Yola’s Blazing Debut Took A ‘Walk Through Fire’ And A Mutual Americana Embrace

Mar 13, 2019

Siobhan Kennedy is an enthusiastic music diplomat between those two nations famously divided by a common language. Raised in Liverpool, England, hometown of the Beatles and Echo & the Bunnymen, she’s a one-time recording artist, a long-time Nashvillian, and wife of record producer Ray Kennedy. She’s also a board member of the Americana Music Association UK, which recently had its fourth convention and awards in London. Early this year, she said strong ties between the US and UK scenes had created a potent situation.

“You can see we’re almost ready to have a big famous Americana UK act,” she said. “I don’t think it’s happened yet. But out of our whole thing, somebody is going to happen really soon. I’m still watching and waiting. I have my little visions in my head of who I think it might be.”

One of the contenders who came up in that conversation was Yola Carter, who’d been named Artist of the Year at the Americana UK awards in 2017. Since revealing her new self and her debut full-length album Walk Through Fire in February, she has pared down to simply Yola. Born Yolanda Quartey in Bristol, England 35 years ago, she’s showing innumerable signs of being that proverbial overnight sensation following 30 years of dreaming, working, focusing, fighting and singing as if touched by the souls of Nina Simone, Amy Winehouse and Dusty Springfield. Gifted and persuasive, she negotiates the overlap of country, soul and folk with a confidence and affection that embodies the Americana ideal, and indeed she is proud to claim the label and community.

“My introduction came through AmericanaFest UK,” she told me on our first meeting in the Fall of 2017. “And my experience was that it was close-knit, very supportive and it had a range of people stylistically making music. We saw it as an umbrella term rather than necessarily a genre in itself.”

When Yola first visited AmericanaFest on this side of the Atlantic in 2016, she walked into a scene that was having a vigorous conversation about inclusion and diversity and celebrating the power of female artists. And it struck her as a dramatic contrast to the industry settings she’d negotiated in England, where tokenism and typecasting were rampant. “Doing backing vocals becomes this job that people try to coax you into doing all the time as a woman of color,” she told Rolling Stone this year. In the English pop scene, she had to fight to be acknowledged as a singer-songwriter; in Americana – UK and US – that was just expected. “You can actively do something about (inclusion) if it’s genuine,” she says. “I think the main thing and the thing that’s almost indicative of this environment, this community, is being genuine about your love of the breadth of music.”

Yola further describes just how essential Americana was to her finding her own path stylistically, after quite a few years shackled by the contemporary scene in London, where country music was more the subject of mockery than viable source material. “It was that neo-soul sound and Afro-beat,” she says of the dominant oeuvre. “That was what was available for someone like me. The country soul option was very far down the line. Finding a home for that in a super hipster environment that doesn’t get it yet, that’s a long road.”

Besides urbane musical snobbery, Yola chafed against what she calls the “Bro-tocracy,” of London music, a patriarchy of music gatekeepers “from people that think they’re liberal,” she says. “And then really in the way they’re acting, it’s like a hyena hierarchy. It’s a fiercely social pack mentality that you have to navigate.”

But navigate she did, through a career as a professional commercial songwriter (“top line” is the term she uses, indicating melodies and lyrics over beats and beds made by producers) and then through stretches with Bristol-based soul band Phantom Limb, London-based DJ collective Bugz in the Attic and support for electronica stars Massive Attack. Not bad, but a world away from the music she fell in love with as a very little girl rummaging her mother’s LP collection – Dolly Parton and The Staple Singers, or later, the country rock of The Byrds and the old-time O Brother soundtrack. Again, it was Americana, the island of misfit toys to quote Brandi Carlile’s recent Grammy acceptance speech, that seemed to offer the refuge she’d sought.

This didn’t only provide esthetic camaraderie, but a professional track as well. At AmericanaFest, Yola networked and assembled a team even as she was blowing folks away with her fervent, groove-laden roots music. The buzz made its way to rock star and producer Dan Auerbach, who invited Yola not only to record at his studio with his team for his record label, but to co-write an album together, front to back.

It’s hard to imagine how a collaboration could have more beautiful multiplier effects. Her commitment to emotional truth and her outstanding voice met his feeling for arrangements and orchestration that would let her be heard in all her colors. Yola is confident in and intelligent about her range of tones and timbres, from earthy and woody to clean and choral to ferocious, a quality she winkingly referred to as “a rumbling monster under the bed.” We hear those dynamics in the opening track “Faraway Look,” where the velvet alto range of the verses scarcely prepares you for the supersonic heights of the chorus.

That track and others have a late 60s Wrecking Crew kind of feel, with ornaments like Glockenspiel, Mellotron and marimba. String arrangements swoon on the gossamer and mythic “Shady Grove” and cut like bluegrass triple fiddles on “It Ain’t Easier,” a near perfect track and an ecstatic expression of pure country soul. “Deep Blue Dream” is a delicate waltz that succeeds with its pretty minimalism. And the album finishes strong with “Love Is Light,” a track that feels like Yola’s heroine Dolly in prime commercial mid-career.

The title track “Walk Through Fire” may be the most subversive on the disc. The story derives from a literal house fire where Yola's got more than a little singed (she shows her scars on stage) and which became a cleansing catharsis that she used to leave one life of stultifying relationships behind to start anew. The lyric and the subject matter would have signaled to another artist of her ilk to take the song to church and burn it down. But with doghouse bass, old time fiddle and a harmonica (take that, London hipsters), it’s the most back-porch country side on the album. This mesmerizing fusion of a sumptuous black voice over a rural stomp would seem simply implausible but for the lingering influence of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, which she says “changed my actual life.”

Yola was bound to garner attention with her vocal magic even if she’d released a predictable retro-soul debut album. That’s a fashionable way to be in the time of Chris Stapleton and Nathaniel Rateliff. Wonder of wonders, she exceeded that threshold with the first album I’ve heard since Golden Hour with such a fully realized, consistent esthetic and tone. Kacey Musgraves took her opus to the top of the musical world with an Album of the Year Grammy. Could Yola rocket to such heights? Could she pull a shocker Norah Jones new artist sweep? Could she be that British roots songwriter who breaks, via Americana, into true pop music echelons, as Siobhan Kennedy has hoped? Well, she is on a major label (Warner’s Nonesuch Records, home of Rhiannon Giddens) and she’s been getting some celebrity endorsement mojo from Kendall Jenner who tweeted a “big fan” endorsement to her 25 million followers. You never know what factors will lead to escape velocity. But the musical wisdom, the charisma and the hard-earned sense of self-determination are all there, and it’s gratifying to see how a mutual embrace of and by Americana helped a vital talent looking for a country to call her own.