YOLA | If it doesn't spark joy, it sparks a fire. Grab a hose and fight it off.
I strive for an aestheticized life as I hope most in Hollywood would. Sometimes, I want to be Grace Jones at an underground S&M party down some alley in leather shorts and platform boots. Other times, I wear neon plastic and Tabi’s to a Fade To Mind-DJ’d gallery event celebrating whatever artist is having a moment. Underneath all that, all I really want is to throw on a poet’s bloussant and retire to a sweet song in a candle lit corridor at the Chateau. With this need for a clear vision of a well-built world, one sculpted by genuine ups and downs, my ears and eyes perked at the sight and sound of Yola—a modern chanteuse with a voice and style that yields the same devastating results as a good cry from a Dusty Springfield 12-inch single.
When introduced to her debut album, Walk Through Fire, it’s easy to lose yourself and get transported into her world of lush arrangements and robust vocals. Yola’s style is so incredibly familiar, yet still so unknown for what we consume in today’s pop repertoire, a concentrated mix of unadulterated reference points that highlight pop’s history. The songstress wields a contrarian voice that many today lack.
I am driving down the worn in and wide roads of Hancock Park, surrounded by grand buildings that allude to a golden era of Hollywood, at the time of our interview. As I pull over next to a giant burgundy Victorian home, I can picture Yola playing on the well-decorated porch surrounded by children of the ‘60s, with flowers in hand. The call begins, and I am graciously pleased by her voice, which is robust and warm, passionate, and a little worn. It’s a voice that sounds of a life lived to its fullest and without regret.
I jump in to congratulate her on the album, and tell her how it pulled at my heartstrings. I have to know more of how she’s formed this audio language. “Roy Orbison and Elton John. I grew up on Aretha, Mavis, and Dolly,” she says. “For me, it was just important to bring all of that together and for moments on the record to show each of those influences. It shows the breadth of my eclecticism instead being a mono-genre album.”
While getting acquainted with Yola’s sonic bliss, it is important to know her as Yolanda Quartey, a young girl from Bristol who gathered her musical tastes from her mother, a psychiatric nurse. She frequently played vinyl records after administering medication to patients at the local mental institution. “My mother had this massive record collection and I just filtered through it and found the things that I liked,” she says, reflecting fondly. “Then I started creating this kind of sound based on the records I could find.”
Initially, this passion for her mother’s music collection made Yola strive to attend music school. Sadly, her mother deemed this education unrealistic, and discouraged the young singer. Despite her mother’s wishes, Yola sneaked out frequently to absorb the schooling she so deeply desired. This led to a circuitous and tiring journey of concealing her training. “I used to have a friend who was a jazz player,” she reminisces. “He’d invite me out to gigs that he was playing. I had to pretend I was going out, hanging with friends, and going to sleep overs...”
Eventually, Yola would come out victorious, seasoned from her exposure to music, and determined to make a life for herself singing. In 2008 she was brought in through mutual friends to be a writer and background vocalist with iconic trip-hop outfit Massive Attack. Not long after, her fellow Bristolians placed her into their mix as a touring musician. “I went in principally as a writer, and the idea wasn’t go do on the road at all,” Yola shares. “Of course, once I got there, they said, ‘you should come on the road!”
While her work with Massive Attack lent her a richer, broader exploration into different genres and the annals of touring, Yola insists that this time period didn’t help define her own grassroots-style. “Anything electronic will be in service to the acoustic, and not the other way around,” she says. “I don’t think I’ll ever be an electronic-first artist. That’s not what floats my boat.”
For Yola, remaining true to her vision is of the utmost importance, and that means country and soul are first on the agenda. She’s recorded several albums and EPs with her band, Phantom Limb, most notably 2012’s The Pines, an album filled with folky tunes arranged with timeless simplicity. Though her recent solo debut, Walk Through Fire, shows Yola fully embracing the lush production innate to her melodic understanding. “I wanted to show I had the ability to do a very built-up record, and a very stripped-down record,” Yola states, defiantly. “That’s very much what that song, “Walk Through Fire,” was for me. So I went towards all of my tastes of the poppiest side of Motown…that kind of Phil Spector type production style.”
The contents of the tracks carry the spirit of heartbreak, struggle and redemption—hallmarks of her predecessors’ greatest songs. Diving deeper into the album’s core, Yola says, “It’s more of a reference to a period of my life, pretty much the first thirty years to be honest. Every aspect of my personal life, professional life, family life, was not just tumultuous but downright abusive…” It’s clear that the joys and warmth Yola has given to the world have come from hardships. Moving forward is her motto, remarking, “It’s coming from a point of ‘I’ve survived it,’ and I’m in a good place, reflecting back on this hard time…This sense of uplifting from sorrow.”
Though Walk Through Fire is a soothing, gentle listen, the album represents a point of emotional release from a harrowing accident during Christmas-time in 2014, when Yola almost set her home, and herself, on fire. In this moment of need, a brutal clarity took over.
“I was burning!” she recalls, the memory still fresh. “I had managed to completely extricate myself from abusive friendship environments, abusive professional environments, and abusive family environments. It dawned on me that I’d happily take being on fire in my life at that point over the life that I had come out of.” This was the point which she would stop, drop, and roll to fix the rest of her home and life.
As our conversation comes to an end, I feel like I have gotten to know the artist wielding a guitar, endowed with an aura of wisdom. As I hang up, I start to reflect on the world painted by Yola’s song, shattered by her mise en scène which so captivated me. She was not only a portrait but a living embodiment of hardship and melody, expressed though the nuanced tremolo of soul greats and a pastoral allure through country ballads.