Yolanda Quartey was already a successful British songwriter when she launched her solo career as Yola with 2019’s Walk Through Fire, an album that showcased the full range of her influences and abilities. Recorded with vintage-minded producer Dan Auerbach, Walk Through Fire mixes the past and present in equal doses, whipping up its own form of timeless country-soul along the way. Appropriately, the album has found some of its fiercest champions in Americana fans, many of whom attended the live recording of Walking the Floor‘s newest episode during the 2019 AmericanaFest.
Recorded in front of an audience, today’s podcast focuses on Yola’s past career as a top-line songwriter, her behind-the-scenes work as a vocalist for British dance hits and the jet-setting schedule that’s needed to maintain her flourishing solo career. Listen to the episode below, along with our list of episode highlights.
Although Yola’s songs bear little resemblance to the sound of most Nashville-made country music, the city has still played a monumental role in her career.
Raised in Bristol, England, Yola kicked off her career overseas, logging time as a top-line songwriter before joining the UK-based band Phantom Limb. When it came time to launch her solo career, though, she began focusing on Nashville, where Walk Through Fire was written and recorded. Both her producer, Dan Auerbach, and her label, Easy Eye Records, are also based in the Tennessee city. “I put the together the time I’ve been spending here, on and off since January,” she tells Shiflett, “and it’s been about six months. So I think I live here.”
What’s a topliner, you ask?
A form of collaborative songwriting that focuses on melodies and lyrics rather than beats, toplining was Yola’s introduction to the music industry. “You’re the one they call in to do the Bernie Taupin job,” she says of the job. “If you’re in pop, you might get sent a backing track, and they want you to respond to the backing track. You’ll put the lyrics and melody over that backing track.” Yola proved to be a successful topliner, contributing to a handful of EDM-pop crossover hits — and singing on several British dance-music smashes, too — before focusing on her own music.
Much of her early work as a vocalist-for-hire remains uncredited. . .on purpose.
“I call it ‘a featured non-feature,'” she says of the songs that feature her vocals but not her name. “I was like, ‘When I debut, it’s gotta look like I came out of nowhere — on purpose — because I want the opportunity to write my own story. I don’t want anyone to write it for me.” In other words, Yola wanted people to view her as a songwriting solo artist. “I purposely didn’t feature on a bunch of stuff,” she clarifies, “to give myself the opportunity for doing what I really wanna do, when I get into the environment that’s right, that’s healthy, that’s conducive to me making the sound I wanna make.”
Being affiliated with Dan Auerbach can do wonders for one’s social circle, but Yola still doesn’t care if people think she’s uncool.
“I have nerd tastes,” she says proudly. “I love Star Trek and I love Harry Potter, and I read a lot of Stephen King books. I watch almost exclusively sci-fi.”
Her travel schedule might be exhausting, but it does come with unanticipated benefits. Lately, Yola has been thankful to spend some time away from the UK as it struggles with Brexit preparations.
Yola is selling her place back home, largely because it’s been rendered vacant as her touring obligations increase. “I would have not been it for 10 of the past 12 months,” she points out. being gone has other advantages, too. “I’m just not in the UK, so I’ve got a bit of a muted experience of [the Brexit situation],” Yola adds. “It’s a hot mess [with] absolute galloping douchebags, left, right, back and center.”
Speaking of douchebags, Yola has a name for the power-drunk men of the music industry: Johnny Giant Balls.
“‘Johnny Giant Balls’ is the guy that invites you into his office, and he sits on a perfectly acceptable chair behind a desk, and then he gives you a little clown chair, or he gives you a nice chair but it’s not the same kind of chair,” she says. “All musicians at some point — especially if they’re talking to the big wigs — might have seen Johnny and his giant balls. They put you in the reclining chair so you just can’t get comfortable. . .And they sit from their throne-upon-high and just talk about how amazing they are.”