"I'm Loved on All Sides": An Interview with Yola
British singer-songwriter Yola talks to PopMatters about emerging from a lifetime of straitened circumstances and emotional challenges to make 2019's most promising debut, Walk Through Fire.
Walk Through Fire
22 February 2019
The journey by which Yola, the pop/country/folk/soul singer/songwriter from Bristol, UK, has arrived at the launch of her first solo album, Walk Through Fire, has not always been a charmed one by any stretch of the imagination. And yet she's made it. Although it's her debut as a solo artist, overall it's her third album (her first two were made as part of the Bristolian roots group, Phantom Limb). Coming out on the Easy Eye label but with a licensing/distribution deal involving Nonesuch (part of Warners), Walk Through Fire is also Yola's first release on a major label. Variously billed as Yolanda Quartey and then Yola Carter (under which name she issued her first solo effort, the six-track Orphan Offering EP, in 2016), she's finally settled on a one-name identity. "Carter was a name I picked while I was finding myself in this solo project," she says. "But I felt, going forward, that I wanted to go by just Yola; it feels more like me!"
There's an admirable frankness about Yola that immediately makes itself apparent as we chat. She speaks in an array of wise-beyond-her-years bons mots, with an ever-present wry wit. This is not someone whose public image is being titivated and manicured by fleets of PRs and focus groups. Like her warm, reflective, intelligent music, typified by the charming "Ride Out in the Country" (check out the promo video with its darkly humorous edge), Yola is real. So, alas, are the trials and misfortunes she went through as she set out into the world. "I grew up in a one-parent family in the cheap seats of a seaside town that wanted to be more than it was," she recalls. "Everyone had aspirations, but no one had an iota of culture, a palate or anything that would set them a part in the way they would have liked. It was like an episode of Keeping Up Appearances [1990s BBC comedy about petty, suburban snobbery, starring Patricia Routledge]."
Although there were financial hardships, Yola's industrious mother was adept at keeping body and soul together, but at the expense of showing affection. "She worked multiple jobs when they were hiring. She was a nurse, a victim support officer, an Avon lady, a supermarket cashier. We were oftentimes latchkey kids or would sleep on the floor of the living room of a psychiatric nursing home when she worked that job. We didn't have much. I had one bald My Little Pony from the second-hand store, a chisel and a box of offcuts of wood from the local timber merchant. My mother was a fiercely resourceful, capable, practical woman. Not an emotionally intelligent woman but good at every job she took on."
Racism in both casual and brutal form intruded into Yola's childhood. "The town was a quietly hostile place at times. Eyes would follow me (but not my white friends) round every store I entered, even though they knew who I was." There's a dry matter-of-factness with which Yola relays some of the worst incidents of childhood bigotry: "I'd get beaten up for being black now and then, get called nigger maybe a few more times a week than I'd have liked." These experiences gave Yola insights into the human condition that might have left her a hard-bitten cynic had she not channeled them into writing and music.
Yola cites denial as one of the main barriers preventing people overcoming their own racism. "Yeah, kids are cruel, but adults deny they're cruel. No one wants to admit they're racist, even when they're in the KKK. But it's like Alcoholics Anonymous; the first thing you have to do is to admit you have a problem. We all kinda do. Desperation, political targeting and downright ignorance are multipliers to the problem. There was plenty of that in my sleepy little town, when I was a kid. It's grown since then."
When it wasn't being hostile, Yola's town was, she says, sometimes tedious and humdrum. "But boredom was a great motivator for creating music," she points out. "I wrote from a very young age. I knew I wanted to sing. I knew that I had little lilts that were slightly country, slightly soul. I didn't put the two together for a long time. It wasn't an option. I felt more of a connection to classic country, American singer/songwriters and soul musicians than I did to most things from my native land."
