Yola, One of 2019’s Best Musical Breakouts, Makes Her Stand: ‘Screw Genre — I’m Over It!’

A Q&A with the Dan Auerbach-produced Brit who's become a favorite touring or singing partner with Kacey Musgraves and Brandi Carlile.

Yola, A Great 2019 Music Breakout,
Chris Willman / Variety

Can we say that Yola is the great soul singer we didn’t realize we needed in 2019 … and then hasten to add that “soul” is slightly reductive for a singer as adroit in as many genres as she is? This  Englishwoman is also a little bit country, a little bit rock ‘n’ roll and even a tiny bit Bacharach-David. Sometimes it takes a British omnivore to feed us back everything that’s great about American music, or at least the best stuff of a certain ’60s/’70s vintage, as Yola does on her debut album, “Walk Through Fire,” produced by the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach and released earlier this year.

In a just world, her Wednesday night appearance at the Grammy Museum in L.A. would be a precursor to her being shooed in as a nominee for best new artist candidate at the forthcoming Grammys. Truth be told, the field is too crowded this year, and Yola still too much an unknown to the mass audience, to make any promises. Yet she could be the underdog of the crop, especially if there’s a big voter turnout from the Nashville delegation, since she’s known to and beloved by just about every industry pro in Music City, as evidenced by her being invited to open the show on recent tours by Kacey Musgraves and Sheryl Crow, or to be a part-time member of the Highwomen. Her renown is hardly limited to Tennessee insiders; at the recent Newport Folk Festival, she sang alongside both Dawes and Dolly Parton, and she was a hit on her own at the just-completed Austin City Limits Festival. If her friends alone fill out their ballots, it could happen. And if not, there are many records and probably nominations to come for someone who makes this many raving converts within the first five minutes of every gig.

Yola is coming into her own after some short stints fronting more EDM-oriented groups like Massive Attack, which weren’t the best fit. Variety caught up with her before a recent gig with Lake Street Dive, where her record-signing table was as mobbed as we’ve ever seen for an opening act.

She turns out to be not just a phenomenal singer, but a serious musicologist and fun record nerd. She’s one of the few people we’ve interviewed lately who has cited an infectious disease as a musical analysis — as in: “If we find ourselves getting tired of music, then it’s the nature of the homogenizing of everything, this necrotizing fasciitis of music, that occurs in consuming itself to produce more of itself.” She’s also the first in a while to use the term “Kinks-iness” in a sentence, so remember that name: Y-O-L-A Yola.

You’re not a big fan of adhering to a strict genre. That certainly has expanded the field of who you can open for or make guest appearances with.

It’s a true blessing to be able to open for a lot of different acts. The second that you decide to plug into a genre, then you have fractioned the number of people that you could expose yourself to. And so my love of being across genre plays into my hands, I think. I’m fully aware that this is a debut campaign and that it’s not normal for all of this stuff to be happening. You don’t normally get to play both the Ryman and the Bridgestone Arena (in Nashville) in your debut year, or the Hollywood Bowl, like that’s normal. And I think maybe my lack of willingness to camp in one genre has allowed me to be omnipresent enough in festivals like Newport, and for people to have heard of me enough to gather maybe a bit more momentum. I hope that more people do it. I don’t want to be the only one. Screw genre. I’m over it! [Laughs.]

When your album came out, it got this “country soul” tag. That’s not inaccurate; those two things are in the album. But then you put on the opening track and it doesn’t really fit either of those things — it sounds more like pop from the ‘60s, like “To Sir with Love” or something.

Yeah, a “Dusty in Memphis”-type thing, or on the Phil Spector side of the situation. People who have heard about “country soul” may put it on and go, “What’s this?” And then the song after that, “Walk Through Fire,” is quite rootsy.

I’m constantly shape-shifting, but I want most urgently to highlight the middle ground or gray area between genres, how they’re linked, more than how they’re separate. I think in highlighting the crossover, you point people back to their place in that music. Like, I’ve talked to people over the years about country music. I was in a band before I was doing this that had country as an aesthetic; it was maybe slightly more rock-based. But at no point were any of us talking about Charley Pride, despite him having about 40 country chart No. 1s or some ridiculous number like that, and I had no idea how I’d avoided having this conversation. I think the Staple Singers were a big kind of get for me, because they were adopted by multiple scenes. They were definitely involved in a lot of collaborations that involved country or roots artists, and it was seen as a natural thing to have that crossover. But it feels like the conversation almost got lost, and then we started it up again since maybe “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” and that “Down from the Mountain” concert. I’m passionate about those things.

