Interview

Yola Laughs Through Fire

The British country soul singer on her great Dan Auerbach-produced album and more

Not many people would cackle as their house goes up in flames, but that image perfectly illustrates the kind of person and artist Yola is. Named for that tragic experience, her debut album Walk Through Fire came out in February. Its seamless blend of triple fiddles, steel, and shimmering tremolo guitars feels superbly refined, making for a mind-boggling debut.

Written and recorded in Nashville, the album’s main stylistic thread is country, yet Yola’s vocal deliveries feel adopted from the greats of soul music. This gives way to a fresh familiarity that makes songs like “Ride Out In The Country” and “Love All Night” feel like a collective memory. Glistening above all is her resolution to survive. The house fire, past abusive relationships, and a bout of homelessness have only fortified Yola. While touching on tragedy, Walk Through Fire materializes like a beacon of euphoria.

Born Yolanda Quartey, the British singer has been working in and around the industry for over a decade. She fronted a British country rock band called Phantom Limb from 2005 until 2013. She’s worked on pop tracks including Iggy Azalea’s “Goddess” and dance records like Chase & Status “Blind Faith.” She’s even toured and performed with Massive Attack. Her first foray into solo work, an EP titled Orphan Offering, was included on our list of the best country albums of 2016. However, it wasn’t until a video of Yola performing landed in Dan Auerbach’s inbox that her musical aspirations became attainable. Entrusting this vision to Auerbach’s Easy Eye Sound Studio in Nashville, Yola and the Black Keys frontman enlisted a staggering roster of legendary session players including Dave Rowe, Bobby Wood, and Billy Sanford. Co-writers included Pat McLaughlin, Dan Penn, and Joe Allen.

The album’s opener, “Faraway Look,” glides in with a trilling Wurlitzer melody and then is surmounted by a seismic chorus. The title track is most legibly country, moseying in with fiddles straight from the heart of Appalachia. A crowd favorite, “It Ain’t Easier” was featured on Kendall Jenner’s International Women’s Day Beats 1 playlist. Regardless of Calabasas approval, one of the album’s brightest moments is “Still Gone,” a juxtaposition of lyrics and tone that encapsulates Yola’s sensibility. The lyrics brim with visceral and sometimes painful emotions, yet musically it retains a sense of optimism.

Walk Through Fire is triumphant on a personal level, but also contextually within the cultural framework of country music. The relegation of black artists to the background protrudes like a sore thumb throughout the genre’s legacy, despite black artists having created the foundations of most modern country music — and popular music in general. If we take the music continually topping the country charts as a representation of its status, country has become inextricable from whiteness and maleness. Walk Through Fire is a gorgeous reclamation of autonomy from systems of power designed for reduction.

I spoke with Yola by phone recently while she was prepping for a tour, a conversation that proved to be both wildly fun and deeply emo. In a way that mirrors her songwriting, she punctuates profound ideas about dismal subjects with jolts of contagious laughter. Stream Walk Through Fire and read our conversation below.

STEREOGUM: I read that your mother banned you from making music as a child. Were you banned from listening too?

YOLA: I wasn’t banned from listening. It was the more the idea of it as a career path. If you have any experience with black and brown parents, that’s something we share in common, which is the trifecta of acceptable jobs. Being a musician was not one of them. That certainly was the immigrant point of view — if you make a sacrifice and leave everything you know, and in my mother’s case, if you have been tricked into leaving Barbados. Now it sounds ridiculous, like being in Barbados and then leaving.

STEREOGUM: Tricked?

YOLA: Yeah, they used to come around, the Brits. When they were trying to recruit people to help support the NHS, they’d come over with a video shot on a warm, sunny day in England, showing the lively streets, like “This is what it’s like,” and then move them to Birmingham or somewhere. And invariably, it’s raining. The whole time. So if you’re from Barbados, or some heavenly paradise, and you go somewhere like that, you accept you’d made a serious sacrifice to put your children in a place where there’s more opportunities. It seemed like an unnecessary risk to take that opportunity to go into the business world, and instead into the artsy world. I could have done that in Barbados.

