Yola grew up a Dolly Parton-loving Brit, now exploring fusion of country, soul
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When singer-songwriter Yola was growing up in Bristol, England, her mother’s vinyl records were about the only form of amusement the family could afford.
“We didn’t have like toys or anything, so everything that I focused on was musical,” says Yola, whose given name is Yolanda Quartey but goes by just Yola. “And I got into Aretha and Dolly.”
Being a black British girl who loved Dolly Parton and classic American country and soul music made her stand out a bit.
“Yeah, it did make me somewhat of an oddity to be a weird 4-year-old singing ’9 To 5,’ ” the 35-year-old singer says.
Her new album “Walk Through Fire” is a return to her early musical inspirations, an exploration of the intersection of soul, country and pop combined with her background in songwriting. Since she was about 19, she’s been a songwriter and vocalist who has worked mainly in electronic and dance music genres and collaborated with British pop singer Will Young, Bugz in the Attic and Massive Attack.
She broke out in the United States a couple of years ago as a solo artist with a versatile and powerful voice and started making trips to Nashville to play festivals and shows. A video of one of her performances made its way to Black Keys singer and guitarist Dan Auerbach, who co-wrote and produced Yola’s new album through his Nashville label Easy Eye Sound.
Auerbach brought Yola in for an intensive writing session with country and soul songwriters like Dan Penn, who co-wrote “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man,” and A-list studio musician Bobby Wood, who has recorded with Elvis, Wilson Pickett, Kris Kristofferson and George Strait. Other contributors to the record include Vince Gill and bluegrass musicians like Molly Tuttle and Stuart Duncan.
“She’s incredibly inventive, and she’s a free-thinker, and she’s open to new ideas,” Auerbach says. “I just lined our calendar with a bunch of genuine characters, different songwriters. Every few hours, there was a different weirdo across the table from us.”
With many of the collaborators having a background in ’60s and ’70s era of country and soul music, the music of the album feels like a mixture of Dusty Springfield vocals with elements of Laurel Canyon dreamy folk and some British Invasion pop and rock accents.
A highlight of the album is “It Ain’t Easier,” on which Yola’s voice starts soft and inviting over a Wurlitzer piano and fiddles, then builds to a Janis Joplin-like wail.
The album’s title track is about her real-life experience of surviving a house fire. It’s backed by a bluegrass ensemble and Country Music Hall of Famer Charlie McCoy on harmonica. Yola’s story about walking through the fire that left scars on her body and coming out of it a stronger person became the keystone song of the record.
“I felt like that gave us really great context when we were kind of finishing it off,” Yola says.