“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…
On Being Seen as a Human with a Vision
It’s definitely not an accident. I’ve had a whole process of meeting people, and it’s probably the bit that people don’t pay a lot of attention to. They think, “Okay, you’ve got the struggle, then you’ve got the glamour,” but then you’ve got [that] whole process. I used to work as a top-line writer, writing songs, lyrics, and melodies for other people and then I moved into wanting to do something for myself.
I was also in a band for a short amount of time, and I had an alpha job for a beta position. You know, the classic ‘roll the girl in to do the sing thing then roll her out for the decisions.’ So, when it came to deciding how I was going to do it, it became this picking of just trying to find people that were able to see me as a human first and understand my vision or where I wanted to go.
On the Unexpected Benefits of Student Debt
In this whole process, I’m having to sneak around. There’s so much development that you can’t do when you’re in uni and you want to call on your parents or, in this case, my mom and go, ‘Oh, I need a little help, I need somewhere to stay’ without anyone suspecting that I was not toeing the party line of going to uni to go and do one of the acceptable jobs or at least go and get good grades and do something adjacent to the acceptable. The carpet would have been pulled out from underneath me, and I was made explicitly clear of that fact. That you toe the line, or there’s no help for you.
And so I hid that right through my uni age until I was kind of done with that. And I finally came out of the closet, as “Mommy, I’m a musician,” you know? A thing that you’ll find from Black and Brown strict parents on the bread line is frugality, and when my mother was looking at the loan repayments for the first year I did go to uni, she noticed that if you didn’t change the rate at which you pay, all of a sudden you’re going to be paying just the interest indefinitely. And she thought, “That’s a hustle,” but she still believed in the three jobs (relatable editors note: doctor, lawyer, maybe engineer), but it was testing her resolve. I saw that little flicker, and I’m like, I’m going to pounce on that whilst I get the opportunity because the only thing that’s gonna sort this out for her is another one of the things she believes in. And so I jumped on the frugalness.
On Finding Community Through Soul Music
When I was doing top lines, I was generally writing soul tracks and then adjusting them for pop or EDM. When I was in a band, I decided to push the second record onto one that was more rootsy, that was slightly more country. But it was like everything was a fight. So, it wasn’t just the idea of finally being able to be an out-and-out musician and feeling like I could start pushing my musical agenda. You could hear it in my old band between the first and the second record. You can hear my influence. From that point onwards, it was just such a fight with the places I was working in for them to accept that I was a woman of color in the UK doing what I wanted to do as opposed to within the narrow trope of hip-hop and R&B. Not being able to allow that, to punch out to a wider audience became my main beef. I felt like I needed to just find more people that were in the UK that were into the music I was into, but they were disparate at the time.
And it’s got to be said that the presence of the AMA UK and Americana Music Association in Nashville were a great help in solidifying that community, certainly in the UK, which there wasn’t. If you’re doing that kind of music before, you were in classic rock or they might put you in jazz. They put us in classic rock because I was with a bunch of white guys. They’re like, “That’s a Black woman fronting a band full of white guys, so we’re going to put that in classic rock with them regardless of what you sound like.” And so, yeah, like I was always going to be kind of a little bit hemmed in until the community made itself known. Then, once I found this kind of fertile ground, I was able to start showcasing in places where I knew people were into the music and would understand. That led me to Nashville. That led me to showcasing that year and doing the rounds and Dan Auerbach’s people finding me, and that’s how we met. It would have never been the case if I didn’t start pushing my agenda way back then.
On Embracing the Weird
When you’re hermetically sealed in an isolated environment, you’ve got no idea that you’re weird or conceived to be weird and perceived to be weird, should I say. Although I was isolated, I grew up in a very politically conservative town. There were within the resident ranks people who were far-right, national front as we call it, so like militant racist factions in the vicinity. It wasn’t an unusual thing to just get a kicking for just looking the way you did. At no point did I come out of the womb expecting to be accepted for who I was. So I’m like, well, if I’m not gonna be accepted anyway, what’s the difference? Why should I even try? It’s not gonna work!
Advice for Young Singer-Songwriters
Pick up a guitar, start playing so that you’re not constantly in a codependent writing situation. So many times people that sing are kept away from instruments like, “Oh, you’re just a singer.” Yeah. Just get away from, one, that rhetoric, but pick up a guitar, so you have some sense of autonomy.
And the life-saving advice she shared with her Brooklyn audience: “You’ve got to stop, drop, and roll, kids.”
Sing along with Yola during her 2020 tour by visiting here.