American artists also became her teachers: "Aretha and Dolly taught me how to sing soft and smooth. Mavis and Tina taught me how to stir it up, with the intensity and gravel in my voice. They helped me find out what my voice was meant for. Soul Folk in Action [The Staples Singers] and Young, Gifted And Black [Aretha Franklin] were massive for me, growing up. I loved the Kinks and Crosby, Stills and Nash and I was drawn to hippie music for a long time. I was an island, musically. The things my voice did naturally as a child were unlike anything happening in the UK. I was out of time and out of longitude and latitude."
As these varying American influences trickled into her and she made her first forays into the Bristol music scene, Yola had to contend with people wanting to steer her in predictable directions. "Of course – I'm a black female with soul tendencies and consequently mixable with almost every genre under the sun. It seems every man and his dog tried to push me into some 20 Feet From Stardom situation, as if service was what I was meant for. Even when fronting bands, I'd find myself in service of someone else's vision, completely neglecting what I wanted to do. I had to make my ideas seem like someone else's to get them heard. Plus I was always the baby of the group. Eight-year, ten-year and 15-year age gaps were common. I accepted for a while that I was too young to be respected. I think I just let that culture of disrespect go too far. When I got older and wanted to change the dynamic, no one could understand why all of a sudden I had a problem with my lot. Being free to express myself has been a long journey."
Photo: Alysse Gafkjen / Big Feat PR
Yola also began to strain against her mother's single-minded strictness. "I'm sure that around every Aga in England there's a child who feels the pressure of life's choices as much as I did in our little house. I had one rule to obey; make some damn money. This is a pressure I came to understand my middle class peers didn't feel maybe as keenly as I did. It was a matter of being on the streets or being able to eat. My mother had run out of hope for equality or the achievement of dreams that weren't money-focussed a long time before I was born. Music was and is a risky choice. It's increasingly becoming an industry of the privileged. I was banned from making music a career choice for financial reasons and for reasons of my mother wanting to lord it over everyone in town that her kids were doing well in proper jobs, despite our situation. Every black and brown parent in the land has felt the pull of this temptation, whether they've yielded to it or not. Be a doctor, be a lawyer or an engineer. White friends of mind had pressure, too, but a far wider range of acceptable ways to be deemed not a complete train wreck."
Worse was to come. "Though undiagnosed, my mum displayed all the traits of psychopathy. Reading the encyclopaedia definition of the condition will tell you a lot about what life was like. People don't refer to people like this as mentally ill because society rewards its traits. She was high functioning, the best at her job, but struggled with empathy, social structures and such. I was a complete softy from birth, so this was a match made in hell. I spent most of my life trying to teach my mother how to feel, or how to understand people. I used to teach and lecture at university for a short while and it made the job unbelievably easy. They had the tools to process what I was asking them to engage with. My mother was hilarious, if tactless at times. Family humour was off-key as hell. She told a story over Christmas dinner at my house one day about self-love habits in the psych ward that was so ill-timed I cried with laughter for days! On the other side, when she was done parenting, she was truly done. You could be on the streets and she wouldn't take you in, even if you were blood."
Being on the streets was something Yola would experience in her early 20s. At one unfortunate juncture, she found herself two months behind with the rent for her London flat. The deposit alone had cleaned her out, and then she was forced to take sole responsibility for the property when her house-mate bailed. Before long, she was out on the pavement in East London, begging for cash to make phone calls to friends. Even people she'd helped in the past were unable or unwilling to reciprocate, as she searched for a place to spend the night. Eventually, a Somerset friend drove down to the capital and rescued her.
Life has been more favourable for a while now, but it's taken time. "I started out as a session singer and top-line writer on the side. Soon, it swapped over and I was writing more than doing sessions." Bugz in the Attic, one of Yola's first bands, got her acquainted with the touring life. "Europe, Asia and Australia. A crazy life living on a bus and in hotels."
It was her next band that would lead to recording opportunities. "Phantom Limb was a band made up of local friends. At the time, I wanted to try something different so I agreed to jam with them. I was still on the road with Bugz at the time but I'd travel back from London, where I'd moved for work, to play every now and then. It was a great sound but increasingly hard to get everyone in a room as it never made a penny. We'd pose in photos, all with our sunglasses on, looking like douchebags, then go home and draw the curtains, so the bailiffs couldn't see we were home. I had to mix teaching and touring with other bands to subsidise things. I always had a good head for business but it was hard to be heard as the only girl and being some years younger than the rest.
