With all due mad respect to Brandi Carlile, Amanda Shires and Natalie Hemby of the harmonic convergence known as The Highwomen, it’s Yola who song-jacks that eponymous musical statement with her chilling verse: “I was a freedom rider/When we thought the South had won/Virginia in the spring of ’61.”
Yola has elevated country-soul with a voice that’s supple, robust and majestic. Her delivery soars, then lands with a lusty and sometimes heartbroken presence. 2019 was a gigantic year for the singer who grew up poor in a small town outside Bristol, England. Her debut album Walk Through Fire, produced by Dan Auerbach, has won raves. She was nominated for four Grammys, got a big stamp of approval from Elton John for her stirring cover of “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” and performed with Kacey Musgraves, The Highwomen, Mavis Staples and Dolly Parton, and will later this year will open for Chris Stapleton alongside Willie Nelson and Sheryl Crow. She may be a new name to many, but she’s been a songwriter and singer all her adult life with a long list of bands and collaborators. While taping Austin City Limits, the extremely busy Yola emailed us a peak at what it’s like to be her.
L.A. WEEKLY: So, how fun is it to be you?
YOLA: I am having so much fun! It’s definitely work, don’t get me wrong, but with lots of fun, too. A bit surreal at times, but I try not to focus on that too much but on the magnitude of it all and just enjoy and live in the moment. I love my band, my team and playing for my fans! It’s been a whirlwind!
You’ve done a ton of press lately. Is there a question you’re sick of?
“How did you get into country given that you’re black and from the U.K.?” It speaks to tropes and assumes a normalization that only reveals the cognitive bias of the person asking. To be successful internationally, you have to succeed in most territories. It doesn’t take much thought to think Dolly might’ve sold a few records outside the U.S. Tropes are alienating — so that’s my least favorite question.
Who were you excited about seeing at the Grammys? Did you go to any parties?
I went to a few parties, but I was mostly whisked from one place to another and performed a lot of times, so there wasn’t much of a chance to watch other people, sadly. One of the highlights was meeting Smokey Robinson! He was one of my inspirations growing up, and that was an incredible moment.
What was the best thing about creating Walk Through Fire?
Having the opportunity to collaborate with Dan Auerbach and bring my music and ideas to life with his level on production was incredible.
You’ve called yourself a “a weird 4-year-old singing ‘9 to 5.'” Describe yourself as a young child.
I haven’t changed much if truth be told — I was probably singing in the womb and as soon as I can remember, it’s all I’ve wanted to do!
What do you do to keep yourself entertained on the road?
I am a major sci-fi nerd, so I am deep in Netflix watching one of my favorite shows — like Lost In Space. A few of road team, including our sound engineer Cameron, are also into it so we bond over our nerdom — he set up some kind of server so we could watch stuff via the tour bus… it’s all very high tech!
What music are you listening to these days?
I love making playlists and recently got to make one for Yeti, which has some of my favorites on there. I put on some of my friends like Courtney Marie Andrews and Our Native Daughters, who are awesome! Check them out!
For those of us who will never know, what’s it like to transport an audience through your music?
It’s supremely vulnerable and honest if done right and liberating when truly internalized by the crowd. The way I write music comes from personal experiences and my own personal growth, and I write that way for people to connect with those stories. It’s so humbling when someone tells you how they relate to your story or how your story has helped them in some form.
You’ve been singing professionally all your adult life — yet many people think you are new on the scene. Has this been an advantage?
I think I’ve definitely caught people by surprise, but I feel in some ways the years preceding this year have been training and now I’m finally in the position to put in action — like a sleeper agent, ready to pounce! Ha ha!
How self-critical of your voice are you?
I try not to analyze things on that level, but I definitely keep the razor-sharp eye on my vocal health and if I feel it slipping, I make sure I get the rest I need to get back on track.
Who is your living or dead dream duet with?
Oh, I would love to sing with Aretha Franklin — so sad I’ll have to wait for the next life for that one!
You were raised by a single mother who banned you from making music as a teenager. She would be so proud of you — what do you imagine she’d be telling people?
She was a real character, so I’m sure she would have been shouting it from the rooftops. It’s nice to think she would have been very proud of how things have turned out, especially considering how she was very disapproving in the beginning.
Was your mother a good singer?
My mother had a great ear, but her voice was not her biggest gift.
What part does bravery have in songwriting?
It plays a huge role — you are putting yourself out into the world. I was able to learn from the experiences that made me question myself and it took so much strength to cancel out the negativity. Being able to write and to sing about those experiences is very freeing and took some bravery, especially when you know you’ve then got to talk about it in interviews 🙂
YOLA: Walk Through Fire World Tour with Amythyst Kiah at 8 p.m. on Saturday, February 22 and Tuesday, February 25 at the Troubadour.