THE WASHINGTON POST – On a crisp on Thursday in December 2019, British singer Yola (pic below) danced around NPR’s Washington, DC, headquarters as she belted out a new song, the soulful and twangy I Don’t Wanna Lie, during soundcheck for that afternoon’s Tiny Desk Concert. “If you could project a little more, that’d be great,” Tiny Desk creator Bob Boilen joked when she finished. “She does not need a microphone,” Yola dryly replied.
She had a point. In a space as intimate as Boilen’s desk, which forces singers to perform raw and unamplified, the sheer power of Yola’s voice was overwhelming.
When she was ready to film, her band launched into Faraway Look, a standout from her debut album, Walk Through Fire, and Yola let out a booming vocal that left the audience of mostly NPR staffers in awe.
That voice is a big part of what made Black Keys singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach want to work with Yola. “For having such an incredible tool, she has an amazing amount of restraint, which is nearly impossible to teach people,” said Auerbach, who produced Yola’s debut and released it in February on his Easy Eye Sound records. “She knows when to sing sweet and she knows when to let it roar.”
After years of fronting a band that wasn’t her artistic vision, Yola is finally breaking out on her own thanks to the success of her country soul opus Walk Through Fire. The album earned four nominations for Grammy Awards.
Yola relishes challenging expectations. She’s well aware that because she’s a black British woman, most people don’t expect her to make country music, the dominant genre on Walk Through Fire and even more so on her 2016 EP Orphan Offering.
“I knew it was going to be the hardest one to sell,” said Yola, who has collaborated with Brandi Carlile’s country supergroup The Highwomen. “There are loads of genres that are important to me, but there will be some that people will assume that I do and there will be some I’m going to have to push hard so people know that it’s there as a colour.” She discovered country music through her mom’s record collection, and by the time she was in high school, she knew she wanted to explore the genre.
“Apart from maybe being black and British and a lady, in part, in piecemeal, everyone’s been doing it already,” Yola said, citing Elton John and Ray Charles as examples of artistes who had successfully challenged the notion of who can make country music. “Then it was just convincing people that I wasn’t completely mad.”
One of the keys to unlocking Yola’s potential came when she met Auerbach, who invited her to come to his studio in Nashville after he saw a clip on YouTube of her performing. “I just felt a connection to her,” Auerbach recalls. “I don’t know exactly what it was.” The pair quickly bonded over shared musical interests. “I was talking about my love of the Everly Brothers and my love of Roy Orbison, and it was something that we really met on,” Yola recalled. “So when it came to writing songs, we were able to move into these areas that we both knew we’d love.”
The result was Walk Through Fire, a country-tinged Americana album with shades of dramatic British folk music, Orbison-esque ballads and the soulful theatrics of Dusty Springfield’s Dusty in Memphis. “I was looking to be outside of genre, full stop,” Yola said.
“That was the idea: to be at the nexus of a bunch of stuff, so if I was too far into something, I was doing it wrong for myself, emotionally.” The album is full of break-up songs – not only directed at an ex but at old versions of herself. “She’s not afraid to talk about hard, personal stories,” Auerbach said, “which always makes it so much more impactful.”
Yola and Auerbach are already at work on a follow-up. Yola said she wants to start adding new elements to her music – jazz and funk, for example – and points to Kacey Musgraves as inspiration.
“She brings disco, and you would not think that would attach smoothly to country,” Yola says. “But people from across all kinds of different aisles love it.”
Just don’t expect to get the full breadth of what Yola can do anytime soon. She’s playing the long game.