Yola Is Spearheading A Roots-Rock Revival

Credit: Alysse Gafkjen

Credit: Alysse Gafkjen

It’s almost twenty minutes into our conversation before Yola—Yolanda Quartey—mentions that she rides a motorcycle. I don’t know why I’m surprised; in retrospect, the song “Ride Out In The Country”, from her solo debut album Walk Through Fire, seems like it’s about this very thing, but at first blush it’s not clear that the trip is taking place on two wheels instead of four. (Yola, who lives in Bristol, England, also rides horses.) It’s a song about escaping the bustle and pressures of the city, yes, but on a more basic, intrinsic level, it’s a song about self-care.

Released in February, Walk Through Fire is Yola’s full-length solo debut, following seventeen years as a songwriter and session singer around Bristol and London. It’s an album about heartbreak and loss, but it’s also a series of stories told from the perspective of a grown-ass woman who knows herself very well. This checks out—Yola cites Dolly Parton and Mavis Staples as two beloved influences.

“Dolly, her sense of autonomy, despite the environment and the era that she started in—[she had] that sense of persistence in the face of being belittled,” Yola says, a perspective that spoke to her as she grew up in and around Portishead, England, as one of only a few people of color in her community.

Produced by Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys, Walk Through Fire seamlessly blends country, soul and roots rock influences to create a sound that is uniquely Yola’s own, one that she describes as “ecletic.”

“People say, ‘What would you say this is?’ I’m like, ‘I can’t help you with that,’” she says, laughing. She also cracks up telling a story about how, when she was four years old, she thought she only had a year left to make it in the music industry, because Michael Jackson got his start when he was five. She says that because of her working-class upbringing, she was “heavily discouraged from doing music”, but those roadblocks ended up being a powerful early motivator for her to prove that she could turn her musical gifts into a viable career.

“Out the gate, you’re just expecting that it’s not an option, so that gives you a kick up the ass to get on it, and make something work,” she says. “I was very aware that I had to make it manifest itself in a real way quite early.” In addition to her work as a session singer, she fronted the Bristol band Phantom Limb. Around the time Yola turned 30, however, the band had become a toxic environment for her, and she decided it was time to strike out on her own. Thanks to writing and vocal credits on two hit pop/EDM crossover singles in the U.K., she was able to lay the groundwork for her own solo career.

As a country and roots music lover, Yola naturally gravitated toward Nashville, and as her sound developed, she started making trips to the Music City to play festivals and shows. She says that one of the best parts of being in the city is that people intuitively understand her country-soul sound in a way that doesn’t come as naturally to those in the U.K.

“There’s a lot of explaining I don’t have to do, musically,” she says of her reception in Nashville. “When you’re here, they go, ‘Oh, [Memphis] is three hours down the road.’ It’s not that surprising that musicians might have traveled up and down the interstate to get involved in what was going on.”

Yola and Auerbach recorded the album in Nashville, and many country music greats make cameo appearances. The titular track, inspired by Yola’s harrowing experience of her house going up in flames, features Country Music Hall of Famer Charlie McCoy on harmonica. Rounding out the album’s lineup are songwriter Dan Penn and studio musician Bobby Wood, who has recorded with Elvis and George Strait.

Yola’s collaboration with Auerbach, who released the album on his Easy Eye label, involved a lot of discussion of the crossover of their individual tastes and influences, she says. They wrote the majority of the songs on the album in six days.

Of her journey as an artist over the last seventeen years—although really, it’s been a lifetime in the making—Yola says that the biggest challenge wasn’t financial or familial obstacles, or working in an unusual genre, or even the sense of otherness she felt growing up in a mostly white community.

“It was not being taken seriously because I was a woman,” she says. “Not having my acumen recognized, not having the freedom to develop as a songwriter outside of pop writing, and being kept in roles, even when they were leading, that had an element of service to somebody else.”

“So, the kind of freeing up of that dynamic and being able to write as a standalone writer and then write in a collaborative way was probably the beginning of the big upswing of my career.”

Catch Yola this summer at the Newport Folk Festival and next fall at Austin City Limits, and in January 2020 at Brandi Carlile’s Girls Just Wanna Weekend.

Katherine Flynn