“What’s worse than being on fire?”
It’s a question British American roots singer-songwriter Yola posed to a packed Williamsburg Music Hall crowd. It’s also a question she’d once posed to herself out of necessity. After testing a bioethanol burner with a leaky cannister, she found herself, her dress, and her home engulfed in flames. In an attempt to break out of a state of shock and will herself out of the situation, it dawned on her that she needed to think of something worse than fire. Her retort? The first 30 years of her life.
That aforementioned moment helped inspire Yola’s debut album, the suitably titled and now four-time Grammy-nominated, Walk Through the Fire. While her literal walk through fire inspired lyrics like “I gotta deal with desire/ The situation is dire/ I gotta walk through the fire of love” on the album’s Americana lullaby of a title track, her life inspired other emblematic takeaways, including how to make it in a (her term) “bro-creatic” environment.
A few hours before evangelizing the perks of baptism by fire to a Brooklyn congregation, Yola sat in the cafe of a Williamsburg hotel, adamantly retelling the story that interweaves those three decades. Those passing moments followed her from a four-year-old in Bristol, England, who, upon seeing someone on TV who finally looked like her, decided that she too would be a well-known musician. Despite growing up as the target of racial attacks and being pushed into genres based solely on her skin and not her sonics, Yola found herself not only creating seats for herself at the music industry’s table but in some cases creating tables from scratch. On Sunday, that craftsmanship pays off as she’s in the running for Best New Artist, Best Americana Album, Best American Roots Song, and Best American Roots Performance for the melancholy inducing “Faraway Look” at the Grammys.
Despite not fitting the typical roots music mold, Yola knew where she belonged. “I was a weirdo to everybody, you know? And I was acutely aware of it, and that’s what drew me. There was no choice. I was like, ‘I’m into this; this is who I am. I’ve just got to find a way of doing this.’ In the end, I ended up shelving my dreams for a little bit, for quite a long time because literally no one was up for it,” she laughs while looking back in time. “Like nobody. And so I was like, ‘Okay, now I’ve got no choice.’ I’m just going to have to do what’s available because I’ve got to get into this music thing if I want to get something that looks like a career rolling before my mom stopped me from doing it. I’ve just hit the ground running now. This isn’t like a, you’ve got support situation. This is an emergency. In my mind from age four, I was aware that there was a timer on. I know what I gotta do, and I’ve got to figure it out. There’s no kind of maybe.”
That dream, now backed by renowned producers like Dan Auerbach, musical mammoths like Elton John, and her own soulful articulations that would draw tears from Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s eyes, Yola is keeping warm by the fire she’s ignited. We sat down to discuss the fabric of that dream with the incombustible star, here’s what we learned.
Click ahead for our exclusive interview with the Grammy-nominated Yola…