The summer of 2019 has reinvigorated a conversation about what and who constitutes country music, largely thanks to Lil Nas X and his history-making hit “Old Town Road.” But another voice has been causing some conversation: Yola, a 36-year-old black, British woman who is putting her own spin on country — plus folk and Americana — despite the long and historic struggles in those genres for black women.
She has been nominated as Emerging Act of the Year and for Album of the Year at the Americana Honours & Awards, and is opening up for Kacey Musgraves on the Oh What A World Tour II, where she’ll visit cities across the Midwest. Her debut LP, Walk Through Fire, dropped in February and it’s a study in melding classic country, soul, and rock — all produced by The Black Keys’ frontman, Dan Auerbach. And today, she premieres her latest video for "Shady Grove" with Refinery29, below. But before she entered place in Nashville’s Easy Eye studio to start recording, she endured a long, difficult journey that included growing up in Bristol with an unsupportive parent who banned her from performing when she was young, financial struggles that left her homeless for a few rough London nights in her 20s, and an indifferent music industry.
She grew up listening to albums from her mother’s collection, connecting with everything from Tina Turner to the Laurel Canyon singer/songwriter movement of the ‘60s to Dolly Parton. Then, she fell head over heels for Nina Simone. “I think that was probably the first time I heard the album Young, Gifted and Black,” she recalls to Refinery29 in a phone conversation. “I grew up in and I went to school in a very kind of white bread environment and I didn't have necessarily a lot of role models...A voice that spoke to young black people was almost alien to me.”
When she got her professional start singing in the clubs and cabarets of the UK at 18, eventually making her way to London’s competitive music scene, she found herself pushed by others to sing the type of music traditionally available to black women. “I started out singing a bit more of the Ella Fitzgerald-type jazz stuff,” Yola says. “I wouldn't say it was necessarily my specialty, it's just what was available.”
Yola soon began supplementing her club night performances with jobs working in music studios on the crew — serving as a songwriter, arranger and backup singer for the likes of Massive Attack and Katy Perry. All the while, she was singing in the British country/rock band Phantom Limb, from 2003 to 2015. Finally, she decided it was time to take the money she had earned and invest it in herself. “I threw everything I had at going solo. I didn't know whether I could do it,” Yola says. “I'd been in this super misogynistic environment [as an artist] that wasn't designed for me to succeed or self-actualise.”
Yola felt surrounded people who had pigeonholed her into traditional roles and genres for black women, sticking her behind the scenes in the studio, pushing her to sing songs that didn’t resonate for her, and telling her she could never make it on her own. “Neglect became a very big part of my life,” Yola says.“ She literally lost her voice due to excessive stress — stress she says was caused by being gaslit, put in unsafe situations, bullied, and intimidated out of making her own decisions about the direction of her career.
So, around 2016, Yola decided to pick up her guitar and, with thoughts of classic country, Motown, and her ‘60s California folk favorites in mind, she withdrew from her studio career and started to write for herself. Her first solo effort came out on an EP that year, Orphan Offering. Her writing continued with the “pretty freaking fabulous” Auerbach, who had reached out to her after a video of her caught his attention. The songs the pair co-wrote for Walk Through Fire,ended up being a cathartic way to chronicle her break-up with her earlier career, the team she’d spent years building, and the end of a bad romantic relationship. Musically, she drew inspiration from Charly Pride, Aretha Franklin, and Roy Orbison, among others. “I've never mentioned it, but it's the dang truth: I like Shania Twain,” Yola says with a big laugh. “I am going to come out of the closet right now, okay?”
Taking all those influences in hand, Yola hit the studio with Auerbach, and once again found herself the only woman in the room. “Obviously, being the age I am now, I'm used to being the only woman in the studio, but it never ceases to be intimidating,” Yola admits. “You've got to get over that hump of being intimidated by the environment and get your boss bitch energy on.”
Yola tucked her fears away, hunkered down for five days of writing with Auerbach, and went with her gut. Is she worried about the country establishment accepting her? Nah — it’s what she felt called to perform. “There's not an area of music where [racism] isn't a problem. If you choose a genre based on where you think you're going to get the most traction as opposed to what your body naturally does, then you're going to be lying to yourself for a very long time,” Yola says.
The album’s single, “Faraway Look” is the one that caught the attention of the world with its smooth Motown-inspired sound married to country guitars. For me, it was the wild video for “Ride Out in the Country,” in which she invokes a classic country tradition: the murder ballad. The song offers not even a hint of the idea of death with its verses about soft summer breezes and falling out of love, but in the video Yola hops in a pickup truck to dispose of the body of whoever fell out of love with her and his plaid flannel shirt. And then, casually, she drives back to town.
Her newest video for “Shady Grove” explores something equally untouched by most of music: the beauty and fashion routine of a Black woman. In the video, which was shot backstage over two weekends at Glastonbury, we see Yola preparing to go on stage where she’ll perform at the festival. She applies her makeup, puts on the yellow-green dress she’ll wear to perform, and, perhaps most evocatively, completely transforms her hair from pigtails into the big, teased out natural look she’ll wear on stage. The moments the camera catches her psyching herself up before she steps out feels like an intimate look into what it takes to keep Yola going.
Her tour with Musgraves is one Yola is looking forward to, because it will put her in the room with an artist whose ideals are aligned with her own; someone who has successfully made a mark for herself in the world of country music without kowtowing to country radio — a place not known to be welcoming to women or people of colour. “There are a bunch of rainbows around, she’s got this whole unicorn energy, and absolute queen level fantabulousness, but she also did not come to play,” Yola says with a giant laugh. “She talks about the rights of people and she stands up for shit in a way that is fearless.”
That spunk she admires in Musgraves is evident in Yola herself throughout our conversation. Some of her confidence clearly comes from age and experience, having done so much in the industry before setting out on her own. Those years have invigorated her and strengthened her resolve to upend the status quo in the music industry for women of colour. And she’s doing it, one successful single at a time.