Yola Finds Freedom & Grammy Noms
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Yola opens for Greta Van Fleet at O2 Academy Glasgow in Scotland November 6. She’s shared stages with Kacey Musgraves and The Highwomen as well.
Lots of people – maybe most – spend much of their lives looking at themselves through other people’s mirrors, whether it’s trying to live up to parental dreams, societal expectations, or just trying to fit in with the “cool kids.”
Yola is not one of those people.
But she did learn that smashing that mirror takes real strength and resistance; the willingness to fight for an identity of one’s own and to walk on that artistic razor’s edge between wild success and devastating failure. She wasn’t willing to be 20 feet from stardom.
Yola defies expectations. When people expected R&B from her, she was playing what she calls “country soul.” Her music has at times been labeled Americana but don’t let that fool you.
“I say ‘screw genre’ because certainly when it comes to the hindrance of people of color in music – powerful people, especially white men in music, are still guiding the perception of black artists and the direction,” Yola tells Pollstar.
“It becomes so much more important to people of color to give yourself the freedom to create and not allow yourself to be hemmed in by genre. I don’t think we all enjoy the same privileges of freedom as people of color. We have to fight for it,” she explains.
Yola is no longer having any of that. After years spent fighting her mother, who wasn’t supportive of Yola’s dreams of making music; former bandmates, with whom she fought over musical vision; and then accidentally burning down her own house (the inspiration for the title “Walk Through Fire”), Yola has largely won the battles and freedom to create her own music, social and musical arbiters be damned.
“I’ve been fighting for a sound,” Yola says of her stylistic development. “I’ve been searching for a sound since I was a kid. I found elements of these sounds in the music of Crosby, Stills and Nash; The Kinks; Aretha; Etta; Elton; The Bee Gees and Dolly,” the 36-year-old artist says. “I felt as if there was an element in music that I could contribute to. It has taken me so much time to get that point of pursuing what I wanted to do. But it felt more pent up than it was something that I had to go out and search for. I’ve been holding on to it for decades, plural.”
Informed by the music she loved as a child, she began writing her own songs and found support from the Americana Music Association U.K., which took her to Nashville to attend AmericanaFest and perform showcases (and which named her their U.K. Artist of the Year in 2017 under her name Yola Carter).
WME Nashville’s Jonathan Insogna was invited to one such showcase during AmericanaFest 2016 by a friend who’d met a woman in England who happened to be in town for the first time and wanted him to come by her show.
“We didn’t go to a typical Nashville showcase,” Insogna, says, laughing. “It was this divey little bar in Printers Alley – not even on the same part of the street where most of the bars are. I get in there and we’re having a drink and Yola comes out starts singing. It freaked me out! It was just that powerful, that amazing. A world class talent, playing in this little dive bar in Printers Alley. Completely unexpected.”
Insogna introduced himself and saw Yola in his office later that week, where they talked for three hours and not entirely about what one might expect. “We spent three hours talking about music. Not even business,” he says. “It was all, ‘What do you like? What do you listen to? Do you listen to this? Do you listen to that?’ She showed me the records she liked, and it was just like two record fans talking. She gave me her email and we kept in touch over the next year.”
He signed Yola, but it took another year for the magic to percolate.
“It was very clear that something special was going to happen, but it just hadn’t happened yet. Fast forward another year, in about November 2018, she was working with Dan [Auerbach] and we heard the record. It was so good, it was surreal,” Insogna says.
Auerbach was given a video from one of Yola’s Nashville showcases and had his manager reach out to his soon-to-be Easy Eye Sound label star. About two months after they began talking, they went into his studio and began writing the songs for her breakthrough album Walk Through Fire, an out-of-left-field phenomenon. The 12 tracks of alternately yummy and goosebump-raising goodness evoke aural déjà vu from Jimmy Webb and Mavis Staples, in a way that doesn’t seem nostalgic, that earned four Grammy nominations for Yola (including for Best New Artist) and two for producer Dan Auerbach of Black Keys fame (see accompanying sidebar).
“Dan helped by first and foremost being similarly eclectic and sharing very similar influences,” Yola says of Auerbach. “I was able to talk to him about things that I loved, productions that I loved. I was a fan of his album Waiting On A Song. Sonically, it was perfect for me and my taste and so that was a very easy transition when it came to tracking Walk Through Fire. I knew it was going to sound the way I needed it to sound.”
The experience was liberating for her. “The ability to combine everything that you love was something I always wanted to do and I had not had the opportunity to do that until now,” she says.
But would it find an audience? Insogna knew it was time to put together a plan and road test Yola and her new songs. It didn’t take long for her to catch fire.
“We did a few shows here and there. She had an album release show in Nashville and then we booked her at the Luck Reunion near Austin, at Willie Nelson’s ranch, during South By Southwest, and that’s when she just exploded, industry-wise. It was a very pivotal moment.”
Another of those pivotal moments came at the Newport Folk Festival. Yola had caught the attention of Brandi Carlile and another Insogna client, Highwomen founder Amanda Shires, who recorded some songs with her as a Highwoman. While a couple didn’t make the final Highwomen cut, the title track includes Yola’s hair-raising verse about a murdered Freedom Rider. She joined Sheryl Crow’s set and wowed at her own side-stage performances.
