Much like SXSW or any other music industry confab-cum-conference, the sheer volume of music that attendees of AmericanaFest witness over a short period of time makes it extremely difficult for any one act to cut through the din and rise above the nonstop racket. At last year’s event in Nashville, a few artists managed to stand out, but none stood taller than U.K. singer-songwriter known simply as Yola.
The 36-year-old’s mere presence—the rare Black artist amid the otherwise pale skinned world of roots music—would have been enough to at least train one’s ear in her direction. But Yola’s performances were nothing short of revelatory, a conjoining of American musical interests (country, blues, soul, pop) warped by years of personal turmoil and bursting free via her sturdy, resolute vocal performances— a far cry in tone from her artistic heroes (Dolly Parton, Neil Young, and The Byrds, among them) but firmly connected to their influences, lyrically and emotionally.
Her debut full-length Walk Through Fire only solidifies Yola’s position as a talent of rare vintage. Recorded with Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys at his studio in Nashville with a crack team of backing musicians, including former Johnny Cash bassist Dave Roe, legendary session pianist Bobby Wood and a guest spot from Vince Gill, the album is steeped in woozy country (the dusty title track), hip-swinging ‘60s R&B à la Dusty Springfield (“Still Gone,” “Ride Out in the Country”) and the peaceful, easy feeling that can arrive when trying to meld those two aesthetics.
Yola’s journey to this potential breakthrough moment in her career, complete with live performances and promotional duties taking her all over the world, wasn’t a straightforward path. She had to hide her growing interest in making music from her very practical family as a kid, and when she did set out on her own, wound up homeless on the streets of London. Eventually, Yola built a name for herself within the pop and underground electronic scene, collaborating with Will Young and Massive Attack along the way.
But making music that felt more personal and held closer to her interests in Americana was an itch she needed to scratch. She first stepped into that world as the front woman for the band Phantom Limb before moving into a solo career with her fine 2016 EP Orphan Offering. All were important stops on her lifelong odyssey, but it’s only with Fire that Yola sounds truly at home.
We caught up with Yola fresh off a flight from Norway where she had been doing press in advance of Fire’s release this Friday (February 22nd) to talk about her musical upbringing, working with Auerbach and the unexpected moments when inspiration strikes.
In the press notes for this new album, it talks about how you were essentially “banned” from making music as a child. What does that mean?
It was the kind of thing that you’ll hear about from Black parents. The kind of “You’re going to be a doctor or a lawyer or an engineer or…nothing. You’re out on the street.” [laughs] There’s a lot of that kind of parenting vibe. You had to find your way around it but a kid needs support in some way to get to whatever they need to be doing in their lives. I knew if I came out of the closet as a musician without any help, I’d be on my own.
What does your family think of the career that you had and the music you’re making now?
My mom passed away in 2013 so that’s no longer an option. I did come out of the closet finally as a musician. But I chose my time very well. That was when she was looking at my sister’s university repayments and she was, like, “This is a complete racket.” And just when she started to question the whole concept of the recognized track from school to university to gainful, elite employment, I saw it and I just pounced on it, and went, “Well, I don’t have those problems!”
You’ve gone through so many stages of your career already and played around with so many different styles of music. Was there a point where you wrote a song and felt like it was exactly what you had been looking for?
I went through different emotions with everything I was writing. Sometimes I’d write something and I’d feel as if I was creating something freely and it was more about being in that flow state. Part of my journey to feeling as though I was moving in the right direction was being in that flow state and being in it as much as possible. That’s where that feeling of ownership come from as an artist. Creatively, you want to be making music that reflects what you do naturally but anything that you create whilst being in your personal optimum flow state is something that you take ownership of because you were able to get to the top of the mountain.
I survived for quite a long time having moments of being in that flow state. I remember writing a song for Will Young called “Hopes and Fears.” It did alright in the charts. It made some money for us. The topline for that one flew into my mind. My writing team and I were leaving the studio. We’d been slogging all day and nothing was coming. So we just gave up and were walking in the part of town that we lived in and just when we reached the traffic lights in the center of town, I went, “I hate to do this to you. I know we’ve been in the studio all day but the idea’s just come to me. You know what? We’re going to have to heel turn.” We turned back. Melody comes out and everything starts growing from that point. Even though it wasn’t where I was creatively, I felt a connection to that song.
I had a similar feeling on this record when I wrote “It Ain’t Easier.” I was in a ranch house in Madison, Tennessee with a co-writer friend of mine called Harry Harding. We were just writing some songs throughout the day. And it got to that time of the day when all the flying things come out, and we decided to get in the house before they had their dinner on us. I went upstairs and by the time I came downstairs, which was five, 10 minutes tops, a song had been born completely in my mind. It’s almost immediate when you’re in that state. It’s almost like giving birth.