STEREOGUM: I guess you could have done it anywhere else.

YOLA: I was like, “Really? Really? Really though?” But I stuck to my guns. It was as much to do with us not having the luxury to do something artsy. I always think of some of the friends I used to go to school with, and they did art history. Like classics and things you’re not going to use, but they can afford to do that. They had so much money, and we didn’t have anything. We were insanely poor. My mother had the hustle, but we didn’t have any privilege to speak of. A band wasn’t an option. That’s kind of where that came from, from having nothing.

STEREOGUM: I hadn’t considered that pressure of being an immigrant, like also having to adjust your aspirations.

YOLA: You really do, it’s unbelievable. Then you go back however many years later when you can afford to, because in those days it was expensive, and they bought up all the beachfront property and turned it into hotels for Brits to vacation. Americans and everybody, it’s a bait and switch. You move to the crappiest part of our country and we get the best parts of yours.

STEREOGUM: That’s such a cruel system.

YOLA: It really is. And so coming from that complex, you have to start making money seriously.

STEREOGUM: So I know that you are a huge fan of Dolly Parton. Was there an album or song you’d heard that made you realize — even if you weren’t afforded the luxury of making music — that you had to do it?

YOLA: Well for me, there were a number of artists that pushed me in that direction. They were somewhat disparate. My connection to Dolly was that there was a part of my voice that I couldn’t place. If I pushed my voice, there was a vibrato that was quite steely. It wasn’t like anything I was listening to in the pop music of the ’90s. In the UK anyway, you had some American things, all the new jack swing types, the R&B and the hip-hop types. Obviously also Britpop and a lot of grungy Seattle sounds, but none of that sounded like the vibrato in my voice. All the rundowns I liked doing that felt natural also felt different. I wasn’t fitting in. It was twangy. I was listening to “Jolene,” and I was like, “Oh, OK! Really?”

There were other parts of my voice that I didn’t understand. At the time I was born, a lot of pop music generally had people with quite smooth voices. Listening to Mavis Staples made sense for the deeper parts of my voice. There were a few gimmes too. I grew up on Aretha Franklin quite a lot, which made sense for the breathy side of my voice when I wasn’t pushing it. But when I dig into that low end or when I’m at the top of my body, there’s another sound. I realized this, and started listening to Elton John. A real mix. Three ladies and a gay guy saving a young black British child.

STEREOGUM: Well that makes all the sense. But you initially branched out into a folkier rock direction with Phantom Limb. How did you get from that sound to the more country-tinged sound on Orphan Offering?

YOLA: I was definitely very much with the band at the beginning of that project. It started out pretty much all the way rock. So I was even further away from what the second record did. That kind of folksy influence was me. I can write in a number of guises and styles because I’m just aggressively fucking eclectic. It’s very easy to do that, and the flow was easy and natural. At the same time, there’s a difference between doing something and wanting to do something. You can hear the rootsy-ness and soulfulness trying to emerge. So going from the Phantom Limb self-titled record, you can’t hear much, maybe just a little bit in one or two of the songs.

By the time you get to that second record, songs like “Missy” are more backsy in their vocal delivery, even though it’s rocky everywhere else. And then on The Pines, you get a more folksy, more Americana sound. Through my EP you can really hear that. It’s not like I don’t like rock music. It’s just a different sound, definitely anything between ’57 and ’73 on the “I am a hippie” situation. I was trying to get at my West Coast rocker energy, maybe even a more Brit sound too. I love the Stones, I love the Kinks. There were things I didn’t know how I was going to get out in that transatlantic pop conversation. But that’s how the EP turned out, the singer-songwriter derived songs that moved into rootsy, almost country deliveries. That gave me an entry point.

STEREOGUM: There’s such a specific relationship required for creativity to prosper. How did collaborating with Dan Auerbach differ from your previous work?

