism, sexism, nationalism and more, and are triumphing in the face of it.  I wanted to give you the opportunity to speak on this from your point of view. Is this something you still feel the struggle with?

I think the main barrier I still struggle with is one of cognitive bias. Everyone on the planet has cognitive bias- yet no one want to address it. So, we live in this world of denial where we are making strides where people who are virtuous in one way miss out a whole other Category, usually race. I still feel people in conversations wanting me to give them the “all clear,” as if I’m the mayor of all black people. Another form bias takes is in colourism. I have taken it upon myself to specify that I would like to create more images and media with dark skinned women. Even in apparently some media and social outlets, I see pictures, video and artwork of black women that look specifically mixed or light skin when a black woman is cast. Everyone should be aware of this, if they are casting or creating content with people of colour, to not create a caste system when casting. It’s like we have to remind people to push for a type 4 hair texture and a complexion darker than Kelly Rowland. In these cases, it’s subconscious the conditioning and subsequent erasure of dark skinned black women that I have to fight against using my own output of media. I made sure to specify all these things when animating my new music video for “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.”

So, I do music licensing, good god I want to license to hell out of “Keep Me Here” (and tons of other tracks too). That is a bona fide hit song. I know Dan knows all about licensing helping out with career trajectories  (Black Keys), what’s your view of song licensing? Have any of the songs made it to a licensing world on TV show or ad that have surprised you? 

A number of songs I’ve been involved with have been licensed to TV. I was involved in a song call “Blind Faith” that was the title music to the Olympics and then Athletics for four years, also a song from my EP called “What You Do” was licensed to the show “Dear White People” on Netflix. In both one cases I can honestly say I was surprised, the first because I wasn’t the artist, and the second because I hadn’t been particularly pushing for sync and it was picked up seemingly out of the blue. 

Some Americana type artists have trouble translating intimate music as the shows get bigger, but you don’t seem to have that issue. How are you finding it as a performer taking these crafted songs to bigger stages and crowds?

The aim is to be genre ambiguous as much as possible to show that your roots are diverse. For me that means when it’s time to do a live show it’s my job to show the versatility of my music. A record in a snapshot of a moment in time in a place. It reflects where you were. Every show you subsequently do can show how you’ve come to understand, move on from or grown from that moment. Every day you feel new and slightly different to the day before. It’s my job to bring that to the performance by being present.

I know you toured with Phantom Limb and others and have played some big shows, but I think it’s fair to say nothing like this. I’ve seen the schedule, it’s a proper slam booking tour. As a performer, what kind of challenges are you finding being the headliner? Any difference in how you treat your voice, or warm up playing?

You’re right to say that this tour is reaching far higher than I ever have previously. Previously however, I didn’t have the knowledge I have now. I’m pretty sure if I didn’t have a detailed knowledge of the psychological, environmental and anatomical effects on my voice specifically I’d not have even made it this far…I’m an absolute stickler for advanced notice on all activity so I can prepare a sustainable practice, especially regarding sleep. I used to lecture a combination of subjects pertaining to voice health and it never ceases to be useful for me now. Still, I know I’m not exempt from many of the effectors, stress, exhaustion, low mood, osteopathic issues and chronic muscle tightness are things I have to manage all the time.

You have so many big shots shouting you out (and rightfully so), now that the spotlight is on you, who do you want to hold up that you’re listening to, someone that we should give some love to? 

I’m taking Amythyst Kiah out on tour and she is a perfect example of me wanting to lift up fellow women in the industry and shine a light on a righteous talent.  

Photos by Alysse Gafkjen

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