How Yola Got Her Groove Back: Why America is Falling for Bristol’s Greatest Soul-Country-Pop Export

The singer is usurping expectations about genre and race with a new Dan Auerbach-produced album that touches on everything from disco to Britpop, in advance of an acting breakout in Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis movie.

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Joseph Ross Smith

Yola first came into the consciousness of most music fans when she was nominated for a best new artist Grammy last year, among four attention-getting nods she picked up. Come 2022, she’s destined to capture the attention of movie fans when she appears in Baz Luhrmann’s untitled Elvis Presley movie. In Australia earlier this year, she filmed her supporting role as Sister Rosetta Tharpe, one of the recognized progenitors of rock ’n’ roll. Yola has a huge amount of empathy for the historic figure she portrays, who is often characterized as a “beloved” pioneer of the genre.

“Not beloved enough, actually, I’d go so far as to say,” she asserts, voice rising with a polite but properly righteous indignation. “If she was as beloved as she should be, she would have been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame way before 2018. It would have been decades ago. You know,” Yola further declares, “if I invented something, I would expect to be first into the Hall of Fame!”

That she would make this plain-spoken a stand for Sister Rosetta — the guitar-slinging pioneer of 1950s rock — is unsurprising, given that, as Yola’s new album title suggests, she’s just as bold about making a “Stand for Myself.” On the new record (due out July 30), she’s staking her own claim as a stereotype-defying synthesist in an era no less determined to slap easy labels on mold-busting Black women.

Yola has said that just on the basis of her look, her race and her strong demeanor, it was sometimes assumed in the early stages of her career that she naturally aspired to be a belty R&B diva, instead of the nuanced and harder-to-pin-down alchemist of so many forms of pop music that she’s turned out to be. So there was an element of surprise to the rootsy inflections on her 2019 breakthrough, “Walk Through Fire,” which got several of its four Grammy nominations in American roots or Americana categories. But then that led to an almost reverse stereotype, painting Yola as such a Southern-fried novelty — and so downplaying her actual R&B side — that you can find articles misguidedly referring to her as a “Black country star.” The mention of this makes her laugh uproariously (as many things do).

“There are some people that are just like, ‘I didn’t get the memo. I didn’t even read her Instagram bio!’” Which she proceeds to quote: “‘Musically genre-fluid’ — it’s there in writing! Yet what inevitably happens,” she says, noting initial reaction to the preview tracks from “Stand for Myself,” “is they listen and go, ‘This isn’t country.’ Well, what was I trying to tell you?’ But it’s always going to be like that: People want to take hold of you and want you to exemplify their agenda. And sometimes that is done in a loving way, in that they’re like, ‘No, we want you! Be in our club!’ And here’s my deal: I’m in everyone’s club.”

For a good  example of how “there is something about my aesthetic that always pulls in two other things you weren’t expecting to be there,” she pulls up one of her new songs, “Whatever You Want,” for a musical biopsy. “You might go, ‘That’s quite a countrified song’ — then you listen to the drums, and it’s kind of a Mersey beat. Then you go, ‘Okay, that’s maybe a bit Stax-ier than I thought it was. But that doesn’t really sound like a soul melody. Hmm, there’s something a little bit Britty here. Is that … Stone Roses?’” She enthusiastically answers herself: “Yeah! It’s Britpop, people.” Another robust laugh. “I’m English!”

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Joseph Ross Smith

Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys is not just her producer and co-writer; he signed Yola and made her effectively the flagship artist of his own label, Easy Eye Sound. “Oh, man, from the very first time I heard her sing,” he says, “I was like, ‘Why isn’t she a star? Why doesn’t everyone know her?’” But he admires how she’s slow to bowl people over, not always bowling people over with her belt but reining it in till the right moment. “Having good taste is such a big part — that special ability that the greatest musicians and singers have to make a good thing last, and not blow it in the first 10 seconds.”

A big part of the appeal for Auerbach was that Yola is a musical omnivore, as he is. “That’s the best — it’s so freeing, when you work with people who are open-minded and aren’t just like ‘I do one style of music.’” He does allow, though, that on parts of the new album, they went less for a roots sound and more for a certain kind of mid-’70s R&B pocket. Whereas Yola mentions Minnie Riperton as a key influence on the record, he cites “that Muscle Shoals kind of shit,” especially Candi Staton’s “Young Hearts Run Free,” a No. 1 soul record that was a transitional single into the disco era: “Maybe we just listened to that record, and then we started recording,” he says.

Meanwhile, there are moments where Yola determinedly tones down the “Tina-ness” of her voice for purer tones on pop-leaning songs that sound almost out of the Burt Bacharach era. For her, all is fair in love, war, race and cultural appropriation.