YOLA: So I have a really confusing concept as an artist. I’d been around for a long time as a topline writer doing pop music. I’d only really had one hit as a writer, and then worked as an arranger which is not quite as well paid as the writing job. I’d been in and around all these big projects fixing for all intents and purposes. So it’s a very different mentality having that side of your life be the thing that pays all of your bills. The balance was towards being a topline writer and that paid my way for a long, long time. This other thing of collaborating and all of this machinery, and the Easy Eye Sound Studio being pointed towards me, is a very different energy. It’s somewhat luxurious. You’re not writing for another artist, you’re not dancing to the sound of an A&R’s drum. It’s a very different experience. All eyes on me. I’m like, “Well, crap. I could literally do anything right now — what a wealth of choice.”

STEREOGUM: Dan has ventured into a lot of spaces sonically outside of the Black Keys. His solo sound is more blues-infused, whereas Ultraviolence with Lana Del Rey had a more West Coast classic rock sound. What was the process like in determining where you wanted to go?

YOLA: I tried to not have a preconception of what we were going to do, and react to our inspirations instead of having a really controlled brief. One of the things that guided us was where our musical tastes crossed over. That gave us a ballpark. Most of the songs weren’t written, however. I had one done. I suggested [“It Ain’t Easier”] and from there, off we rolled. That’s how it all made sense. But on tracking it, we created a really beautiful intro, shifted around some of the harmony placement, but by and large it arrived verbatim. I’ve done a co-write with Dan Penn, Roger Cook, Joe Allen, Pat McLaughlin and Bobby Wood. They’re the stuff of legends and there are my songs, written by just little ole, debuting me. That songs sits in the record seamlessly and sometimes it’s pulled out as a favorite, and that’s weird because you don’t have — in this stage of a solo career — an opportunity to hold up your writing directly next to someone like Dan Penn or something. It was very validating.

STEREOGUM: How much of the environment in which you were writing do you think made its way onto the record? Were there certain things in Nashville or people there that inspired you? Especially coming from the UK into the literal middle of the country.

YOLA: It’s the beating heart. I’m very lucky, and I essentially have family in Nashville. I don’t really have any family, but it’s become a second home to me. You know what it’s like when you go somewhere and you’ve got as many friends there as you do at home, then all of the sudden, your muscles and your mind can chill. Because of my sibling-type relationship with the Birds Of Chicago who are based just north of Inglewood. We live with Rhiannon Giddens and the Birds when I’m there, so we’ve got a whole family. For me, I’m a people person, so if I feel at home in a place, then it’s because of the people. I feel this comfort, this warmth for Nashville. You get that sense from the record. For artists, mental relaxation is just key to your muscles working — your vocal muscles working, especially if you happen to physically manifest stress, which I do. I lose range if I’m not feeling it. I can still deliver but I’m about a million times better if I’m mentally in a really good place. The more of my people you put around me, the more my instrument extends.

STEREOGUM: This study came out a few weeks back on the lack of women in country music. They were looking at which artists chart and get nominated for awards and things, but that could be expanded into a lack of people of color. Especially thinking about country music’s origins. I don’t think people even consider the fact that the banjo originated from West Africa.

YOLA: If you had talked to Rhiannon Giddens, she would have told you that eight thousand times over because a very strong part of her story is the legacy of the banjo. Half of my family is from Ghana, from Accra. Right in there, and specifically the Accra Plains, which was a place of artistic enlightenment up through the 15th century. So you couldn’t get more direct if you tried.

I honestly couldn’t give two hoots about the whole, “Oh, there’s people missing in this single genre of music.” I don’t point myself in one direction genre-wise, I think it’s a millstone. I don’t think there’s anyone I know that does single genre music and is enjoying their job. If you are a musician that loves music as opposed to any other motivation, and you’re not exhausted or exasperated by the entire process yet, then you definitely want to be able to explore. It’s really basic, so put me wherever you want. I don’t see Beck crying. If you look at Sea Change and then you look at Odelay, and what those records sound like, they’re entirely different. I mean I won’t do a hip-hop record, but I’m eclectic and my influences are eclectic. I can lean in any direction. If I was only doing straight down the middle country, then that would be an issue I’m sure being a woman of color, but I’d be foolish to hem myself in by the limitations of one genre.

