Codfish Hollow Barnstormers — Friday, Sept. 20 at 8 p.m.
Walk Through Fire isn’t just a metaphor about perseverance. The title to the 2019 debut full-length from Yola also refers to a life-changing house fire she survived. In 2014, the British singer had been handling a bioethanol burner with a faulty fuel canister that, unbeknownst to her, leaked throughout the room and eventually ignited.
“It kind of snaked out across the floor and caught the canister on fire,” Yola said, “and then it caught my dress on fire, and my dress went up. So I was on fire, and I had to just to think of something that was worse than being on fire, because I was in shock. And I thought about how the first 30 years of my life were so utterly hellish.”
“I’d been just a couple years out of that stage of my life, and everything had turned around and I was in such a loving and wonderful environment.”
It was at that moment that Yola realized she was truly happy, and she says she thought, I’ll take my life right now — plus fire — any day of the week! “I just started laughing and that took me out of my shock.”
In her music and personal life, Yola has fought for her freedom and defied easy categorization. The idea of a black woman of Caribbean heritage playing country music might seem unusual — but let’s not forget that the banjo came from Africa before it became associated with white American Southerners.
Born in 1984 as Yolanda Quartey, Yola was raised by a single mother who emmigrated from Barbados to Portishead, a suburb of Bristol in the southwest of England. Her mom arrived in the U.K. as part of the Windrush Initiative, which brought many health care workers from the former colonies to help staff the National Health Service.
There were few people of color in Yola’s village, and her dark skin ensured that she faced the everyday indignities of racism, from being followed by security in stores to living in poverty. It was an isolating experience, but music was a portal that took her into faraway worlds.
“I think one of the most important parts of my life was my connection to music,” Yola said. “The place that I felt that people were speaking to me in some way — about being on the outside, you know, discovering themselves — was in music.”
“My experience was very much [one of] connecting to anything that had the element of storytelling,” she continued. “The thing that attracted me to that was the idea of representing yourself, to truly emote in an environment that didn’t represent my voice. So I was drawn to Aretha Franklin, Dolly Parton, Elton John, Otis Redding. I was drawn to so many musicians who had a sense of agency and confession. That was the very first thing that spoke to me.”
Yola realized at the age of 4 that she wanted to be a singer, a career path her mother forbade. “There is the black and brown parent trope of there being only three acceptable jobs: doctor, lawyer, business person. And possibly engineer. So it wasn’t easy to find places that I could even sing, let alone even find myself.”
She realized early on that she was a bit of an oddball, all the way down to her musical tastes, such as her love Parton’s 1974 album Jolene. “It was almost as though everything I was looking for didn’t exist yet,” Yola said, “or had already existed a long time ago and so people had forgotten that it did exist.”
Much of the music that she grew up with was eclectic and open, but that wasn’t the case when she began breaking into music. “Categories were being whittled down, like, ‘You fit there, you stay there.’ That was something I fought against as a paradigm.”
Discussing how white rappers like Eminem and older blue-eyed soul artists crossed over into other musical territories, she observed, “That concept of freedom in music should not be just one-sided, and that’s what I resisted. Like, ‘Why do you get to be free and I don’t? How does that work?’”
Before releasing her 2016 debut EP, Orphan Offering, Yola was part of Massive Attack’s writing team and briefly toured with them as a lead vocalist. She also sang and wrote as a gun-for-hire on hit pop and dance songs by Katy Perry, Will Young, Duke Dumont and others. While that may have been creatively constraining for Yola, the financial windfall was liberating.
“That basically provided money for me to start again,” she said, “and I decided to become my own ‘rich daddy.’”
Yola had seen how many artistically inclined upper-middle class kids had a head start in the game because they didn’t have to struggle just to keep a roof over their heads, but she worked hard and got lucky and was able to buy her own privilege.
“Many of them had trust funds and whatnot,” she said, “so I could not compete with someone else with a rich daddy. And I didn’t even start with a daddy! So I’m going to be my own rich daddy.”
Co-writing and singing on hit songs also gave Yola the confidence boost that she was capable of doing anything.
“It took essentially three years for me to pick up the guitar and get the songs out of my head,” Yola said. “That was the big transition for me, but when I finally did choose to collaborate with people again it was a matter of choice, not necessity.”
She then used her own money to pay for the session musicians, production and publicity to promote Orphan Offering. “I essentially did all of that alone, just by funding myself and making sure that the essential parts of my team were working to push my name out there. That was the thing that lit the fire.”
Nashville embraced her with open arms, which led to the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach producing 2019’s Walk Through Fire and signing Yola to his Easy Eye label. The album’s lush sound was supplied by legendary backing musicians who played with Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley and Dusty Springfield.
“It was unreal, ridiculous levels of awesome,” Yola recalled. “But you can’t go into a room with these people and every time you’re just in awe or flabbergasted, because you can’t make a record that way.”
And what a beautiful record it is. The musically rich “Ride Out In the Country” sounds like an old familiar friend, as if it’s been around for years. Yola’s versatile voice soars above the more epic, sweeping songs while also staying grounded on Walk Through Fire’s fiddle-infused title track.
“It was very much inspired by that moment of feeling rebirthed through fire,” Yola said of her brush with fate. “Before that I had not been making music for some time. Then I decided to start learning to play the guitar and was inspired to write again, but none of that would have happened without that moment.”
Kembrew McLeod loves ‘Walk Through Fire’ and the sound of Yola’s voice. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 271.