“I’m like a funky little littlest hobo,” she says of her inclination to borrow a little bit of everything and disinclination to be boxed in. “I’m coming to your house, I’m taking some shit and I’m leaving — that’s what’s happening! And it’s challenging for people, because that kind of entitlement only comes from white guys. You know, it’s kind of all ours, really, this whole music thing! It kind of belongs to Africa, and so, being second-generation African, I’m like, ‘Fuck all of this. This is all mine.’” She’s still laughing.

•    •    •

Yola puts on a bold front but says that’s hardly been the story of her life; she refers to herself in earlier years as having been “Doormat Yola.” She feels the softness of voice and spirit in her less-brassy tracks tends to surprise people who look at her and make assumptions about her as emotionally invulnerable.

“I was always labeled as strong, because I’m a dark-skinned Black woman,” she says, “and we all know all women darker than caramel must be strong. It’s the ridiculous trope that we’re all starting to learn must be bullshit. It’s like, ‘Wow, just because melanin turned up in the womb, that means I can endure any horror!’”

At 37, Yola has, in fact, been through her share of horrors — like the time she was caught in a house fire, as immortalized in the title track of her previous album. “The number of times that me and my team joke about how there’s no ‘Walk Through Fire 2.’ People were like, ‘Was that a figurative fire?’ No, it was real. Hopefully in life, you only go through being a human torch once. All of the physical pain, all of the emotional pain, we’re done with that. It’s not like we’re never going to have any emotions ever again, but burning, specifically, we’re done with.”

There was also just the steady drip of years of being patronized before becoming recognized as a powerhouse.

Born in Bristol, England, as Yolanda Quartey — and later to become professionally known as Yola Carter before resorting to a mononym — she was the child of a Ghanaian father of whom she has no memories and a psychiatric-nurse mother who emigrated from Barbados in the 1970s. Her single mum, who moved them to Portishead, often spent what little money came in on an eclectic record collection, which led to Yola growing up with an unusual love of Elton John (now an enthusiastic Yola booster), the Beatles, Ella Fitzgerald and country music. (Loving country in Britain “made me weird to everyone, not just people of color. But I was already weird, so it was fine.”) Yet for all the records she and her mother shared, Yola was barred from even thinking about pursuing music.

“Yola has had to learn how to adjust to so many different scenarios,” says her friend Natalie Hemby, who co-wrote several songs on the new record and helped bring her in for a guest appearance on the Highwomen’s 2019 album. “That’s probably where her wittiness comes in — but she has that fight in her as well, which was her survival side. With her family not really believing in music, it’s just astounding to me how you could have a child who sings like a bird and not let them sing. And it almost makes me cry when I think about it, because when she does that cry in her voice, I feel like that’s my soul-cry.”

Pursuing singing as a young adult, she became the classic itinerant musician, couch-hopping — and even living on the street for one very brief period — as she balanced a frustrating series of stints in bands like Phantom Limb with gigs with DJs and EDM acts.

Yola comes off as more doorbuster than doormat now, but she grew depressed, falling in with collaborators who saw her as a voice but not someone who needed to find or express her artistic voice — the token little bit of soul amid a lot of programming. After fronting Massive Attack at Glastonbury in 2008 with 60,000 appreciative fans watching, she was asked to join permanently. “I do love music [like that] too,” she says, “but it’s certainly not how I identify. ‘Sorry, I can’t join the band’ went down like a lead balloon, but I had to be honest to myself.”

Another crystallizing moment came when her mother died in 2013, which inspired “Break the Bough,” a song she started at the time but didn’t finish until writing sessions for the new release. The beginnings of the song came into her head while she was riding her motorcycle back from the memorial service. “You can’t really cry and ride a motorcycle, so thankfully this bass line came into my head and distracted me for long enough to get home and not die. It’s a jolly-feeling song, which is a bit weird. But you know, everyone says they want a funeral party song, but no one writes one.”

The death in the family was a turning point that changed her entire approach to life and music. “I remember thinking about the size of my mother’s casket and how, for all the drama and difficulty it was in dealing with this woman, it all boils down to such a pitifully sized box. It’s almost like the end to a ‘South Park’ episode, like a bloody joke: You’ve got to be fricking kidding me! That’s it?” And a eureka moment. “I thought, ‘I’m going to do me from this point, if this is it. … When I get out of this grief situation, I’ll learn guitar.’”

And she did, making her transition from the world of EDM soul totems to a total singer-songwriter package. She also took a more proactive approach to relationships; “not many people survived in my black book after I’d drawn some boundaries.” She started to make co-writing visits to Nashville for professional purposes, before moving to Tennessee full time in “the pursuit of agency and allies. I didn’t ever really dare to ask anyone to do anything for me before that epiphany.”

Among the people she found who helped her get over were Auerbach, with whom she first linked at an AmericanaFest conference in 2017, and Brandi Carlile, who made her an unofficial member of the Highwomen (after being introduced to her music by Hemby) and sings harmony vocals on Yola’s new album.