STEREOGUM: I also picked up on this doo-wop vibe, almost like the Shangri-Las or Martha And The Vandellas. Similar to you, they had this ability to frame abject or sad feelings in a happier and gorgeous light, and “Still Gone” does this in a really cool way. Was this style premeditated or more organic coming out of the studio sessions?

YOLA: I was just talking about the Flamingos to someone. I listen to Martha And The Vandellas all the time. If you trace the writing style from my previous works into the record, there’s an obvious difference in cowriting, writing alone, topline writing. But if there’s one thing that’s concurrent throughout everything, and it’s exactly what you’ve pointed out. It’s that I’m an invariably emo writer, but an overly enthusiastic person. If you were to look at my school reports from secondary school, on every single report, without fail, the word “enthusiastic” would appear. So I’ve got this duality of going through quite a lot of crap in my life but still somehow being enthusiastic and having a sense of hope. The lyrics will be imbued with that sensibility because that’s how I interpret. That’s my brand, and that’s exactly what I bring.

STEREOGUM: That’s an admirable outlook, being accepting of your feelings but not allowing any room for defeat.

YOLA: I mean that’s my entire life, hell in a hand basket. The first 30 years were pretty crap, and then the last five years of absolute bliss. Unless I was going to just end it, that was the only choice I had really. Some people accept meandering through life in abject misery, and not questioning their environment. I was always questioning even if I didn’t know there was an alternative. Once I’d realized there was an alternative, I’d just bloody had enough. I decided to make the hard choice, which was to completely rehash my life from scratch. Change my address, move, change my phone number — do a serious level cut out. It’s a lot easier to go along with things making small changes and stay miserable for most of your life. The reason you hear that is because it’s what I’ve done.

STEREOGUM: This is going to be the cheesiest pun, but it’s easier to avoid the fire than to walk through it.

YOLA: Exactly. So the house fire really galvanized that approach and my thoughts on that concept of having your experiences minimized so no one else has to deal with it. Especially if you’ve been in an abusive relationship, people look to minimize your experience. All of these things, when you view them in a context of tragedy, like being in a house fire, you realize, like with fire from a scientific sense, even though it can get out of control, that I know what to do with that. Fire needs oxygen was one of my first thoughts after all the laughter. When you’ve got a sociopath with the beguiling ability to manipulate on every level, there’s not a basic way to beat that situation. When I was on fire, I was quite surprised at how that abusive situation armed me to deal with that. Like I know what to do with a fire, it’s so much less complicated than a sociopath. I mean obviously fire can kill you, but so can crap company. I went through so many stages of grief before I got the guts to take my life back.

STEREOGUM: That’s everything I was picking up on from the album.

YOLA: Every record where you know someone has gone through an abusive relationship, you hear it and it’s like, “Ohhh, that’s why she’s delivering it like that.” But you’ve also won.

STEREOGUM: You have to look at it that way.

YOLA: Yeah, it’s like you’ve been through absolute hell but you’re also totally winning at life right now. So being able to pick myself up to the point of believing in people again, and finding people worthy of that belief, and daring to choose. I don’t know if you’ve been through this stage at any point in your life where it dawned on you that you have people that chose you or you didn’t necessarily choose them. Have you?

STEREOGUM: I have been there unfortunately.

YOLA: And it dawns on you, and you’re like, “The people that I chose are really great.” And the ones you didn’t, you’re like, “Wait a minute, I don’t remember the bit where I agreed to be your friend.” That was too easy. One of the biggest key changes in my life was realizing that friendship is a two-way street, like they’re making decisions without my consent. There was a lot of that in my life, like people seeing my skill set as useful and then what ensued was different forms of entrapment. It’s not rare even. Like if you look at the lives of soul singers, female singers of color even more acutely, they’ve all had multiple domineering influences. It was something I had to recognize, and to give it a name. Then deal with it.

CREDIT: Alysse Gafkjen

Walk Through Fire is out now on Easy Eye Sound/Nonesuch Records. Stream or buy it here.