When you were in different bands earlier in the decade, doing a much more modern style of pop that wasn’t anything like this, was this kind of a side of yourself that you had suppressed?

I think so. With one of the bands I was in. I was slowly talking them into doing things slightly more countrified. It was a hard sell [laughs], because country used to be a dirty word, as I’m sure we all know. But I realized that of all the things that I wanted to do, that was going to be the hardest one to get over. So I think because I had to push that one first, as a result I’ve been described maybe as a country artist in some publications. But doing classic soul music and classic pop music and classic rock music, too — all four mixed together — has been a very important mission for me. And doing pop and EDM or neo-soul-type stuff was maybe me just desperately trying to get adjacent to one of the things that I like and find a way to allow my voice to manifest in its natural way. When it comes to those genres of music, it’s not like I don’t have anything like that in my record collection. It’s more that when it comes to what my voice does, I want to follow that, whatever that is. So maybe more than suppress anything, I had to contort my voice to fit into other genres that just didn’t feel right somehow.

It felt as though that I was having some form of musical code-switch, you know, and that I was assimilating to maybe what people see as acceptable for people of color to do. And I wanted to have the same freedom as any white guy, frankly. Like, Eminem could do hip-hop. I can do what I want. Surely, the trade is open! It’s an open market, as far as I’m concerned. And I’ve got no beef with anyone singing any genre of music. But so as far as I’m concerned, my willingness to pursue this kind of music has meant that I’ve had to say no to a lot of other jobs, some of which were considered to be quite lucrative, for the sake of trying to honor what my voice actually does.

You’ve talked in interviews about the trap of accepting background singer jobs. Is that part of what you’re referring to here?

Yeah, I’ve dodged that way of it a lot. [Laughs.] I did two backing vocal jobs in my life — and when I say jobs, I mean one singular appearance more than a run of shows or anything. One of them was backing singing for Adele at one show; it was the Royal Variety in London. I think the Prince might have been there at the time; I think Queenie was there, God love her. For that show, my friend was the MD and he was like, ”I’m really stuck. If you can sort me out, I’d be really grateful.” I’m like, “Well, you know, I’m nothing if not a friend, and so I’ve got your back, Jack. But it’s going to cost ‘em.” [Laughs.] And it was the same with the other job I did. It was on Jools Holland, and I was backing up an artist called Dizzee Rascal, who maybe is one of the predecessors of our modern day Stormzy. It was the same MD who was stuck and had a last-minute pull out. And so the only thing that’s ever drawn me to backing singing is being empathetic, more than necessarily the will to do the job.

There are lots of traps that are designed for dark-skinned women of color, and backing singing is one of them. People will never really admit it, certainly not within the industry, but they immediately take people less seriously once they’ve made a name doing that job. But also, if you decide to front something that is stylistically very different from what you want to do, that’s another kind of trap, and you could make a lot of money doing something that isn’t you, but then you’re stuck doing that for seemingly ever.

And so I’ve had to be very selective after the things that I front, because more commonly, I did this gun-for-hire type job, the frontperson to the kind of DJ/producer-type artist. Essentially that’s what Massive Attack were as an outfit. They weren’t necessarily singers by any stretch of the imagination — emcees, likely, but poets over minimalist music. I’ve read people describe the job I did there as background singing. I’m like, how? There’s only one vocal. There’s no harmony. That’s not part of the Massive Attack brief. So I went on the road, and that was the year that we did the headline set (at the Glastonbury Festival) on Saturday night on the other stage to about 60,000 people, in the middle of a European tour. Everywhere they go, they are seriously well received. It would have been an amazing job to pick up on. But it was minimalist. And of course you’ve heard my record — that’s all I need to say about that. [Laughs.] It’s not minimalist.

You’re a maximalist?

Yes, as a definite maximalist. If you can coin that. Harmony is a love of my life. I love the aesthetic of the Bee Gees, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, the Everly Brothers. All the things I’m really into are harmony heavy. Even if you think of records like “Great Day” by the Staple Singers, and how that was mostly Pops’ tremolo and quite a minimalist kind of aesthetic, vocally it always had harmony and this sense of aesthetic warmth, even in this kind of slightly lonely (sound). That’s been something that I’ve been always pursuing, the pursuit of harmony. And so, yeah, like, I couldn’t take the (Massive Attack) job. It was just a completely impossible thing for me to do and be honest about what I love about music. I do love music (like that), too, but it’s certainly not how I identify. And “Sorry I can’t join the band” went down like a lead balloon. But I had to be honest to myself.

