When the British country singer Yola began work on her new album, she sat down with her producer, The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, and told him the story of the fire that changed her life.
The fire happened in Bristol, her hometown, around Christmastime in 2015. Yola, born Yolanda Quartey, was in her living room. Her dress suddenly became lapped up by flames from her fireplace, and she was, in her own words, “a human torch.”
A couple years before, she’d gotten out of a toxic relationship — one that spanned her romantic life since her teenage years, her work and creative life in the band Phantom Limb, and her social life. As she tells it, the union with an “autocratic, patriarchal superbro” created a controlling environment that stifled her, decimating her sense of inspiration and will to be a musician. But she escaped, eventually. She freed herself, and had since carved out a new life, one in which she made her own decisions. And then, she was on fire.
“That moment of burning, my first thought was ‘Ahh!’” she screams, while sitting for an interview in Manhattan a couple weeks before her latest record drops on Feb. 22. “Second thought was, ‘I need to think of something that is going to chill me out so I can deal with this situation and make some decisions. Because this whole amygdala thing is not going to help me out.’
“Then I was like, ‘Actually, my life’s really awesome right now, apart from this fire. Do you know what? I’d take this fire, and my life now, over my life before and not being on fire.’ And I was laughing so hard I almost forgot to put myself out.”
She rolls up the sleeve of her dress to show off the scar from the fire, which looks more like she’s been slashed by a knife than burned by a flame.
“That’s my little badge of honor,” she says, blinking hard. “There she is.”
After Auerbach heard that same story, he told her the name of the album they worked together on, the one she traveled to Nashville to write and record over the course of six months, would be called “Walk Through Fire.”
Ten years before, no one thought a black woman from the U.K. could be a country singer — the genre was barely acknowledged by her fellow Brits. Apart from a couple artists like Billy Ray Cyrus and Shania Twain, country was a dirty word in England. But growing up, Yola had feasted on a diet of country and soul, in addition to what her peers were listening to like En Vogue and Brownstone; she loved Dolly Parton and Otis Redding, and when she sang, that’s the sound she emulated. When she started making music with the band Phantom Limb, she urged them to go in a country direction, and received pushback from the band. They were embarrassed to admit they liked the sound. But when the Coen brothers’ film “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” came out and subsequently proliferated internationally, folks in Britain started opening their minds to country.
“That movie helped tell a richer tapestry of that story: how blues plays into it, how gospel, spirituals play into it, as well as old time,” she explains. Plus, the stigma was gone. “It made my life easier. It was almost as though people I knew who liked it could say that out loud.” Since then, England’s interest in and fan base for American country music has skyrocketed. Ed Sheeran wrote a song for the British country duo The Shires, and ticket sales for the music festival Country 2 Country, which takes place in London, are higher than ever. Yola’s just one artist involved in this movement.
When Auerbach heard her music in early 2017 and reached out to her, asking to produce her next album, she went straight to Nashville — the epicenter of the American country music industry. By October of 2017, they’d linked up in Tennessee and were writing songs for the album.
“The process [with Auerbach] for me, was a revelation. He’s got this house band full of legends. People say ‘legends’ and they overuse that word, but these people define the word ‘legend.’ [They’d say,] ‘Most of us were in The Memphis Boys, we played with Elvis, and yeah, I did some stuff with Aretha,’ just so casually, like it ain’t s–t,” she says. “They really work together as a team. The producer having this overarching vision and being able to see that vision and guide it so everyone’s moving. Dan sees all the way in the future and he’s guiding this big machine through all the little obstacles of thought. I was like, ‘I like this. I like the idea of having a [house band, a] regular recording setup. I want one of these for myself.’”
Yola stayed in East Nashville while they recorded. Music was everywhere; not just in the performances she’d see at various bars and venues, but in her own personal rotation as well. While recording “Walk Through Fire,” she was listening to The Staple Singers, Tropicalia composer Les Baxter and Glen Campbell.
“The thing that we benefited from was knowing the kind of artist that I am, but not allowing genre necessarily to constrain us,” she says. “The record was quite genre-fluid, and that’s what I was basting myself in. I was listening to things across the breadth of the taste I have and the range that I think I can deliver.
“[Auerbach and I are] separated by language, being a Brit and American, so maybe what I see as country as a Brit might not be what is defined as country anymore.”
It’s part of another shift happening in American country music — artists like Kacey Musgraves, who just won the Grammy for Album of the Year for “Golden Hour,” and Kane Brown, an artist drawing his country melodies from pop and R&B, are making tracks that aren’t straight up-and-down country, but do bear country elements. It’s not a loss of the genre, Yola says, it’s a sign of the times.
“It’s kind of like people,” she states. “We’re all like, ‘I’m from here.’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, via here, here and here.’ Inevitably, music has that same kind of story that is mixed from its genesis.”
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