"So I'd go do a show in a natural amphitheatre somewhere in Melbourne or Sydney to 15,000-odd people, stay in a five-star hotel, then fly back to the UK for a pub gig in Froome to 50 people. That's what it was like. Perpetually getting over myself and doing the work. At that time, no one else in the band had toured, so it was a lonely kind of life. In the end, I decided to try and build something with the band but little did I know that fronting a band didn't mean you had a say in its direction. I was a kid, eight years younger than my band-mate and main co-writer. It was the right time to make mistakes. I fought tooth and nail to make the songs beautiful enough to keep wanting to be involved, while enduring socially harrowing and bro-heavy environments."
As well as issuing two well-received albums (the second, The Pines, produced by Marc Ford of the Black Crowes), Phantom Limb brought Yola into contact with an array of legends, including Dr. John and Candi Staton. "I remember sitting in a hot tub behind the Jazz Stage at Glastonbury. I'd joined Massive Attack for the summer, and the tour was stopping at the festival. In some kind of perfect storm, friends of mine were programming and managing the Jazz Stage. They managed to get Phantom Limb a slot before Candi Staton. It was probably the biggest show we did as a band, so I was in celebratory mood. My friends had reserved me a trailer next to theirs to relax before the set. I got into my bikini and sat in the hot tub drinking Chablis. Just as I was about to reach over to pick up the bottle again, Candi beat me to it and topped up my glass. I said, 'Well, look at me now - rags to riches!' It was funny, because I'd recently come off the dole to go on the road with Massive, so it was kinda true."
In between Phantom Limb and going solo, Yola lost her mother to motor neuron disease. "My life up until 2013 had been the same story just repeating itself. The entire period was one of accepted misery, a faraway look, all camouflaged with sarcastic humor, and my blackness, which seemed to be read as me being strong regardless of how I was actually feeling or being. It was also a time when being a scumbag or a darling was immaterial. Virtues were ridiculed, and bad behavior was encouraged. It was a part of my life devoid of love. My mum died in 2013, and that capped off the bad times. Everything from that point started to turn round."
Photo: Alysse Gafkjen / Big Feat PR
Walk Through Fire is the result of that turn-around. With a team of musical heavyweights on board, including producer Dan Auerbach (whose past assignments, in addition to his role in the Black Keys, include work for Lana Del Rey) and co-writers Roger Cook (Blue Mink), John Bettis (The Carpenters), Dan Penn (Aretha Franklin, Percy Sledge) and Bobby Wood (Kitty Well, Crystal Gayle), it has a more commercial edge than the Orphan Offering EP, but it's not a commerciality of the detrimental kind. Yola reins in the pyrotechnics she employed on earlier songs like "Fly Away" and shows us a more serene, bucolic side of her character. "Dan Auerbach is a master producer, and after producing my EP myself, I decided to take a back seat and just be the artist for this record. I didn't want to split my focus. After listening to his latest solo album, I knew he would do beautiful work. Dan has a house band, if you will, but not any house band. The players have played with everyone from Elvis to Aretha. The sheer quality of his wider team is the bedrock of the sound we created."
That sound is an old-school mingling of everything from the classic soul of Gladys Knight to the sophisticated country of Bobbie Gentry and the ebullient pop of Dusty Springfield. Traces of the Staples Singers, Otis Redding, Stax and, to a lesser extent, Motown are also perceptible in the blend. Yola was able to preserve her identity despite writing the songs in a group environment, with people to whom she'd only recently been introduced. "If you choose to collaborate, you are choosing to have a conversation. I think we got a great balance of autobiographical and storytelling on this record. I came to the studio with a song I wrote on my own, just on guitar, just to get the ball rolling. I found that talking about my life experience is more important than anything else when I'm getting to know someone, especially if I'm writing with them."