At the time I was 25, and I was like, you know, I’ve got time to figure out what I want to do. Plus, black does not crack! So I’ve got even more time (to deal with) all of the trappings of sexism within media and the requirement for women to appear at least eternally youthful. That’s not something that I necessarily have to be too terrified about. Which is a sad thing to have to consider, but nevertheless, a reality.


Did you already know the direction you wanted to take on this album before you got hooked up with Dan Auerbach?

Honestly, I was thinking about borderlessness. There are lots of things that I hadn’t been able to explore, and most of the tastes of my music were the ‘90s and pre-, pre- that era, for sure. But I just wanted to explore not just one pocket, and I wanted to open the doors a little bit. As to which doors I chose to open, it was going to be very contingent on who I did the record with. l had to find someone that had this broad sense of appreciation in the way that they identify with music. And when “Waiting on a Song” [Auerbach’s solo album] came out in 2017, I was like, “This is all sorts of things” — that’s a very hard album to genre-fy, you know? One of the songs I listened to was “Stand by My Girl,” and that’s got a kind of slightly kind of pop-soul of the ‘60s feel to it. The guitar solo has a slight Kinks-iness to it, in a way, in the kind of runs, but the aesthetic is softer, like Roy Orbison. I was like, “I can’t place it. That’s the guy. Wouldn’t that be really great?” I had no connection to him at this time. And it was maybe me putting it out into the cosmos, or just sheer blind and dumb luck, that his people bumped into me when I was playing Americana Fest in Nashville.

So when we came to making the record, I knew that his taste was as broad as mine. And so we wouldn’t necessarily have to try and pin down which genres we wanted to touch on, because we were covering such a large arc — a lot of late ‘60s, early ‘70s stuff that I wanted to explore, without being throwback. That was something else I think Dan’s record achieved as well, feeling as though it was doffing its cap to some classic eras of music while it still felt like it was made today. I don’t mind being a bit of a revivalist, but I wanted to avoid throwback nostalgia like the plague.

Like, I don’t know how nostalgia works for black people! I don’t know about the good old days, when you’re a black person. Like, musically, certainly — but socially, hell no! [Laughs.] We’re headed into a better place, or I hope we are, anyway.

It seems like there are a lot of different kinds of records you could make in the future.

Yes, and I think one thing that is happening everywhere, which concerns me, is segregation. In certain genres or certain communities or cities, both here and in the UK and in Europe, you find places where friendship groups are separated out. People don’t have friends of color. People of color don’t have other friends outside their ethnic group. This idea of separating out can really lead to a feeling of lack of empathy and this lack of connection.

Look at the Stax band — it’s a mixed group of people, wanting to find a place that was safe to collaborate. And it didn’t mean homogenizing. It didn’t mean skewing to a white norm at all. Everyone was themselves, and that didn’t devalue one or the other. And I think it’s just really important to get that in music, and for people to hear all of that mixing that’s been going on over the years. The transatlantic conversation is another thing. Elton John, Joe Cocker, the Beatles — these were transatlantic conversations. We were talking to you guys, and we had a really nice conversation for a long time. [Laughs.] I think it’s important to carry on doing that as well.

We’d have to assume that when you were growing up, where you were growing up, there probably weren’t a lot of people of any color listening to Dolly Parton a lot.

[Laughs.] You’re right. No, there weren’t. It was me. I was the only black person into country in that area. Country was a dirty word everywhere. So that made me weird, but thankfully it made me weird to everybody. [Laughs.] That was maybe the upside, that no onewas into it. That made me weird to everyone, as opposed to just people of color. [Laughs.] And I was already weird, so it was fine.

You’re so loved by and associated with artists out of Nashville right now, whether it’s Auerbach or Sheryl Crow or Kacey Musgraves. Some people who’ve only heard the records but haven’t heard you speak or read an interview might think you’re from the South or something, just because of who you’ve been associated with and some of the sounds.

Someone in a story online said I was an African American singer-songwriter. I’m like, no, love! People seem to forget that America’s kind of loud. America isn’t a shy and retiring country. [Laughs.] It doesn’t go, “Ssshhh. We don’t matter. Don’t listen to our pop culture.” You guys have a real knack of making sure everybody knows that you’re here and you’re fabulous. And you are, so congratulations! But as a result, everyone hears of this music. And there seems to be some rhetoric, and I think we encourage it in media and press generally, that people making music that, if they make country, they just hopped off a tractor and picked up a guitar. Whereas in fact a decent proportion of people discovered music how everyone discovered music, which is by buying records that were available at record stores.

