Yola is back in Austin: our conversation with a rising star who’s crossing genre boundaries
When country superstar Chris Stapleton rolls into the Erwin Center on Thursday, he’ll have two impressive opening acts on the bill with him. One is Jamey Johnson, a frequent performer at Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July Picnic who’s been putting out records for two decades. The other is comparatively much more of a newcomer: British singer Yola, whose 2019 debut album earned her a Grammy nomination for best new artist.
Though the acclaimed “Walk Through Fire” is Yola’s first release under her own name, she’s been involved with music in a variety of ways for many years in her native England. Her solo career moved to center stage after Black Keys frontman Dan Auerbach signed on to produce Yola’s album and release it on his own label, Easy Eye Sound.
Listen to Peter Blackstock talk to Yola at Austin City Limits Music Festival 2019:
Austin has been a prime market for Yola’s rise over the past year. After appearances at South by Southwest in 2019 that included a magnificent set at Willie Nelson’s Luck Reunion, she returned in the fall to knock out a packed crowd in the Tito’s tent at the Austin City Limits Music Festival. That was enough to secure her first appearance on the “Austin City Limits” television show last month, which she followed with a sold-out show at Scoot Inn.
We talked with Yola after her ACL Fest set about the past, present and future of her music.
American-Statesman: You’re opening the Erwin Center show here for Chris Stapleton. You’ve also been on bills with Greta Van Fleet and Kacey Musgraves, which are totally different musically, but both of them seem to fit for you.
Yola: Yeah. How I feel about the songs will kind of rove throughout the tour. So we'll go, “OK we're doing a Greta Van Fleet show, so we could do this kind of instrumentation.” There's so many layers on this record, that you can just kind of keep turning it and keep finding new ways of seeing the songs, of feeling the songs. Because the influences are also cross-genre, you can be anywhere. You can support anybody, which is really great for a debut.
It fits well into what Americana music is about at its best, I think. When I listen to your record, there's soul music, there's country, folk, jazz, blues.
And classic pop music. When you say country, jazz, folk, blues and pop — that's a lot of music! (Laughs.) That's a lot of contemporary music, generally; that's almost all of it. And that's really my taste. Depending on where I am and what players I have, we’ll bring out those different colors. It’s fun. I think Lizzo said it best: She's really glad she never settled on a genre. I think her and Childish Gambino, both of whom I’m absolute fans of, subscribe to this kind of genre-fluid approach to music.
You're sort of a good fit for this Americana thing, but you're not American; you’re from England.
It's almost not Americana for that reason! I’m not really genred, and that's nice; it's like the ultimate freedom. I've gotten a lot of love from the Americana community and been uplifted by that community, which is wonderful. But also because of what we've been talking about, I can kind of seamlessly exist in any community. So it's great; I get the best of both.
You made this record with Dan Auerbach and his Easy Eye Sound crew. How did that connection happen?
I was playing a set of showcases in Nashville. And my name throughout the conference started kind of doing a bit of a loop going around, as it were. And as people were like, “Can we get a video of one of her shows, and so we can send it across to Dan?” And so my manager sends across a video. And then all of a sudden, we get word back. He (Auerbach) is like, “Can we get her in the studio now? Like, when's my next free day?” And they look through his diary, and it's probably a couple of months to his next free day. But that very next free day, my name pops into that space. And so I fly back home, we kind of talked about what we want to do, and then I fly straight back. We wrote the first tracks to that record in that session.
I think people are so immediately arrested by your singing; you have such a dominating and passionate voice. But it's also the songs. The songwriting is a big reason this record is as good as it is.
I think it’s the marriage of them. You need to be able to sing something with credence, and if people don't believe what you're saying, that's half the problem. So you need to be able to sing something that you believe in to write something that you can get behind. So I'll always be involved in the writing process, because that's part of how I interact. Part of my artistry is how you transform writing — interpretation, as well as writing itself. Most of the songs were co-written, apart from “It Ain’t Easier,” which is me at my most emo! (Laughs.) Left to my own devices, I think I do go to emo. But all of these songs have a really meaningful place in my heart.
