Yola was a young black British girl who grew up loving American country music. Now, she’s taking over Nashville, and singing at the Grand Ole Opry. We talk with her.
Music From The Show
On living in Nashville
“It’s been a joy being in Nashville, and being welcomed with such open arms, certainly by the Americana community and the country community. And frankly, musically across the board. You know, it’s been just a wonderful experience to go into one of the most coveted musical environments. I know there are pop artists that come over from the U.K., who’ve wanted to be writing in this environment. Who have been kind of like, ‘Eh, you’re not really legit,’ or whatever. They’ve been a little bit — they’ve been surprised that they’ve not been held aloft because they were famous in another territory. You’ve just got to be enveloped by this place. People have to feel that they connect to you. And so I just feel fortunate that I was accepted and loved in such a way.”
On being placed in a box as a musician — and being offered jobs as a background singer
“That was definitely the kind of things I was asked to do, but I never took those jobs. And it’s funny. I think I was talking to Tanya [Trotter] from ‘The War and Treaty’ about this. And she goes, ‘Oh, yeah, the “you’re dark, therefore you’re in the back” paradigm.’ Like if you’re kind of dark-Oprah or darker than Oprah, then all of a sudden there’s an assumption that you’re not in the front for whatever reason, you’re a side act. And it’s funny. I think Beyoncé and Kelly [Rowland] have talked about this as well. About them championing each other and being really supportive of each other, in the face of colorism. And so that’s something that I was just acutely aware of. But in the U.K., specifically, there was a kind of rhetoric that would bandy itself around industry heads. Where when they saw you doing background work, that they devalue you immediately as an artist in your own right. And I heard it.
“And when I heard that rhetoric, I knew that I didn’t have the freedom just to do any job to make ends meet. You know, I didn’t have the freedom to do that. Some other people may have a bit more freedom. I think women generally had less freedom anyway, with regards to doing backing and then being a lead person. But especially women of dark melanation like me. You know, if you walk around with the glow of Lupita [Nyong’o], you have to be careful, you know? And so I would say no to jobs because I wanted to carry on writing, and I wanted to vote to develop as an artist. And then also the boxes — like what we already talked about — about genre. The thing that I try and do is to be what I’ve coined as ‘genre fluid.‘ You know, people go, ‘So you’re in this genre.’ I’m like, ‘Ah! I’m around a genre. I move through a genre.’ Like, you know, I’m not against genres, as a concept. I just like to move through them, as it were. And as freely as many other artists have been able to do over the years.”
On her experiences as a female artist of color
“I’ve definitely experienced and seen people putting on things — like jazz festivals and blues festivals — where they were tossing up whether to choose one artist of color, or another artist of color from our city. Because they couldn’t differentiate between one or the other on how they saw them, not how they were sonically. One was like a jazz funk, and the other one was like a rootsy blues, kind-of. And it was like, ‘One or the other. You can’t have both. Not in a jazz-blues festival.’ Because, you know, for an absolute roll call of white guys to fit in. And there’s so much of that kind of rhetoric that goes on that’s not seen as abnormal, certainly in jazz culture.
“You know … the gentrifying of jazz culture, certainly in the U.K., you know, is that. I’ve only re-experienced a love of jazz in New York, which is wonderfully rich and mixed still, and which is a joyful thing to behold. But that was not my experience growing up. And then obviously going through into things like rock and roll, and blues and soul music — like classic soul music — being all things that were no longer the faces of people of color, and which seemed weird given the origins of all of that music. And so it started becoming like a point of just like abject rage. … I’m like, ‘This is insane. How can — certainly in the U.K. — people not be kind of reconciling that connection?’”
From The Reading List
Rolling Stone: “Yola’s New Road Town” — “It was hard to miss Yola at July’s Newport Folk Festival. The brightly dressed, earthy-voiced singer appeared on multiple stages at the legendary Rhode Island event, dropping in on sets by the Highwomen — where she got the biggest cheers of the -supergroup’s show — and Dolly Parton, who welcomed Yola for a raucous group singalong of ‘9 to 5.’ She also drew an overflowing crowd to her own side-stage performance, delivering a deeply moving set of country-soul originals. ‘Yola is a force unlike any we’ve ever seen in this genre,’ says Brandi Carlile, who considers Yola an “honorary member” of her group Highwomen. (Next up, she’ll be performing September 12th at Americanafest.)
“This kind of thing has been happening a lot this year, since the 36-year-old released Walk Through Fire. Her debut LP combines the lush heartbreak of Sixties torch songs with Nashville rootsiness, telling the story of a deeply painful relationship and how the singer-songwriter got out of it. (See ‘Walk Through Fire,’ where Yola sings, ‘My bags are packed, and I’m ready/I think I’m gonna make a run, oh, Lord.’) The album earned her an opening slot on the latest leg of Kacey Musgraves’ ‘Oh, What a World’ Tour — when Musgraves made the announcement, she called Yola an ‘icon.’ ‘Every other day, something really awesome has been happening,’ Yola says. ‘It feels totally abnormal.’
“Yola’s breakthrough comes after years of what she calls ‘being kept in my box.’ She grew up in Bristol, England, and had a strained relationship with her mother, who died in 2013. (Yola attributes the tension, in part, to her mother’s ‘traits of psychopathy.’) After graduating from a ‘demi-fancy’ grammar school she attended on scholarship, Yola became involved with London’s dance-music scene. Over the next decade, she lived several musical lives: as a top-line songwriter, an uncredited vocalist on a few massive British dance-music hits, and as the lead singer for folk-rock band Phantom Limb. She did some work as a backup singer, though she turned down an offer to work with Adele.”
Tennessean: “After 4 Grammy nominations, Yola has more to say” — “2019: the year of Yola?
“There’s a case to be made for this undeniable breakout Americana star. The 36-year-old British storyteller debuted her excellent solo album, “Walk Through the Fire,” in February on Nashville’s own Easy Eye Sound. She dominated Americana Fest in September and performed on record with country music’s vital new supergroup, the Highwomen.
“And, if you’re curious how easily Yola’s take on wistful, sincere roots music crosses genre lines, her resume this year includes sharing the stage with the Killers, Kacey Musgraves, Mavis Staples and Dolly Parton.
“She earned four 2020 Grammy Award nominations for ‘Walk Through Fire,’ three in Americana categories and one in the all-genre New Artist of the Year field.”
Forbes: “Grammy-Nominated Artist ‘Yola’ Will Be One To Watch In 2020” — “Less than a year after the release of her debut album Walk Through Fire, the British singer/songwriter known simply as Yola has caught the attention of artists like Elton John and Brandi Carlisle, appeared on stage with others like The Highwomen and Kacey Musgraves, and been nominated for four Grammys, including Best New Artist. Her much-acclaimed album, produced by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys at his studio in Nashville, has also been nominated for Best American Album, and one of the songs, ‘Faraway Look’ has been nominated for Best Americana Roots Song and Best Americana Roots Performance.
“Yola, who confesses to crying intermittently the first 24 hours after hearing about the Grammy nominations, says she’s both honored and extremely grateful. At the same time, she admits it’s been a little bit difficult getting her head around everything that’s happened.
“‘Yeah,’ she says with a soft laugh, ‘the record came out on the 22nd of February and it dawned on me that it isn’t even the 22nd of February 2020 yet. So, we haven’t even had a full year and it’s already been all kinds of crazy.’ “
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.