“To their credit, they found a way to get her in there and get her to sing,” Insogna says. “It was just meant to be. Can you imagine that song without her? Newport was another moment. We had not toured much. That was kind of the kickoff of the American tour and none of us really knew what it was going to do. We all had ideas and thoughts but until we saw her at Newport that weekend, that was kind of the first ‘Man, I think we might be right’ moment.”
Yola’s toured since then with Crow, Kacey Musgraves, Andrew Gold, Old Crow Medicine Show and, underscoring her versatility and freedom from genre, Greta Van Fleet. Currently, she’s on a solo North American headlining tour which will break briefly for Grammy Week, followed by the “Girls Just Wanna Weekend” in Mexico Jan. 29-Feb. 2 with many of the non-conformist women she’s inspired and been inspired by.
After that, she returns to headlining venues like the Troubadour
in L.A. and Great American Music Hall in San Francisco before going out in support of Chris Stapleton in March, a show with Brandi Carlile and Sheryl Crow at Gorge Amphitheater in Washington June 6, and select festival plays to be announced. The team is trying to keep its touring strategy flexible, because they’ve seen Yola’s fortunes change quickly.
“Every time we think about a long term plan things happen much quicker than expected – being prescriptive about when you expect things to happen can prevent you seeing the opportunity coming up sooner so we have a very fluid view,” says her manager, Neverno Management’s Charlie Pierce. “Yola’s ability to connect with diverse audiences has defied not just mine but everybody expectations. She has opened for everybody from Kacey Musgraves, to The Killers, to Greta Van Fleet. I don’t know any other artist who can stretch across all of those crowds and impact each and every one in a meaningful way.”
But for now, she’s looking forward to performing at the Grammys.
“Fortunately my ability to take things less seriously is something that I’ve developed. I’m able to go into situations that to anyone else would feel bizarre, and if the thing I’ve got to do is singing, I’ll be fine. I don’t have a living memory of not singing. That’s something that is as innate as if I had to just stand up there and breathe. That’s not what I find challenging in a way.”
So even when it comes to an upcoming Grammy Awards performance, one should not expect her to live through the dreams of others.
“I think the one thing that does happen is when you’re in the moment, when you’re actually doing it, comes the inevitability of becoming highly adrenalized and being aware of where you are. It’s all the more important for me to distance myself from that reality, even in the moment. I know that people want me to vicariously live this visceral experience, but there’s nothing that’s healthy about that for the body, so I do everything in my power not to.”
Sidebar: Dan Auerbach On Producing Yola’s Walk Through Fire Was ‘Meant To Be’
Dan Auerbach is probably best known as one-half of the Black Keys, along with drummer Patrick Carney, but he’s also been making a serious mark as a producer and owner of Easy Eye Sound studio and record label, too. Among his producer credits are records with Cage the Elephant, Dr. John, Lana Del Rey, Ray LaMontagne, Jake Bugg, and the Pretenders.
He won the Grammy Award in 2013 as Producer of the Year, Non-Classical, along with Best Rock Song and Best Rock Performance for “Lonely Boy” and Best Rock Album for El Camino. Auerbach is in the Grammy spotlight again with a return nod for Producer of the Year, Non-Classical for Yola’s Walk Through Fire and Best American Roots Song, for the single “Faraway Look.”
All told, Auerbach has won eight Grammy Awards from a total of 16 nominations.
POLLSTAR: You’re an in-demand producer already, yet you sought out Yola, who was barely known at the time in the U.S.?
Auerbach: It felt like it was meant to be. She just spoke to me and as soon as I heard her, I knew. The first time I heard her voice it was on a video that someone showed me. And as soon as I saw it I thought, “I want to meet her.” She’d been coming to Nashville for a couple of years, to the AmericanaFests, playing all the shows, trying to get anybody to listen. But as soon as I heard her, I dunno … I just knew. And when I met her, that sealed the deal.
It sounds like it was pretty much love at first sight when you finally met.
I loved her spirit, and I loved her energy in the room. Then she sang in front of me in person and she just knocked me out. Hearing and seeing her on video was one thing, but hearing her in front of you in a room in person is just a whole other thing.
What was the recording experience like on Walk Through Fire?
We spent a few weeks writing before we even got into the studio, and we wrote for a while. That was very fruitful, and very fun. We were going places we didn’t expect to go.
By the time we were ready to record, we had all these songs and it took us just three days to record. Then we had a couple days to redo some things but it was mostly recorded live.
Rumor has it you’re already working on the next record, and she’s joked it might be a jazz/funk album.
We definitely started working on music for the next record. I honestly don’t know what we could call it. I wouldn’t even want to try to say. You never really know what you’ve got until you start to record. Then you can tell what the story is going to be. It’s too early to say.
This record has generated six Grammy nominations, including two for you. How gratifying is that?
I think I’ve only got one. She’s got four. I’m not really sure. Oh shit! I guess I do have two! [laughter]
I am her biggest fan. I’m just excited to be there. I’m thrilled for her, because she deserves it. I just want to be there to support her. Yola is the real deal. Those feelings she has and those songs she wrote from them are genuine.