A few years back, Yola took the biggest gamble of her life. Her journey as a singer, writer and featured artist had taken in toil, rejection and even a bout of homelessness, but, suddenly, there was a clearing. The artist born Yola Quartey (she’s also gone by Yola Carter, but now uses her first name only) felt the benefit of her part in a pair of Top 10 hits.
“I could have been my own rich daddy,” says the Bristol singer, who’s worked with Sub Focus and Duke Dumont and helped produce for Katy Perry. “Or, I could have just given up on doing my own music and done what everyone else does, get a house, settle down and… Blah, blah, blah. I had the choice between the security of a home, or a dream.”
Yola chose her dream, namely to make rip-roaring modern interpretations of her beloved rock‘n’roll, country, soul and American roots music under her own name. And now, she’s a four-time Grammy nominee who’s shared stages with Mavis Staples, Dolly Parton and Kacey Musgraves. But we’ll come to all that, first she finishes the story of her big gamble.
She “threw absolutely everything at the wall”, assembled a band and a team and “toured in a little van, everything was from the bank of Yola”. After showcasing in Nashville in 2016 and 2017, she caught the ear of Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys. Their creative relationship blossomed and Auerbach collaborated on Yola’s debut album Walk Through Fire. Named after the time her flat caught fire, it’s a juggernaut of a record, and Yola is still digesting what might happen on January 26 in Los Angeles, where she’s up for Best New Artist, Best Americana Album, Best American Roots Song and Best American Roots Performance.
I was told that nobody wanted to hear a black woman sing rock music
“It feels surreal, I cried intermittently for about 24 hours,” she says, before laughing wickedly. “Part of it was elation and disbelief and part of it was relief I wasn’t going to be on the streets again. It was nice to know that someone gave a crap that could actually change my life. It felt like I was being seen and that my efforts are being seen.”
The story of Yola’s exertions makes her success all the sweeter. “I work really hard at being really good at the basics, singing and writing songs,” she says. “Regardless of what I win or I don’t win, if it’s time to throw down, I am confident!”
This steely resolve has sure been tested. Music was banned in Yola’s house as a child and when she got out and into the industry, there were more barriers. “I was being told that I should be doing something people would deem more acceptable for a woman of colour from the UK. I spent so much time fighting to do what I want to do,” she says. “I will not mention this A&R or their major label, but I was told that nobody wanted to hear a black woman sing rock music. I was like, ‘Wow, so people are saying this shit out loud…’”
Now, Yola has the platform to change things. “People inherently have bias, and we’re talking about it,” she says. “As a result, people from different backgrounds are able to cut through, kids are able to see them and that contributes to what these kids think they can do.”
Yola’s mission feels unstoppable. “When you come from nothing, you haven’t got much choice,” she concludes. “Excel or don’t bother…”