While crafting her album in Nashville, Yola experienced just one cultural clash: "We had very different ideas as to what constituted a great cup of tea. I was horrified and rattled to my very core by the tawny scourge that was presented to me. In my darkest nights, the faint and whimsically mocking aroma of this gnat's piss masquerading as tea still haunts me. But America absolutely slays BBQ, and the entire concept of service is superior and not remotely resentful. As a Brit, I found that astounding."
Walk Through Fire starts as it means to go on, opening with "Faraway Look", where country, soul, and pop conspire their way into a big, belting chorus. "I'd say it's new and fresh, yet retro. The palate we drew from was so vast. It's hard to categorise. Thankfully, the Americana people have been an accepting community. I tend to write from an autobiographical point of view or from observations of people's lives. I remember hearing Beyoncé say, 'If you tell me your problems, prepare for them to be in a song'. I'm that person for sure! On this record, I wanted to experiment with creating a character to get a point across. "Faraway Look" was created with that mindset." This is certainly echoed in its accompanying video, in which the story is portrayed by several actors in a variety of haunting, sometimes surreal tableaux, with Yola serving as the narrator rather than a participant in the action. The same approach is used, but to more cheerful effect, for the most recent promo, "Love All Night (Work All Day)".
Where earlier collaborating experiences sometimes diminished Yola's confidence, she found that the songwriting and recording sessions for Walk Through Fire had an enhancing effect on all involved. "In the past, I'd been told by my co-writer that I probably shouldn't pick up the guitar because I didn't have the inclination to practice so I wouldn't be any good and, besides, what would he do if I did. A bit of belittling and a lot of pressure on my loyalty and pity worked at that stage of my life. It stuck in my head for years and stopped me learning chords and rhythm guitar. I must've been gullible to buy the idea for so long that as a black woman I'd struggle with rhythm!"
Perhaps the most intriguing of the videos issued so far is "Ride Out in the Country", a song which speaks not only of Yola's fondness for the outdoors, but also of the importance of emancipating oneself from bad relationships. "I love the countryside and always get drawn back to it in some way, be it on my motorcycle or on horseback. It's a change of pace that helps me get back down to earth after doing a job that hinges on pretty narcissistic qualities." There's a twist in the narrative, in which Yola sets out on a road trip in a rural idyll. We see her unloading something from the back of her pick-up truck. Is it camping equipment? Luggage? No, it's a corpse. For a moment, it seems she's murdered her boyfriend and is now going to dispose of him. But then we see a second body being buried - her own. It's symbolic. It's the relationship that's being put six feet under. The shoot took place in Tennessee.
"The first thing I found out was what it's like to be buried alive, in the South, with a lot of white people feeling awkward and making sure it wasn't inadvertently scarring for me. I've got a dark sense of humour, so I found that hilarious. Reid Long and Dan [Auerbach] had been talking about an idea. I loved it and I tweaked the story a little to make it more abstract by burying myself as well. We were shooting about an hour outside Nashville. The weather had been crappy all week but in the morning, the haze gave way to the bluest sky, just for that day. It felt cleansing in a weird way. Baptised by dirt and putting that past abusive relationship to rest once and for all."
Yola is now readying herself for release day and all its attendant hoopla. "I'm going to be pretty absorbed in that for a while. I've got a bunch of shows coming up. It's New York and Nashville in February, then an album tour in the UK in May. I'm loved on all sides. The music is great, too, but of course without people to share it with it loses its meaning for me. I'm a communal soul. I made a basic change: choose people you like and hang out with them. Creativity and business flow from that point. I feel good. That bone-deep good." It's a 'good' that comes off the album in waves.
Although there are songs that touch on sadness and loss, there's a warmth and a hopefulness throughout, and a balm-like effect for the listener. "I like to coddle grown adults, it transpires. I don't have kids but I've been known to coddle fully grown men and women. I'll pinch your cheeks like an enthusiastic auntie. I'll make sure you've eaten and feed you if you haven't. I try to exude and give out all the positive sentiment I wish I'd had all my life and am now blessed with."
Photo: Sachyn Mital / PopMatters