It was hard to miss Yola at July’s Newport Folk Festival. The brightly dressed, earthy-voiced singer appeared on multiple stages at the legendary Rhode Island event, dropping in on sets by the Highwomen — where she got the biggest cheers of the -supergroup’s show — and Dolly Parton, who welcomed Yola for a raucous group singalong of “9 to 5.” She also drew an overflowing crowd to her own side-stage performance, delivering a deeply moving set of country-soul originals. “Yola is a force unlike any we’ve ever seen in this genre,” says Brandi Carlile, who considers Yola an “honorary member” of her group Highwomen. (Next up, she’ll be performing September 12th at Americanafest.)
This kind of thing has been happening a lot this year, since the 36-year-old released Walk Through Fire. Her debut LP combines the lush heartbreak of Sixties torch songs with Nashville rootsiness, telling the story of a deeply painful relationship and how the singer-songwriter got out of it. (See “Walk Through Fire,” where Yola sings, “My bags are packed, and I’m ready/I think I’m gonna make a run, oh, Lord.”) The album earned her an opening slot on the latest leg of Kacey Musgraves’ “Oh, What a World” Tour — when Musgraves made the announcement, she called Yola an “icon.” “Every other day, something really awesome has been happening,” Yola says. “It feels totally abnormal.”
Yola’s breakthrough comes after years of what she calls “being kept in my box.” She grew up in Bristol, England, and had a strained relationship with her mother, who died in 2013. (Yola attributes the tension, in part, to her mother’s “traits of psychopathy.”) After graduating from a “demi-fancy” grammar school she attended on scholarship, Yola became involved with London’s dance-music scene. Over the next decade, she lived several musical lives: as a top-line songwriter, an uncredited vocalist on a few massive British dance-music hits, and as the lead singer for folk-rock band Phantom Limb. She did some work as a backup singer, though she turned down an offer to work with Adele.
“People try to coax you into those jobs all the time as a woman of color,” says Yola. “Backup singers are almost ubiquitously my shade or darker. The moment I touch it, I devalue my voice.”
Yola felt a similar lack of creative control in her band Phantom Limb, which led her to quit the group in 2013. She took a three-year break from music, funded by royalty checks from British club tracks she sang on and produced. “My life looked like this,” she says. “Tuesday: tennis. Thursday: javelin. Saturday: horse-riding. In the middle: loads of cocktails and eating in a kind of super-gastronomically-advanced way.”
As a way to make sense of her tumultuous time in Phantom Limb, Yola began writing new kinds of songs: more honest and raw, about “the hurt of divorcing myself from that [time].” She thought about all the relationships — personally and musically — where she felt relegated to a supporting role. “For quite a long time, I put on the ‘I can do anything, I’m a strong black woman’ bullshit,” Yola says. “But all that does is reinforce a paradigm of neglect. And you get pushed into it a lot more if you’re in white spaces most of your life, which I was.”
The latest space she’s learned to navigate is Nashville, where she recorded Walk Through Fire with producer Dan Auerbach (of the Black Keys), and now stays in a space owned by fellow Americana artist Rhiannon Giddens. Yola is still getting used to all the acclaim — for an album she made entirely on her own terms. “The response has made me highly emotional,” she says. “Getting tweeted by Kendall Jenner and Jamie Lee Curtis was not on the list of things I expected for this record.”