But yeah, Nashville has been very much a place that I’ve based myself out of when I’ve been in the States, because I’ve got friends there. And it has a lot to do with Americana Fest, because I was part of an Americana Fest UK contingent that came out from the UK, so that’s where I started making my first contacts. But also, it’s like the microchip of the music industry, when you think of the volume of companies that have at least one office on Music Row.

In 2010, I was recording an album with my old band in L.A., and then me and my co-writer decided to travel back across America, writing with other singer-songwriters, doing set-up writes. When we landed in Nashville, everyone found out about what we were doing quicker than when we were in any other cities, and it beat out L.A. and New York by being fold upon fold. It was just because sessions were 10 to 1, then you have lunch at 1 until 2, and then you have the next sessions 2 till 5, and then everyone went to pick up their kids from after-school club. It was metronomic, and because most people went to lunch at a similar time, they’d see the same people at the same sandwich place or the same deli that they go to get their lunch. They’d go, “What’s going on, who have you got in today? … Oh, cool. You should send them over.” It became this word-of-mouth, little tag team thing. We were scratching for writes in L.A., because no one ever talks to each other and everyone’s just driving. And then we got to Nashville, and it was the polar opposite and things were just getting done quicker. In Nashville, even in its nowadays sprawling metropolis size, there was a small-city energy that gave it an advantage of communication, because there are so many people representing multinationals in a small concentration. I was like, this is where I need to be to get the word out.

You spend a lot of time singing in a lower range on your album. But you said recently that that wasn’t all deliberate — that the weather in Nashville affected your voice?

Yes! People might not know this. Nashville has been referred to by the Native Americans of the area as “land of the sick heads,” due to it being in a basin where all of the pollen has decided to collect. I’d been visiting Nashville for a few years by the time I started recording this record, but no one had talked to me that about the fact that they’ve been mainlining antihistamine for the entirety of the summer months. [Laughs.] Maybe it was just so normal that no one ever thought to mention it. And I’d get really ill and no one would go “Oh, maybe it’s allergies.” Finally I came into a session and they go, “Oh, yeah. It’s a massive problem.” … In some cases, apparently people will choose not to record during certain months, because it will affect how their voice performs. I just like take antihistamine all the time now, so I’m fine. But before I knew that, I thought I was getting performance anxiety-related colds.

When we were recording, I managed to get still relatively up in my range, but I think certainly ad-lib wise I might not have reached the dusty, dusty tops because of allergies. And so there’s a lovely kind of depth to the vocal that it would have been easy to have maybe sidestepped. There’s something serendipitous about having to deal with allergies. It’s given the album a really lovely, warm quality.

A lot of times you have a very sort of pure tone that makes your voice sound like it’s suited for pop music; it’s not all soul singing, per se. And then you have moments where you break out on the record, and there are more of those live. Do you have a philosophy about wanting to hold it in and just give people a little taste, then surprise people by going up in your range or showing what you can do a little more… allergies aside?

Yeah, and it’s something that I’ve been working on over a period of time. Writing songs and specifically melodies that are good enough that they don’t necessarily need too much elaboration is a thing to aspire to. If you can write something that’s got enough of a feel, then you won’t feel the need to embellish on it. And I think that’s something that starts in the writing room. That’s what kind of gives me the ability to maybe lay off. And then sometimes it’s also about dynamic. I’ve got this soft side of my voice, and I’ve got this kind of almost Tina-esque scream side of my voice. And I like to show the entire journey of that movement of the voice.

So many singers only really have one or two kind of levels — they have their quiet version and then their loud version, and they’re largely the same. So having tonal dexterity in your voice is something that did come from the soul era, but came from the jazz era, too. It was very expected for people to be able to move through the gears like they were moving through the gears of a stick shift. That’s something that I grew up on musically that I revisit when I make albums. The restraint will take a number of forms, but a lot of the time I’m trying to express something that if I shout it at you, you might not hear.

You’re got your Highwomen necklace on. You sang on the theme song on the new album, and you joined their live debut at the Newport Folk Festival. What’s that been like?

It’s highly luxurious. It just felt like I was in a warm bath, drinking a glass of something lovely. It was the easiest thing in the world to do. The session itself was so relaxed and so easygoing, and I was the only new person, if you will — the debutante — so it would have been easy for anyone in that room to, spoken or unspoken, give me that kind of “I’m above you; recognize the hierarchy”-type energy. But nobody did. It was like “Hey, come up, do you want to sing on our album? In fact, we’ve got a verse for you.” At Newport, I looked at the set list and realized that they were opening with the song I was on. I was like, “Cool, so no warm-up here — just the first song of the first-ever show and get it right!” Fortunately, they’re such pros, but also so utterly open, that I was just able to enjoy myself. I’m a proud Highwoman.