After Twenty Years in Music, Yola Expands Strengths

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Calculation is difficult. Parallel parking is difficult. Meeting and working with people who are not like you – it’s easy. “It’s. Negativity. It’s difficult,” said singer-songwriter Yola in a recent search, clapping her hands between each word. “I really came from another continent and fixed it in six months. even mine executivefound colorful writers for me from distant England. ”

music industry promised to confront their inequalities Over the past year or so after the murder of George Floyd and decades of complaints that a business built on the creative power of people of color didn’t always empower them. The 38-year-old country-soul musician Yola has become the center of attention around the world. A string of nominations at the 2020 Grammys, said a solution is the obvious solution.

“When you start to feel like something is missing in your soul, and it feels gross and weird, take to the streets, go to bars with your friends and talk to people around the world,” said the jovial push, whose voice rose up. “Actually ask to work with different people and hire different people – and by adding and building it into your natural life, then you’ll have a lot of people of color.”

Yola’s new album, “Stand for Myself,” due Friday, got into this kind of thinking about big problems and ways to fix them, as she faced another set of big challenges: developing her Grammy-nominated debut LP during a global pandemic. .

Yola and her producer, Black Keys guitarist Dan Auerbach, enjoy working on a song in person, so his team has undergone extensive coronavirus testing. The singer and songwriter lived with a friend Allison Russell, left him between places after a sudden stop of travel. He even got used to lighting himself up while performing over Zoom. “The first integer of the pandemic was that we were tech savvy,” he joked.

But finding a way is what Yola has done throughout her music career, which began when she was young. Born Yolanda Quartey in Bristol, England, she worked with the dance music collective Bugz in the Attic and the electronica stout Massive Attack and sought ways to pursue her own music. “There was no record of this wonderful woman like me in the UK,” she said. “It’s not because there aren’t many artists with potential, it’s just because they’ve never been invested in.”

A pivotal moment came in 2018 when Yola moved to Nashville to work with Auerbach, owner and operator of Easy Eye Sound, a label specializing in left-of-center Americana artists. “He lights up the room when he walks in,” Auerbach said on the phone, “and he has an uncanny ability to connect with people.” Their collaboration yielded results. “Walk Through Fire” A record winning four Grammy nominations, including best new artist. (Lost to Billie Eilish.)

“Walk Through Fire” was praised for fusing the spirit of Memphis and the country of Nashville, fueled by Yola’s powerful voice. But this was closely guided by the familiarity of Auerbach’s environment and the unfamiliarity of Yola’s own. Yola did not select any of the co-authors on the record; he didn’t even to know they would be co-authors until they entered the studio. Although Auerbach brought in local legends like Dan Penn and Bobby Wood, it was hard not to notice that every writer in the room was not only older, whiter, and male-r but also American.

“I’m like, ‘I’m a Black lady from England, we’re going to have to find a middle ground here,'” she said.

Before the pandemic, Yola had just finished filming Baz Luhrmann’s upcoming Elvis Presley bio – playing the rock progenitor Sister Rosetta Tharpe – and was getting ready to tour with Chris Stapleton. Mandatory leave allowed him to figure out how to take a meaningful step forward.

“I realized that I was too busy to be creative; “I was killing that part of my brain almost entirely through activity,” he said. “Silence was giving birth to all these ideas, and I started to examine what brought those ideas back. It meant doing a lot of experimenting with my writing process – staying really late, getting into this stunned state – and when I wasn’t thinking too much about anything and my brain was at nothing. When it didn’t work things out, ideas were popping up.”

With a better understanding of each other’s talents, Yola and Auerbach talked about making a more upbeat recording to showcase their voice on their return from live concerts. And after getting to know her new surroundings over the past few years, Yola was now comfortable taking control: she hired Black and Asian songwriters, became more concerned with selecting musicians, and with her help, she revived several songs from her back catalog to finish. collaborators. For example, the “Break the Bough” celebration dates back to 2013 and was massaged until it was completed with Auerbach and senior songwriter Liz Rose.

Songwriter Natalie Hemby, who previously collaborated with Yola through her group High Women and Yola, who said that she was working on several songs of the new album, said that she was open to all kinds of ideas. “He could sing the most parts. [expletive] Sing it and make it sound great,” Hemby said. “It’s a little daunting—every time you have an idea that you think is great, hearing it sing makes you want to cry.”

Yola’s arrival in Nashville coincided with the slow diversification of the country music industry after decades of very exclusive (and traditionally white) standards. “He couldn’t have been here at a better time,” Hemby said. “Many people in this town were looking forward to this kind of change.”

“Stand for Myself” is taken from the same Americana audiobook as Yola’s first recording, but also shot with disco and pop. Inspired by ex-British Prime Minister Theresa May’s revulsion for austerity policies, a lush, wonderful song like “Dancing Away in Tears” flows to the chirping hum of “Diamond Studded Shoes.” The lyrics touch on romance, but also touch on her more turbulent early years—her mother didn’t support her career, and Yola suffered a bout of homelessness in her youth—and her struggles to assert herself musically in rooms that usually don’t care what to say.

“This has been a real transitional period of my life, from what I used to call ‘mop Yola’ to ‘Agency Yola’,” he said. This assertion required a growing recognition that he could not do everything on his own. “The trope of the strong Black woman is designed to keep you in a state of service,” he added. “And if you really dare to say ‘I want to grow,’ that could turn out to be people desperately wanting to undo their efforts.”

The desire for a meaningful ensemble is most evident in “Be My Friend,” a flamboyant ballad about the Highwomen. Brandi Carlile on backing vocals. “No one sings like him,” Carlile said. “It’s just traveling around the world, reflecting a super-powerful and very loud perspective that is really needed.”

During our conversation, Yola emphasized that no matter how stark the current racial division of America is, it is very different in England, where necessary conversations are largely undiscussed. “The reason it feels like there’s a fight in this country is because there’s actually a fight going on,” he said. Diversifying his collaborators helped alleviate a historical workplace inequality, but there was a broader emotional rationale that guided his decision – an attempt to further open a musical dialogue to include as many people as possible.

“You can’t write great songs with people different from you,” he said. “But sometimes you have to write about a very specific experience. You need everyone and that’s what I want to get ahead in everything I do. i’m in everybody’s club.”

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