In January 2019, Yola was a little-known singer facing an uphill battle.
The 35-year-old artist was about to release her first full-length album under her own name, as a black, British, country music-loving songwriter attempting to establish herself in the Nashville-based Americana genre.
Twelve months later, things have gone rather well. Walk Through Fire, Yola’s debut album produced by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys, was released last February. In November, she earned four Grammy nominations.
When the awards are presented in Los Angeles on Jan. 26, she’ll be up for Americana album and best Americana roots song and performance (both for “Faraway Look”), as well as best new artist, a high-profile category in which she’s competing against Billie Eilish, Lil Nas X, and Lizzo.
Before that, she’ll be headlining in Philadelphia at the World Cafe Live on Jan. 11. Folk singer Amythyst Kiah opens.
“Everything has happened!” says Yola — full name: Yolanda Quartey — in an interview from her home outside Nashville. She splits time between Music City and Bristol, in the southwest of England, near her childhood home of Portishead.
“It’s not even been a year," she says. "Just from the point of not even having a record out yet, and wondering how people are going to receive it, and no one knowing who I am. ... We’ve gone from dreaming that a Grammy might be possible somewhere off in the distance, to being nominated for four in the present. And then all the people I’ve met, from having my cover of Elton John endorsed, to meeting Dolly [Parton] and Mavis [Staples].”
John premiered Yola’s version of “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” which is included on the deluxe version of Walk Through Fire, on his Rocket Hour radio show, and she sang with Parton at the Newport Folk Festival in July.
“All of these things, if we had one of them happen, we would have deemed it a successful year," she says. "But to have them all happen, it’s been outrageous. Crazy.”
Yola’s recent success has come quickly, but preceding it were years of music industry struggles.
She was raised by a single mother who moved to England from Barbados in the 1970s, a nurse who was part of the “Windrush generation” of immigrants lured to the United Kingdom from its former colonies by the promise of economic opportunity.
Her mother, who died in 2013, was a music lover. “What she was massively into, and is still a soft spot for me, is disco,” the singer recalls. “She was like the hospital DJ. She would take blood, make the rounds, and then play disco on the radio.
“She loved Chic and Boney M. and the Bee Gees, and she also loved Dolly and Elton John. And Aretha, so we had Young, Gifted and Black around the house.”
Those vintage sounds blended with the music, from rap to alternative rock, that Yola heard growing up in the 1990s.
“I was listening to hip-hop, and also Bjork and Beck and Mazzy Starr. And then we’d go over to our friends’ houses and everyone was going through their dads’ record collections and listening to bands like the Kinks."
Those influences went into the deeply personal songs on Walk Though Fire, whose title track was inspired by a blaze at Yola’s house in Tennessee in 2016, from which she escaped without injury. A marketing push dubs her the “Queen of Country Soul,” but the singer refers to her sound as “a genre-less mix.”
Though Yola’s mother instilled a love of music, she forbade it as a career. “It was that way for me and all my other friends who were black or brown and had strict parents. Music was OK to listen to, but there were only three acceptable jobs: doctor, lawyer, and engineer. Music wasn’t an option.”
Yola pursued it anyway, singing at jazz gigs when she was 14, and trying to keep her mother from finding out. “You sneak around till it’s not feasible to sneak around anymore.”
She had more than her share of ups and downs before Walk Through Fire, whose album art is by Philadelphia graphic artist and musician Perry Shall. After dropping out of university, she was homeless in London at age 21.
She fronted the British country-rock band Phantom Limb. She sang with Bristol music collective Massive Attack. Without being credited, she contributed vocals and co-wrote dance music hits by Duke Dumont and Sub Focus and also wrote lyrics and melodies for British singers Will Young and Chase & Status.
In 2016, under the stage name Yola Carter, she released a promising six-song EP called Orphan Offering.
She spent time in Los Angeles trying to make headway as a songwriter, but found it easier in Nashville. “Gossip travels faster in Nashville,” she says. “Even through it’s growing, it’s a smaller city, and you have these bump-into situations where people start hearing about you.”
Working with Auerbach and writers like Memphis legend Dan Penn (who co-wrote Aretha Franklin’s “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man”) came naturally. “They extol the virtues of the link between country and soul music," she says. "That made things easier for me, because I had a lot less explaining to do.”
Yola’s rise to prominence as a black woman on the Americana music scene led to her featured role on the self-titled debut album by The Highwomen, the country super-group of Brandi Carlile, Amanda Shires, Maren Morris, and Natalie Hemby.
Carlile has called Yola an honorary Highwoman, and she contributed to the album’s feminist title track, with a verse that gives voice to a martyred civil rights movement Freedom Rider.
After spending her adult life working in music in marginalized roles, Yola, now 36, believes she finally broke through because she finally fully expressed herself.
“To be absolutely fair, I’ve been withholding my name, and withholding my commitment to music, because there wasn’t anything I wanted to do,” she says. “It was like, ‘Here are your options,‘ and I didn’t like any of them. So I was purposely holding back until exactly this moment.
“It was like, ‘You can change yourself and who you are at the very core, if that suits you.' And I was like, ‘No, it doesn’t suit me to change who I am, how I sing, what I’m into.’"
Yola says she could have “carried on turning out mediocre music. But ... I held out. There is so much fear in people to settle, in life, in music, in work. And I didn’t do that. I didn’t settle. I waited, and I waited, and I kept on trying things to find what I really wanted to do within my range of taste."
What she ultimately found is "who I am.”