Right about this time a year ago, Yola was awaiting the February release of her debut album, Walk Through Fire. Not many people knew her, but she knew herself and that was already a huge accomplishment in a career and a life that had been beset with hardships and mistakes. That dead eye focus on herself was key to crafting songs for the album, a country-soul mashup which proved to be one of 2019’s best reviewed records. It helped her go from virtual unknown to budding superstar. It’s the force that is sending her to this Sunday’s Grammy Awards, where she’s nominated in four categories. When she’s done there, Yola will be headed to Heights Theater for a February 7 show, her first-ever Houston gig.
Yola's backstory is fraught with harrowing moments. She grew up in poverty just outside of Bristol, United Kingdom, experienced racism and was homeless in London for a while. She once survived a house fire, which inspired the title of her debut LP. Her career has had fits and starts, even though she had hits with dance artist Duke Dumont and was briefly a member of the British band Massive Attack. We were less interested in the specific challenges of her past than how those trials are helping her in these promising times.
“I think when you have to earn your stripes, as opposed to having someone giving them to you, you develop a musculature, if you will, and that gives you a sense of knowing how to navigate some things. Because, if there’s anything, you’re extremely informed on what you don’t want, which can really help inform what you do want,” she said in a recent telephone interview with Houston Press.
“I wasn’t aware exactly how much that was the case until I got to this point in my career and people were asking me, ‘How come things are going so quickly for you?’ And I was essentially saying, because I’ve made almost all of the kinds of mistakes a person can make – not all of them, but just a decent number of them – regarding who it’s good to work with, who it’s not good to work with, like how it’s good to build a team, how it’s not good to build a team, like a good route to getting to a point of self-actualization and truly expressing yourself and a crap route. I’ve done every kind of different nuance of way you can do something wrong, so the only option that was left to me was the right one.”
“There’s a particular trope for the kind of headstrong black woman and anytime I’d display an opinion I’d be thrown into this kind of stereotype,” she continued. “You want to dodge out of the way of becoming that next stereotype, so generally you become afraid to lead and you become afraid to demand certain things for yourself, for the sake of your own creativity. And getting out of the way of environments that perpetuate these stereotypes was massive for me.”
We had queries about stereotypes in our line of questioning, but they centered more on how she, a black, British woman, might not fit someone’s stereotypical notion of an Americana artist.
“Ironically, the former is more damaging because it stops you from being able to assert yourself. That de-toothing, that disabling of your ability to pursue autonomy, has everything to do with why, at this point of my life, I’m debuting. I just managed to get out from under all of the negative connotations of black women using their power for the sake of autonomy and the right to guide their own lives. Like, it’s very useful to have a black woman in service to you. If there’s anything that music has proven it’s that black woman in service has been popular over decades.
“So, breaking out of that, of the stereotypes of over-enthusiastic, ready-to-serve mammy, is something that I’ve fought to get out of. It’s only really now that I’ve found a way to navigate that and it really is the difference,” she said. “Ironically, the things that pertain to the original perceived problem of being British and black were less of a problem. Especially being in Nashville - it’s not desperately far from Memphis, it’s but a few hours on one singular interstate. So, explaining that soul and country might have a bit of proximity was like, ‘Well, duh!’ Geographically it has proximity.
“Be under no mistake that players use to ride up and down that interstate swapping gigs. That’s a part of understanding Dan Penn’s kind of background, the philosophy of writing music sung by soul singers as well as country singers,” she continued. “When you’re in that environment people are like, ‘Yeah, we’re aware of that.’ So, it was less of a conversation than I thought it would be.”
As for being British and taking on an American art form, Yola simply said, “Elton, the Bee Gees, the Stones and the Beatles. And Joe Cocker! If anything, it’s old news.”
The big, current news is Yola’s upcoming Grammy weekend. Walk Through Fire, produced by The Black Keys' Dan Auerbach and released on his label, Easy Eye Sound, is nominated for Best Americana Album. She’s earned nods in Best American Roots Song and Best American Roots Performance fields and is on the short list for Best New Artist. We asked whether winning a statuette — or four — would be important to her.
“In consideration of the effort it’s taken to get to this point, it’s extremely validating to be nominated four times, least of all the winning of it, moreover just the recognition of the progress I’ve made in this 11 and a-half months of this album campaign. It’s been just utterly significant and I was just taken aback by the whole process. I was hoping I’d get one, but I certainly did not expect four,” she admits.
“I was just over-awed by it and it’s validating, it is, from all of those things we were talking about regarding the supportive role and the kinds of things one gets told. I was told by a record company executive once that no one wanted to hear a black woman sing rock and roll. And I neglected to go, ‘You’re clearly an idiot because you’ve never heard about Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Big Mama Thornton and they created rock and roll,’” she said. “It’s in those moments where you’re told things that are kind of patently prejudiced that it’s kind of validating to be recognized for your music by your peers.”
Speaking of peers, Yola’s fast found herself in the company of music elites. She’s opened for Kacey Musgraves and has performed with The Highwomen and Dolly Parton. She’s sung with Mavis Staples, worked with Brandi Carlile and looks forward to performing with Chris Stapleton, Sheryl Crow and Willie Nelson this year. And, when her take on Elton John’s classic “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” dropped, Sir Elton himself premiered the music video. We asked whether she's prepared for the sort of celebrity those artists have experienced.
“I definitely have been trying to take advantage of the freedoms that I have as I have them because the speed with which things have accelerated from being a complete unknown to the point where Elton John would be shouting you out and premiering your music video is – it hasn’t taken long. It’s been a very short turnaround,” she noted. “It’s starting to become apparent to me, and it’s probably already been apparent to my team, that there’s going to be a limited amount of time where I can shuffle to the supermarket in a onesie and not be bothered if I don’t want to be bothered. Like, those days are soon going to be over, so I’m trying to take advantage of as much as I can to do casual things, but its already starting to change. I went to the cinema and I was buying popcorn and I turned around and someone was wearing a Yola T-shirt. I was like, ‘Well, this is the beginning of the end!’”
More likely, it’s the beginning of something wonderful. As far as beginnings go, Texas actually played a pivotal role in Yola’s recent rise.
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“I’ve not been to Houston yet but I have been to Texas,” she said. “Probably the biggest uplift of this year was South by Southwest. I did 16 appearances in seven days. It was almost impossible to do physically, I definitely took myself to the brink in that particular situation. As a result of a number of the shows I did there, bookings came in for almost the entirety of the year at that point. I went from somebody that no one had heard of to having completely unpaid and unsolicited promotions from Kendall Jenner and Jamie Lee Curtis on Instagram and Twitter, just extolling the virtues of my acoustic show. And I was like, ‘Okay!’”
Those shows helped her leap from an expected grind to becoming “nationally visible on a pinhead, and the significance of that trip to Texas is career-changing. So, yes, I have fond, if very, very busy memories of Texas.”
Soon, Yola will be back in Texas to make more memories, including some in Houston, and maybe she’ll be arriving with a bundle of new, shiny Grammy Awards in tow.
Yola makes her Houston debut Friday, February 7 at Heights Theater, 339 W. 19th. With Thomas Csorba. Doors at 7 p.m., all ages, $20 and up.