Hailing from Bristol, U.K., the soulful-singing songwriter Yola is receiving notable recognition after years of hard work and tribulation. Rolling Stone deemed her an Artist You Need to Know, and NPR Music included her in their Slingshot: 20 Artists To Watch In 2019. She’s compared to artists including the Staples Singers and Dolly Parton, and James Brown once told her, “Soul’s a thing, and you got it!”
On Feb. 22 Yola releases her debut album Walk Through Fire on Dan Auerbach’s Easy Eye Sound record label. Auerbach co-wrote and produced her record in Nashville with a team of old school session musicians and writers who have worked with the likes of Elvis and Aretha Franklin.
While Yola is currently soaking in some well-earned success, this didn’t come to her without many hardships, starting with when she was just a child.
Born to a one-parent family about 12 miles outside of Bristol in a small seaside town, Yola was one of very few black people in that area. “The first kind of hurdle is that of being the ‘other’,” says Yola. “There are a lot of things that can start your story of being an ‘other’ if you’re growing up in a place that isn’t a city. If you’re a person of color from any background or if you’re in the LGBTQI+ community in any way, you can find yourself feeling very exterior to everything. You have the feeling that you’ve got to try and find your people wherever they are.”
“Being of color was a bit of a barrier to feeling that sense of belonging, so I searched for that in music and in a way I feel that my role models were speaking to me through the great network of the diaspora,” says Yola.“I felt my connection to humanity through music, through Mavis, through Aretha, and that kind of cemented my place, where I saw myself in music.”
Yola found another barrier in her love of country music and the nature of storytelling. With a love of artists such as Dolly Parton and Sheryl Crow, there was the challenge of marrying the different genres of country and soul. “Like Ray Charles, the relationship between country and soul music is a very big part of my story, but it wasn’t as popular in the U.K., and the case that I’m black didn’t help,” says Yola. “That was another part of my battle.”
From the age of four, Yola knew she wanted to sing. Although she was firm in her decision, her mother was entirely against the idea and discouraged it up into her early 20s, urging her to get a ‘real job’ such as a doctor or lawyer. “This whole battle of identity was happening internally, and externally I’m debating with my mother the realism of me being a singer-songwriter.”
There was a moment in Yola’s early 20s when she wondered if her mom was right. Her roommate at the time ended up in the hospital for unexpected health issues, and Yola fell behind on the rent. In the midst of waiting on a job to come through, she had nothing left, and all the sudden she found herself out on the streets. “I went to try and get help from my people, my friends, my family, and everyone had a great excuse or a medium excuse for why they couldn’t be there at this time of need,” says Yola. “I think we’re finding out how easy it is to fall, almost kind of accidentally into homelessness.”
With the help of an acquaintance offering up their living room floor to sleep on, and landing the job she’d applied for, Yola was once again on the up; however, the stress from becoming homeless and having no support structure from her friends or family ended up taking a toll on Yola’s voice.
“I did lose my voice down to this exact stress, from internalizing it,” says Yola. “For a year and a half I couldn’t sing, for two months I couldn’t even speak. It was easier to try and assume the best of the people that hadn’t been there for me, rather than address the problem. All of this stuff is stifling to your career. That’s why I’m doing my solo debut album NOW. It’s unreal how much your networks, your friendship groups, and how they intermingle affect your career. You need to have good quality people and have some standards and some boundaries.”
Yola overcame these challenges, and through a fellow local band-member was introduced to British band Massive Attack. After writing and touring with the band briefly, Yola realized they were headed in the opposite direction aesthetically. “I still had a sound unrealized that I had to find a way to do,” she explains.
Her local band was starting to come around to the idea of a stronger country, gospel, and soul sound. They began writing, went into the studio, and did two albums in eight years. Yola also launched a thriving sideline in writing for other people in the pop and EDM sphere.
Taking more risks, Yola decided to throw all the money she’d made at making a record with her band at the time, Phantom Limb. Unfortunately, the group didn’t have any solid business direction, and the album fell flat of reaching the success they’d hoped for. Yola also found herself, “fulfilling the dreams” of her fellow bandmate instead of her own.
After several years focusing on writing and recording, Yola arrived upon her sound when she joined forces with Auerbach, who initially contacted Yola’s manager and asked for a video of her live performance. Within a matter of months, they were writing, she was signed to Easy Eye Sound, and they were tracking.
“Where I’m at now is a very beautiful place, a very fortunate place,” says Yola. “I’m very aware of the opportunity I have now and am very glad I was patient. I think it’s very tempting to chase the money for the wrong reasons and abandon your mission in music.”
“My mission is to hear more harmony, to hear more blurring of the lines between genres of music that I’m passionate about,” says Yola. “To hear how country and soul music in the late ’60s and ’70s affected pop music and how close all of those genres were, how easy it is to bleed. That’s the story I wanted to tell on this record, and I think we’ve done that successfully. I think in no doubt, with great thanks to Dan Auerbach’s production and understanding of eclecticism.”
Yola’s debut album Walk Through Fire holds a literal and figurative meaning. In December of 2015 Yola was at home in Bristol when she realized her kitchen was beginning to fill up with flames and she was on fire.
“When I was on fire I was laughing because I had a thought that I needed to think of something that was worse than being on fire,” says Yola, who had accidentally set a kitchen appliance on fire. “In my mind, the thing that made me laugh was that I’d take my life now being on fire over the life that I escaped from not being on fire. I made myself laugh so hard; I almost forgot to put myself out!”
Yola’s past trials may have been bad enough that they helped her survive fire, but nothing was stopping her from her mission. “Music was so essential to my life, that there wasn’t really a way you were ever going to talk me out of it unless you were going to convince me that I should stop breathing at some point,” says Yola.
You can catch a first listen of Yola’s debut album Saturday, Feb. 23., at Analog at Hutton Hotel. To purchase tickets click here.