It sounds like you work really well with other people but are there other times when you are able to write completely on your own?
I love big teams and working as a part of a team. When we were working on [Fire] we had three people on each song and sometimes four. That was a really good fit. I’ve worked since I was 18 in teams. I’ve got that collaborative, “get the fuck over yourself” spirit. At the same time, I think the downside to that was it made me not have to work on that part of my personality that was a leader and therefore a solo artist. I have this skill set, but I was always going to be dependent to a certain degree. I was always going to be, if anything, ripe for plucking when it came to people have plans for me rather than me having any sense of autonomy.
The great thing that changed about was that I decided that I needed to go solo. I had to go through this big emotional change because I was terrified of so many things that I didn’t admit to myself I was terrified of. I didn’t think anyone would do anything for me just for the sake of doing it. That idea of getting over the hump of asking people to do stuff and not feeling horrible about it. So yeah, I have both sides. One developed later, but they’re both super valuable.
Tell me how Dan Auerbach came into your world and how you started working with him on this album.
I was playing AmericanaFest in 2017. My name had made a circumnavigation of the city and Ann Powers had written about me which pointed a lot of people in my direction. And it bumped into one of Dan’s people who thought, “I think Dan’s gonna love this.” My now manager took a video of me and sent it to Dan through British Underground, a body that funds artists working abroad from the U.K. That video got to him and he was, like, “Oh, I need to work with her now.” I got back home late September/early October. I was called in October and by December we were writing together. The turnaround was quick.
It took a little while after to get everything rolling and set up. We crushed it all into one batch of writing sessions and then a second batch and then straight into the studio. We tracked 18 songs but wrote over 20, close to 30 tracks in that time. Even though we didn’t start that quick, we found the crossover of our eclectic tastes, which was quite a lot. So lots and lots and lots of songs came out.
Still, with that amount of music that you wrote together, it sounds like you were pretty well on the same page from the jump?
I think every writing session that has legs to go beyond a one off thing has to go through some level of figuring out where your common ground is. You can get deeper if you do that. Comparatively to other situations where you’re going to write an album together, we jumped straight in. To the quick writer, we spent a bit of time figuring out what our common ground was but we wrote our way through that. We solved that with music.
Listening to this record and hearing how you both blended so many different styles of country and roots and ‘60s pop and R&B and how full the album sounds, it’s felt like there was a lot of work that went into it but I wasn’t sure how quickly that all came together.
I can’t express enough how much heart Dan put into the record. Being producer, he knew. When we were writing, when an idea came out, he was already imagining how it would sound. It was painting a picture in his mind of how he would extrapolate that sound. Having that kind of vision, we can all move smoothly. And when you get that roll call of badass musicians contributing these lovely melodic moments that always lock into where Dan’s mind is.
Was it easy for you to leave a lot of those musical decisions up to Dan or were you adding a lot of your own input about the sound of these songs as you moved through the sessions?
I think we both gave in the other direction. I was saying, “Okay, I’m not about to step on a genius’s toes.” I can produce but I can’t produce like he produces and I really, really, really love the way he produces. I was, like, “Whatever it takes to get that sound production-wise.” If I’m going to be completely hands off, I need to trust the product. I need to know that the output is on point. I listened to his most recent solo record and I was, like, “This sounds beautiful. Everything is sonically dancing.” So when it comes to production, I’m, like, “Don’t talk to me! I’m not gonna teach your grandma how to squeeze lemons. I’m not gonna teach Aretha how to sing songs. And I’m not gonna tell Dan Auerbach how to produce a record.”
It has been a crazy build up to the release of the album with you bouncing around running the promotional gauntlet. How has that been for you? Is that something you feel like you were built for or does it feel overwhelming at times?
I’m so ready. I was talking to a classical composer friend of mine about when I was in Massive Attack. We were going to headline the Other Stage at Glastonbury, so about 60,000 people and it was being broadcast live on the BBC. And then we went and did some auditorium shows in Italy. When I came home, I was in this band in Bristol and I played this pub for about 50 people. I think someone mentioned that they seen me play this massive show and this super tiny show and I gave exactly the same amount of energy. And I was, like, “Yes!” Because you have to get over yourself if you’re going to do either of those justice. When you wind up having those polar opposite experiences and making yourself known on an international level, you’re going to wind up being ready. You’re just going to wake up realizing that you’re ready. I don’t think I knew that I was going to be ready until it came.
Check out Yola’s Paste Studio Session below: