One of the more surprising music stories of 2019 was the rapid rise of the single-named Americana singer Yola. Raised in poverty in small-town coastal England, a black girl with a British accent who fell in love with American country music, she recently earned a best new artist Grammy nomination for her autobiographical debut album, “Walk Through Fire.”
Actually, it may be more accurate to say that Yola’s success in Nashville and across the United States has come as a surprise to everyone but her. And she thinks she knows why.
“I was a poor kid that went to a rich kids’ school,” she says during a recent phone conversation in advance of her sold-out show Tuesday at the Sinclair in Cambridge. “Maybe in some way I got the same programming as them. I think somewhere in my schooling I acquired the sense of comfort and entitlement that would normally be reserved for upper-class white boys.”
She laughs. As a singer and songwriter, she knows she’s good. It’s the rest of the obligations that come with stardom that she was less than certain about.
Becoming a performer required “a massive change in my personality,” she says. “Instead of being a surface extrovert, I had to be an extrovert all around. It took about three years to manufacture the lack of fear, and the support structure, to do that.”
She’s an embodiment of the adage that an overnight success is often years in the making. Her mother, who was from Barbados, died in 2013, leaving Yola (born Yolanda Quartey) without parents. She overcame an ocean of obstacles, including a period of homelessness on the streets of London, the loss of her voice due to stress-induced anxiety, and the terrifying house fire that inspired the name of her album, to launch the career she’d always envisioned for herself.
Before striking out on her own, she wrote songs for other artists and spent some time performing with Massive Attack. In 2016 Yola (then billed as Yola Carter) released a spare six-song EP called “Orphan Offering.”
She’s convinced those unembellished recordings helped sell the idea of Yola in Nashville, where there’s a longstanding tradition of songwriters shopping their wares with acoustic demos.
“It’s very easy to be produced,” she says. “The point of the EP was to write songs that were honest, and had some interesting chord progressions. It was purposefully naked. Anybody who had the ability could see that I could write a song.”
“Walk Through Fire” is packed with deceptively breezy songs, among them “Ride Out in the Country,” a wind-in-your-hair song that zooms out to reveal a distressing breakup, and “Rock Me Gently.” In that one, the subject she’s imploring turns out to be not a lover, but the sad dreams that have taken the lover’s place.
To make the album, Yola partnered with Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys, who has produced some excellent records since his own band’s rise to arena status, from Bombino, Nikki Lane, and the late Dr. John. The two bonded over their mutual affection for the harmonies of the Everly Brothers, as well as Yola’s appreciation for the tricky gender politics of Auerbach’s 2017 solo song “Stand By My Girl” (“because she’ll kill me if I don’t”). Their cross-Atlantic phone conversations served as a kind of pre-production for the making of the album.
“We were ironing out our separation by a common language,” she says.
Yola and Auerbach co-wrote most of the songs, with additional help from some ringers, including the soul-songwriting legend Dan Penn. Auerbach, who produced the album, assembled a studio band that featured bassist Dave Roe (who played for years with Johnny Cash), Country Music Hall of Famer Charlie McCoy on harmonica, and background vocals from Vince Gill and Ronnie McCoury, among others. A deluxe edition of the album, released in early December, includes Yola’s powerhouse version of “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” which Sir Elton himself has plugged enthusiastically.
The album was already a phenomenon when Yola opened the Harbor Stage at last summer’s Newport Folk Festival with an 11:30 a.m. slot. Besides her own set, she joined Dawes onstage and appeared as an honorary member of the Highwomen, the year’s all-star, all-female country collaboration.
Newport was an eye-opener for Yola, who launched her career in part with appearances at such see-and-be-seen industry events as Nashville’s Americana Music Festival and Austin’s South by Southwest.
“The thing that stuck out for me was this real sense that people were going so purposefully to listen to music,” she recalls. They weren’t there to post selfies on Instagram or “to get completely out of your bloody [mind]. They were there exclusively to listen. And to emotionally commune with music.”
When she first made a go at the music business, she thought she’d need to assimilate. Now, she says, she knows that’s not the answer. She’s not the one who needs to change.
“In the environments I was in, there weren’t any women of dark complexion who had any agency,” she says. “If you don’t see some things, you’ve just got to be it. Be the change you want to see.”
James Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.