Photo: Daniel Mendoza/Recording Academy
Yola Ascends To 'Walk Through Fire' & Become The Queen Of Country Soul | Newport Folk 2019
The spirit and soul of Yola's breakout album Walk Through Fire was nothing if not well-earned. Even the title came from overcoming hardship, as her kitchen literally caught fire before the project, a symbol of the adversity the Bristol-born singer/songwriter faced—and overcame to create her own masterpiece.
Yola graced us with her infectious energy backstage at Newport Folk Fest after her show-stopping set and opened up about her breakout album, working with The Black Keys' Dan Auerbach and what it means to be the Queen of Country Soul.
Congratulations on your album, Walk Through Fire. What are you most proud of in how this album came out?
I think how people are connecting with it. One of my specialist subjects is that connecting to what I'm saying. And I hope by doing that then that helps people connect as well with what I mean. And that gives us a relationship across airwaves, across oceans, across an arena.
And so, that's the most important thing, for people to be connecting and for things to be going crazy. We're not into six months yet and things are going super crazy.
But that's not just a hype machine situation. It's so down to people connecting in a real way and I think it's very easy for that to not happen. For people to get swept away with hype.
What can you say about the collaboration with Dan Auerbach? It sounds like you guys wrote a ton of songs together.
Yes, we did.
How was it working with Dan on this album?
He's just a machine. I always thought I was kind of a quick writer once I got into my flow, my flow state, if you will. Yeah, he's a machine and his sonic palette, his kind of delicacy in the mix is unrivaled, it's unbelievable what he can do.
I was actually a fan of his album that came out, his solo album that came out, "Waiting on a Song." When I listened to just all the layers and I was like, "I love this, wouldn't it be amazing if I could do an album like this with him?"
Anyway, that's what Dan and his people bump into me in '17. I must've just put that into the Ether or something, that was serendipitous at the very least.
He's a complete machine and the upside, especially when it comes to things like production means, I could be hands-off. I don't have to be concerned and idea of what you going to come across is going to be turned into something other than something utterly beautiful and so yeah... It's the most relaxing production experience I've ever had because you deliver your vocal and you know everything is going to sound beautiful.
It's in good hands.
Very, very, very capable hands indeed.
"Faraway Look," I think that was the first song that I heard of yours. Can you tell me about how that came together in the studio with Dan?
When we were writing, Dan and I would be in the room and we'd invite a third party, if you will. And that third party would be the spice, so me and Dan had talked about our common ground musically. The things that we loved, even the things that we loathed. So, then that would form the kind of people he would invite.
And Pat McLaughlin is a dreamy kind of guy and so yeah, it became... we had, obviously Pat came in with this song and that we had Dan Penn and Joe Allen and Roger Cook. So, really kind of stellar writers and so the idea was to kind of bring in the spice would occur. And allow me to explore the range of things that I'm into like classic pop music, classic country, classic soul music.
And so, the way that lyrics tend to come with me... and thankfully with both Dan and Pat is, what I like to call the mumble write. Where you're kind of dowsing for the vibe and I think most of the songs came like this.
In this case, maybe Pat is strumming something and going [mumbling] and starting to mumble something and so then out of the mumble... and then you carry on, you pick up that mumble [mumbling], making no sense at all. But trying to decipher a more elegant meaning out of their aesthetic, out of the shapes that are coming to you. And really they're actually batting around the idea in the back of your mind.
And there's some deep meaning there that you're trying to discern through the fog and that's how much the songs came together, it was Dan or Pat strumming of the 30 songs and in some cases, me strumming. And just feeling out what we were doing. And then obviously something salient-like comes forward.
So, in this case it was the chorus melody, that was the first thing to come. And then we're starting to try to figure out where that goes but this whole process was like we were trying to unveil it, more than going in with a preconceived idea of the genre that we are going to have a look at that day or what the whole album was going to be. It was like we were going to write a whole bunch of songs and then we're going to figure out what the hell we'd done.
And see whether there was a sense of continuity through it, which there was. And so, that was the kind of saving grace with the writing of that song. I think of this record it was very open because people have been describing this as a country soul record. But then you listen to "Faraway Look" and it's not country or soul. It's classic pop.
While I think Queen of County Soul is really a perfect moniker for you, it captures a lot of what you do, but there's always so much more. How do you feel about genre today?
It's like you're trying to help people understand something they just need to listen to. And it's feels like we are dissecting to understand like we're in Biology and we're doing the frog dissection. And in that dissecting of the thing where it separating out, all of everything. Putting that over there, that over there, that over there. And they didn't start that way. They all started together.
And we're separating it out to be able understand the constituent parts and so that feels like the opposite of what I'm trying to do with music. I'm trying to find the common ground. I'm trying to bring all those constituent parts and show how they were linked to all the tissue all the fascia. And, so that's what I'm passionate about in music, is that gray area, that's why I love the band, that's why I love Little Feat, that's why I love staple singers, that's why I love Aretha. They didn't stick... that's why I love Elton John. C'mon, right?
There constantly listen to Honky Chateau, right? It's got this and then it's got this. Everyone I love, Bee Gees- Man, that early Bee Gee stuff, that "Run to Me." That's a bowl of soul. And I was thinking disco and I'm like, "Boo, there's more." "Run to Me" is a massive tune.
For sure. So, how does it feel to experience this type of accelerated rise to success, and did you ever think that was possible when you were going through some of the harder times in your life, dealing with homelessness and loss of your mother.
Well when I was four I saw this [passion for music]. I was like, "Yep. This is entirely feasible. Sure, why not? I feel ready. Let's do this." And so I'm kind of my 4-year-old self right now and I went kind of... I grew up and moved away from that person, which was a mistake. 4-year-old me was on point.
Yeah, instincts like that are usually correct.
Yeah. I nailed it, and I just got talked out of being that person. You should be ashamed of your dark skin, you should me ashamed of your natural hair. You should try and sing more R&B. You should drop some weight. All the kind of things that are shaming and the number of times that I get pulled up by women of color, certainly people darker than Oprah kind of, which is the line in the sand.
"Thank you, thank you for being upfront, thank you for not being in the back, thank you for just being, not being apologetic about it or shrinking in some way." And yeah, that's been a journey, that's been a long road to get it to that point.
So, in that process of being talked out of this willingness to just be myself, I went through bad company. And that bad company pushes you into that realm and when I was in that moment of homelessness, the thing that was making me sad was that, the bad company. Was that sense of lack of connection with the people around me, the people I was working with. People that I was social with who were also people I was working with. That's always been the thing, that has been the heartbreaker, as much as the loss of my mother.
That whole sense and period of neglect, so this period is very much been about that rise to accepting yourself and that's been reflected in how quickly this has risen that's what people want to see. They want to see love, love and connection, to people, to the people you're working with, to yourself.
Maybe it took the 30s to get to that, but yeah. It's been unreal and all the sparkly stuff aside, which there's lots of sparkly things. I didn't think I would be playing Bridgestone or Ryman multiple times or whatever. All of this stuff is mind blowing to me but the connection has always been top, that the most self-actualization.
You mention the Bridgestone, Kacey Musgraves, Maggie Rogers gig. Can you talk a little bit about preparing for that big of a show and playing an arena?
When I was early 20s, late teens, I had a little bit of arena experience but as kind of fronting other peoples' outfits. So, I was that fronting gun for hire. And so you'd have to learn to prowl the stage and all your gestures had to be super massive because people might not see you. If you're just doing this, no one is seeing that ten rows back kind of thing.
So, yeah that was one massive thing that I had to pick up that I'm going to be able to draw back on for this show and yeah and we got the full band, so we should be ready to kick booty.