Yola’s melodies and vocals soar on her new record, Walk Through Fire, the most country-soul-focused album of the year (as far as I know), produced and mostly co-written in Nashville with The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach.
Nominated for Album of the Year at the upcoming Americana Music Awards, the singer described in an extensive interview with PopMatters her boredom while growing up in the Bristol area of England, finding solace in soul and country music to deal with her environment, family challenges, and racism.
“I felt more of a connection to classic country, American singer/songwriters and soul musicians than I did to most things from my native land,” she said in the interview. "Aretha and Dolly taught me how to sing soft and smooth. Mavis and Tina taught me how to stir it up, with the intensity and gravel in my voice. They helped me find out what my voice was meant for.
"Soul Folk in Action [The Staple Singers] and Young, Gifted And Black [Aretha Franklin] were massive for me, growing up,” she continued. “I loved The Kinks and Crosby, Stills and Nash... I was out of time and out of longitude and latitude."
Yola also recalled meeting two of her American music idols, Dr. John (rest his funky-ass voodoo soul) and the great country-soul and gospel singer Candi Staton during her stints as lead singer of Phantom Limb and touring with trippy dance band Massive Attack. (I love Staton's Muscle Shoals recordings, including the soul take on Tammy Wynette's "Stand By Your Man," and Staton's disco-soul smash "Young Hearts, Run Free.")
Of Yola’s own new album, one reviewer correctly compares the wall of sound to Glen Campbell’s late 1960s and early 1970s records, with bold strings and western-style guitar on albums such as Galveston and By the Time I Get to Phoenix. (Yola's new record also recalls the 2008 album Meet Glen Campbell, which features the now-late singer belting out songs by Tom Petty, U2, and Green Day--and does so beautifully.)
Yola's new record opens with the wistful, bombastic “Faraway Look,” an irresistible melody backed by snare drum, harpsichord, and even glockenspiel. A little crowded at times musically, but this is just one of the ear worms here that won’t let you go. (See the music video below.)
The self-penned “It Ain’t Easier,” my favorite on her record, begins with a gospel-style organ, adds hard-country steel guitar, with flourishes of fiddling in the chorus (by either Stuart Duncan or Matt Combs), and Yola’s most passionate vocal performance. Falling in love doesn’t always make things easier, Yola tells us.
“It ain’t easier, child,” she sings.
The album's title track, written by Yola with Auerbach and the great Muscle Shoals/Memphis songster Dan Penn (“Do Right Woman, Do Right Man,” “The Dark End of the Street,” “Rainbow Road”), has the most down-home sound of any on the record, with heavy fiddle and dobro carrying the lilting tune along.
Country singer-guitarist Vince Gill harmonizes with Yola on the gutty, Marvin Gaye-Tammi Terrell-influenced “Keep Me Here.” Bobby Wood, a veteran of both Nashville and Memphis sessions with Elvis Presley, Wilson Pickett, Dusty Springfield, Kris Kristofferson, George Jones, and all of Garth Brooks’ records, co-wrote the track and tickles the piano lovingly here and on other tracks throughout.
Yolo notes that Auerbach’s house band members “have played with everyone from Elvis to Aretha. The sheer quality of his wider team is the bedrock of the sound we created,” she told PopMatters.
Mostly keeping to emotional, romantic themes on this record, Yola gets a smudge political, it seems, on the terrific “Love All Night (Work All Day),” also written with Wood. The song follows traditional country themes of simple living and hard work. Yola sings "we've got to help one another just to make it through another night." (See music video below.)
Which poses the question: Why has it taken a British woman of color--not that she shouldn’t have, and I’m glad she did--to make the most soulful country record of the decade, from Nashville to Brighton?
It may be a tad early to crown Yola “the Queen of Country Soul,” as some of her publicity touts. Some of her album's lyrics are a bit too tidy and could use more grit. I liked Yola's earlier solo EP, Orphan Offering, which at times was more soulful musically and dug a little deeper lyrically.
But I don’t know of any artist doing more to bring the classic sounds of 1960s and 70s uptown country and classic soul together than Yola. Her love for American music shows, and her synergy and friendships like those on Walk Through the Fire and Nashville gospel greats the McCrary Sisters make her more than bona fide.
Besides, she sure can sing, and she’s making her own way playing straight-up soulful country music.
That ain’t easy, child.
(Yola will open several U.S. dates for pop-and-country-and-whatever-she’s-doing-is-cool maven Kasey Musgraves this fall. I’d love see Yola live and interview her at some point about her music and influences.)