When our esteemed editor assigned his worker-writers their alphabetical letters for this journey through the wonderful world of Americana, this contributor’s first reaction was “Well, what have I done to deserve X, Y, or Z?! What am I supposed to do with these letters??” Hmmm… Of course, with a little more restrained thought and review, it was clear the tail end of the alphabet provides an extremely rich vein of astonishing artists and albums from which to choose, so the next question becomes, OK….which one?
Toughie. One of the objectives of this series is to celebrate all that is great with Americana, reviews of possibly long-forgotten bands and recordings, or perhaps misty-eyed assessments of the greats of the genre, but I decided to look at someone just starting on their journey, one that will be long and exciting and a joy for us all to follow. So, thank you esteemed editor for the letter assignment…
Yola Carter, born Yolanda Quartey but better known simply as Yola, is a 35-year-old British singer originally from Bristol, who is making some serious waves across the Americana ocean. Her earliest musical influences came from her mother’s record collection, which was dipped deeply in American country and rock and roots, including Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris and The Byrds, but with equal measures of Stax soul, Otis Redding and The Staple Singers, and especially Mavis Staples. She is on record as saying all she ever wanted to do from the earliest age was to sing and write songs but, coming from modest stock where money and stability were vital, she was initially banned from pursuing any kind of career that involved music.
Fortunately, she pursued her dream and began writing and performing, initially with electronica bands, including Massive Attack, which was some step away from the world of country and roots rock! Success started to peep over the horizon with Phantom Limb, a band from her hometown, with whom a couple of albums were released, but which eventually broke up acrimoniously. Much as this must have been a difficult time, it paved the way for Yola to start writing more in the style in which she felt most comfortable, the country and soul influences of her childhood.
Things started to move quickly at this point for Yola’s career. A six-track solo EP, Orphan Offering, was widely acclaimed, regular visits to Nashville followed, culminating in a spot at AmericanaFest 2016, which blew everyone who saw the performance away and really brought Yola to the attention of the Americana masses. UK Artist of the Year at the AMA UK Awards followed quickly afterwards, then the highly coveted ‘award’ of a full interview with Americana-UK (natch) and on to appearances alongside the great and the good of Americana, including The Highwomen, Sheryl Crow, Jason Isbell and even Jools Holland!
Yola caught the eye and ear of the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, who subsequently collaborated with her writing songs for her first full album, produced by him, Walk Through Fire. As if to underline the steep trajectory Yola is currently enjoying, contributors to the album include no less dignitaries as Vince Gill, Ronnie McCoury and the currently white-hot Molly Tuttle. Not bad for a debut. This album has been received extremely positively everywhere, resulting in nominations for Album of the Year and Emerging Act of the Year at the Americana Honours and Awards 2019.
Her performance at this year’s Black Deer festival was nothing short of magnificent – esteemed editor’s words, so who am I to disagree? – and at the Newport Folk Festival in July her voice quite simply soared.
What I really love about Yola is that here is an artist that appears to be in the ‘wrong’ place somehow. Black, British, from a poor background, who started out on an R n B path, as would probably be stereotypically expected. And yet this formidable, rich, emotional voice, at once beautiful and soulful has found its rightful spot, just where Yola dreamed it would be as a child. This story has a way to run just yet. But if AUK continues its AmericanA-Z series for another few years, it will be interesting to read an updated version of Yola’s career. I suspect we will all be completely in love with that voice.
Canon (probably the shortest ever in the series!):
Orphan Offering (EP)
Walk Through Fire
Key release: Walk Through Fire (well, there’s a surprise….) Let’s review this is 20 years time.
Live with The Highwomen at the Norfolk Folk Festival
Official video Ride Out In The Country