Interview: Yola Carter

Just about the coolest thing in UK Americana right now, Yola Carter, is taking it to the Yanks, Carter is electric live and her sonic boom voice is a force of nature.  You want it real, can you handle it really real? Yola is it the real deal, the fuse is lit, stand well back.

You’re on a great run,  you’ve had a moment to look back? you must be pretty chuffed?  Highlights?   Normally I’m the kind of person to look forward, so I don’t get really overexcited about things, but last year was my first year. I went from not existing as an artist, taking three years out, looking like a loser to my peers, some vocalising their lack of faith that I could work solo- just me and a hack guitar, to winning my category at the Americana music Association awards and getting rave reviews and press in NPR, The Guardian and American Songwriter. A highlight for sure is the trajectory of my journey so far. Another highlight was playing at AmericanaFest in Nashville. The response I get when I go to the US is on another level. I’ve been there before over the years and done showcases and things but this is the best response I’ve had and it’s been just me. I never expected in my wildest dreams to get a response like this so quickly, that said, For the first time I’m just doing what I want to do and bring who I want to be. My last highlight of the many I’ve had this first 12 months has been producing my own record. It dawned on me that production and engineering don’t have to go hand-in-hand, meaning that I didn’t have to know how (or in my case know but not have the borderline OCD level of patience required) to find every single plug-in and program to have ideas, you just need to broadly understand how some of these programs work. You need a little experience of course, but all the high-end producers have an engineer. Going from being a writer of lyrics and melody to writing the chords, the top line and then producing was a real revelation in my life and a highlight of my year.

Do you look on Phantom Limb as your apprenticeship now?  Yeah kinda, maybe not in the way you’d think. I worked at the production company doing sessions and generally fixing peoples records with this genius engineer from age 18-19, so when I got to the band there was already some knowledge of what I wanted to achieve. At that time I was 21 and the people in the band were at 5-10 years older than me, so I didn’t have either the authority or the guts to exercise that knowledge. Over the years it just accumulated and backed up. We did do two studio albums in 8 years but funnelling 8 years’ worth of six people’s ideas, all of which have their own bands, didn’t provide enough space to self-actualise. I took three years out from music, because I’d grown to hate it. In that time I probably grew more musically and creatively than I had at any other time in my life.

‘Orphan Offering’ is just 6 tracks. Have you got more to come?  The production is great. It’s a great city for music – Massive Attack as a kid was my soundtrack.  Yes indeed! This EP is six tracks which I’ve heard is overkill, but I’d written 50 songs and these 6 sat together just right. If I left one off it felt amputated. “What You Do” was the first song I could play through on guitar and sing. I’d found it hard with some songs to stop my involuntary Joe Cocker-esque hand spasm to chill itself in some songs. At that point, I’d been released from a prison of dependence and into a world where I played guitar enough to get my ideas to record, so the songs flowed out. I think I realised that I needed to get some music out there but I wasn’t ready for it to be an album. In every other project I’ve worked in that has started from scratch, it has taken ages to get to a point of recognition and needing management or labels. This project took 8 months to get to that point, and I was caught by surprise. As much as I’d like to get everything out tomorrow, I want to do it right maybe for the first time in my life. I’ve made almost every mistake going and watched everyone around me make many more, so I know exactly how I don’t want things to go.

The upside of knowing what you don’t want, it can help you zero in on what you do want. My process inadvertently developed the producer in me. I produced the record predominantly between two studios, Eastcote studios in London, and HCH studios in Bristol. I wanted to find places that reflected my way of working musically, places that were relaxed and really worked in Harmony with my way of thinking. A lot of places can have an institutionalised sense of patriarchy that is really stifling to my creative condition. It’s easy to choose the biggest studio but finding somewhere with the equipment and people to inspire is far harder. I was lucky that a friend and soon to be my lawyer pointed me in the direction of Eastcote when I first wanted to get some tracks down. It was 2015 and only 4 of the 6 were recorded. I got into the studio and realised that everyone was looking at me. It was my job to have the ideas. The engineer would find what I was looking for, the players would play what I suggested or in the direction that I guided them to improvise in, but no one wants to do a bad job or the wrong job, so they are waiting for me to have an opinion. I gingerly got used to the idea of being the boss and learnt on the job. I’m very thankful that I’m naturally opinionated! I sat and mixed it with the engineer too and made sure that I had plenty of reference material.

There’s some wonderful fiddle on ‘What You Do’. Aaron Catlow is a new name on me?  I suppose it depends what scene you spend most of your time with. Most of my UK band are from a band called Sheelanagig, a folk-rock band of ten plus years, and he also has a duo with Kit Hawes who plays in the band. Though a couple of the members have changed over the years, Aaron has been in the band from the beginning along with the drummer John Blakeley, he also has a duo with Kit Hawes who also plays in my both bands. If you know anything about folk fiddlers and sessions you know that it’s a fine balance between artistic guidance and letting them be completely free. The tradition lends itself to jams and after-show sessions, and a fine line between knowing standards and improvisation. I tried to ask for something specific to the project stylistically but as broad as possible, he’s a songwriter too so stifling that kind of talent is mindless. You can hear the difference a songwriter/player makes when they’re doing a session. Kit and I played the idea on guitars and as it is with Aaron it flowed out of him just as beautifully as you hear it recorded.

Finally I have to ask you about the voice. Man alive that’s some tool you have there. Do you remember when you discovered you had such power?   Age 4. I told my mother I was going to sing and write songs. I was confident in my singing voice as much as I was with walking and talking, even though in those days it was too wild for my young body, unruly even. My mum had some Jackson Five records, and for a moment I thought that it was normal to start singing at 5 years old. I was in a rush to get ready very young, but to my mother it wasn’t a proper job (certainly not a job that poor family could have the luxury of pursuing), so I was banned from anything that could lead to a life of professional singing. Everything I learned and developed, everything that I wrote and planned I had to hide until I was 21-22, out of school and earning regularly for the first time doing sessions and fronting other people live acts. It was as if I was coming out of the musical closet. The problem with being a singer and doing music in a covert way, is that you might not then naturally switch to taking ownership of your musical career as easily. You’ve spent a lot of time being thankful for being included in people’s projects, projects that often require you to sing in a way that is nothing like your natural voice because it wasn’t en vogue. Everyone has a plan for you. And I didn’t start learning guitar till a lot later in my career, so it’s a millstone to have this much vocal power but no power to guide yourself. It’s a co-dependant job on its own, that attracts the more Machiavellian and sociopathic to control you. I’ve always had a big voice but only now am I in a place to use it to its fullest.

Now I’m able I’m out there, but I’m kinda playing catch up a little now. Things like management and finding a home for the album I’ve written are next on the horizon. This is me getting to understand the term “victim of my own success”, all these processes take so much time. Buy-hey it’s taken this long to get it right, so I’m inclined to be more patient.

Author: Rudie Hayes

Rudie is the weekly host of the syndicated radio show - The Horseshoe Lounge Music Session - playing the best American Roots and hosting terrific live guests.

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