Carlile says she and Yola “bonded for life” while working on the 2019 “Highwomen” record: “We’ve talked about our heroes, and if I had to guess who Yola’s three great ones are, they would be just wildly diverse: Barry Gibb, Chaka Khan and Dolly Parton — those three are profound in the architecture of her music.”

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Yola and Brandi Carlile perform during the Highwomen’s set at the 2019 Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island. Chris Willman / Variety

“I feel comfortable calling her a revolutionary Americana artist,” Carlile continues. “There’s an abstract ruggedness and a grit about her music, her stage persona, the way she performs. But the other thing about her that’s really Americana is that she’s got this folksy sensibility, like Dolly, where she knows how to drop a one-liner on you about tragedy.”

Auerbach says Yola already seemed confident enough when he met her, but he does see a change in how she’s taken control since the first record they made together. “She’s taken so much charge of her visuals and the videos — it feels a lot more confident to me, the presentation,” he says. That includes her showing up in black leather and fringe and very un-rootsy makeup for her “Stand for Myself” video. “Maybe the girl on the cover of the last album was the person in her bedroom listening to the records,” says Auerbach, “but the girl on the cover of this record is headlining the stadium.”

•    •    •

The guitar is key in the more triumphant moments of Yola’s journey. Well after she picked up the instrument for the first time eight years ago, she was asked to learn how to play solos in order to portray one of the most celebrated women guitarists of all time, Tharpe, in Luhrmann’s movie. The Elvis feature was originally scheduled to start shooting in spring 2020, but then the pandemic granted her an extra eight months to really nail it.

“The only thing I could do was write songs and shred guitar,” Yola says of her time in quarantine. “And once I turned up [on set], I was overprepared, if anything. But the singing wasn’t in time with the solos, obviously, as solos aren’t. So you go, ‘I’m going to ration the number of times I’m allowed to look at my hands.’ And I’ve got to be looking at my marks, or looking at B.B. King or Elvis, and be thinking about the mannerisms and getting into the spirit of her whilst doing a thing I’ve never done before in my life for 15 hours a day. So when you see me land those solos, be aware of all of that and give me just a mental, if not physical, round of applause.”

But she’s thinking of the bigger picture when it comes to the Elvis story, which is ripe for a revisiting as the greater entertainment industry has endeavored to give proper, and long deserved, credit to the true genesis of a genre. “It’s been really uplifting to tell a story that is reconciling some very unreconciled conversations about rock ’n’ roll and its origins, and the role that Memphis and Beale Street play in the genesis of all popular music going forward,” she says. “That’s Baz’s whole point. People miss out on Elvis’ childhood, or they miss out on his friends. And I understand why, because it was all Black people, and it’s like, ‘Oh yeah. We forgot about that bit — the bit where there was segregation.’”

Younger Yola — Doormat Yola, that is — may feel some sympathy with Presley, because of his lack of agency in “what we learn about the dynamic with Colonel Tom Parker, played as a true villain by none other than Tom Hanks, a real true darling. It’s fascinating to learn how much of a passenger Elvis was in that regard. People think the artists had all the power and stole something. I think if we know any artists, we know that, especially back in those days, it was quite rare that the artist had all of the power. … You know, if I was in Elvis’ shoes, I probably wouldn’t be enjoying my trajectory. I’d be very sad.”

Yola is well in touch with today’s roots-music movement and where it came from. But to the extent that she’s identified as an Americana artist, she’d like to point out that, on the new album, “there’s some early Barry White energy in there that you probably noticed” on a couple of tracks, she says. That era “when you can just feel disco on the horizon? That’s me. Apparently in the womb, disco would come on and I’d be pushing the belly out. So I’ve always responded to groove. That was why, when I spoke to Dan at the beginning of this record, I was like, ‘We have to get the groove right.’ Because it’s something that has been important to me before I even emerged into this world, and I feel it and care that much about it. It’s a mission for me to be groovy in this organic way.”

Yola allows that she is “oftentimes the only Black woman in a room,” and it’s been liberating to further “talk about my own experience and be me, and I wouldn’t have to trope up for anyone’s benefit.” Including downplaying anything about who she is for the benefit of fellow people of color. She’s found that alternately “I was too Black, or not Black enough. Being a sidewinder,” she says, it can go the other way, where “people are like, ‘Oh, you like “Harry Potter”?’ or ‘You like “Star Trek”? Well, that’s not cool.’ I’m like, sorry, I’m a whole person. In finding the spaces where I can stand as myself and be a nuanced version of myself, I feel like I’m slaying these like computer-game end bosses, instead of trying to play a game of 21.”

But it’s been a journey to get here. “Don’t get me wrong. I have shucked and jived with the best of them,” Yola allows. “And I have code-switched with the best of them as well. I didn’t want to have to do that anymore. It’s exhausting!” Working at being anything other than the full-fledged sum of her loves and influences, she says, “is so much cardio. And I fucking hate cardio.”