I think one of the reasons that Easy Eye Sound was such a good place for you is because Auerbach’s thing has been to bring back these old-school legendary musicians who played on this 1960s classic country soul blues stuff.
Yeah. And if you were acquainted with his record “Waiting on a Song,” you will know that all the influences into that are really broad as well. He's super eclectic. So when I started talking about how I didn't really see the barriers of music so much, in a way I was talking about my influences. The Brits that came over here, your Elton Johns, your Joe Cockers, your Bee Gees — they were all so cross-genre, and they saw the linkages between the genres more than the things that separate them out. And he was very much in that mindset of wanting to explore that, and bringing back players who exemplified that.
For people who have just heard your first full-length album that came out last year, “Walk Through Fire,” it may feel like kind of a new discovery or an overnight sensation. But you've been doing this a long time, including with a band called Phantom Limb.
I had a very broad portfolio of work before I got into being just the artist. I was a writer for a long time in the pop scene in the U.K., which is maybe leaning more toward EDM and how modern soul interacts with that. Writing for other artists. And at the same time, in my hometown, I joined (Phantom Limb) as the top-liner — which is lyrics and melody, and vocalist and lead, as it were. And so, in that guise, I was trying to move toward this thing that we're talking about, this idea of genre fluidness — that freedom to move between any genre, and for my voice to just inflect slightly. I love highlighting how all of these genres are linked.
My pop writing was always going on behind the scenes, just little moments of being a fixer in the studio, working on vocal productions as part of a production team, for a long time. That's probably the only thing that was consistent. Like, we’d get a job in from, I don't know, Snoop Dogg, and they go, “I want these vocal stacks, I want you to create a whole kind of arc behind what I'm doing.” So I'd have to go in and create those stacks in that arrangement. Or I'd be getting vocals and having to kind of mix in with them. Those kinds of fixing jobs were the only thing I did all the time. And some of those jobs led on to top-lining jobs.
One of the situations occurred when I was a fixer for Duke Dumont. He'd had a couple No. 1 songs already. He was like, “Can you just sing the top line for this to me? Let's see how it sounds.” And that's the one that ended up on the record! Then it went to No. 2 in the States and in the U.K., and in Europe and everywhere around the world. On the neighboring rights alone, I was golden. And that's when I decided I was going to be my own rich daddy. I didn't come from anything; no money. I managed to dig myself out from living on the streets. So I was definitely in this situation where I realized an opportunity to have that security.
You have your own career just totally taking off right now, but you're still getting those kinds of opportunities with other artists that help get you more in the spotlight, too. You're on a couple tracks on the record by the Highwomen, the new supergroup with Brandi Carlile, Amanda Shires, Maren Morris and Natalie Hemby. That seems like another way a lot of people can discover you.
Yes, it really is. I was very much kind of uplifted by that experience. It was such an honest interaction as well. Just talking to Brandi and meeting her, she was really connecting to the songs. She's naturally very emotionally connected to music. You hear in her voice, that crying lilt that she has, everything that she's experienced; it's very first-person. So when we were talking, we were talking about how we’d interact and what we're looking to achieve.
The whole recording process was very much like a bonding process. You can hear all of that emotion in the songs. It was just so meaningful. And the great thing about having this awesome time in RCA Studio A, where all those records were recorded, was that you get people to discover you through that. And I’m like, “Well, I just had a great time!” (Laughs.) You know, if people didn't even find out anything about me, I would have still been happy to do it. But it's been such an uplifting experience.
Have you thought yet about what your next record will be like?
I’m making space in my mind for that. Dan and I are definitely getting back in the studio. Things are going to happen, and they're going to be awesome. Of course, again, the whole process of albums for me is an exploration. I'm not necessarily trying to do the same thing verbatim. I'm always trying to carry on the story that we've been talking about — everything I've been talking about over this past year. It has been about those gray areas between genres and telling that story. So we're just going to carry on telling that. That's my mission.
When: 7 p.m. Thursday, March 12
Where: Erwin Center, 1700 Red River St.
Note: A spokesperson for Erwin Center said Monday that at this time all planned events at the Frank Erwin Center will continue as scheduled, and they are following official recommendations about COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus.