Twelve months ago, Yola was a little-known singer facing an uphill battle. The then 35-year-old artist was about to release her first full-length album, as a black, British, country-music-loving songwriter attempting to establish herself in the Americana genre.
A year 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. By November, she had four Grammy nominations.
When the awards are presented on January 26, she’ll be up for Americana album, and best Americana roots song and performance for Faraway Look, as well as best new artist, where she’s competing against Billie Eilish, Lizzo and Lil Nas X.
“Everything has happened!” says Yola, whose full name is Yolanda Quartey. “It’s not even been a year,” she says. “Just from 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. And then all the people I’ve met, from having my cover of Elton John [’s song] endorsed, to meeting Dolly [Parton].
“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 listened to a lot of genres growing up, from her mother’s favourite, disco, to the songs that were being released in the 1990s when she was a teenager.
“I was listening to hip hop, and Bjork and Beck and Mazzy Starr. 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 her deeply personal songs on Walk Though Fire, whose title track was inspired by a blaze at her house in 2016. Some call her the “Queen of Country Soul”, but the singer refers to her sound as a genre-less mix.
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 Britain from Barbados.
Yola’s mum, who died in 2013, may have been a music lover, but she forbade it as a career. “Music was OK to listen to, but there were only three acceptable jobs: doctor, lawyer, and engineer.”
Yola pursued it anyway, singing at jazz gigs when she was 14. After dropping out of university, she found herself homeless in London at age 21.
She fronted British country-rock band Phantom Limb, sang with Massive Attack, contributed vocals and co-wrote dance music hits by Duke Dumont and Sub Focus, and also wrote lyrics and melodies for Will Young, and Chase & Status.
After spending her adult life working in music in marginalised roles, Yola, now 36, believes she 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.”