Finally. Validation. Not once, not twice, but four times. A quartet of Grammy nominations — including best new artist — has rising singer Yola feeling good about her career. Finally.
For years, the British music-maker always served someone else, whether fronting Massive Attack or writing for others. But Yola was hesitant to be a singer-songwriter, a bandleader, a boss.
"I can't tell you enough how terrified I was to lead. It was a core part of my life," said Yola, who performs Wednesday at the Fine Line in Minneapolis. "The problem was I was afraid to put demands on people to accompany me. I didn't think anybody wanted to be part of a project with me."
Speaking by phone this month from Boston, Yola couldn't hide the newfound sense of liberation, the elation, the affirmation of the Grammy nomination. She was just overflowing with enthusiasm.
Whether in conversation or song, Yola is emo to the core. There were "24 hours of intermittent crying" after she learned of her Grammy nods. She knows the struggle it took to get there. "I sunk every single penny I own to getting to the point of making this record," she said, referring to "Walk Through Fire," a Grammy finalist for best Americana album. "It came at the expense of the prospect of having a home. I needed to give myself permission to take that risk." At 36, Yola — full name Yolanda Quartey — is quick to tell her involved story that has taken her from Bristol, England, to Nashville, where she found a producer in Dan Auerbach of Black Keys fame and wound up recording with such A-listers as Vince Gill, Molly Tuttle and Stuart Duncan.
Music City has embraced her. She performed on the Grand Ole Opry, earned two nominations at last year's Americana Music Awards and sings with the supergroup the Highwomen (featuring Maren Morris and Brandi Carlile) on the title track of their eponymous album. But Yola says that the biggest thrill of her 2019 was a shoutout from Elton John for her cover of his "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road," the final track on "Walk Through Fire."
"Having him post and premiere my video of his song, that was a real moment for me."
Her 'latent anxiety'
All of these accolades have made her "feel more safe.
"I've been homeless, living on the streets. If you understand poverty, there's a latent anxiety you have when a bill comes through the door and you can't face opening it. Even if you're doing OK."
Indeed, Yola's road to the Grammys has been more rocky than yellow brick. Raised in Bristol by a single mother who worked as a nurse, Avon lady and supermarket cashier, Yola was not allowed to pursue music. Mum wanted her to have a proper career like lawyer, doctor or engineer. So Yola would say she was going to a sleepover when she was really rehearsing or singing in a club.
The college dropout eventually built a music career, but it never felt satisfying. Even when singing in front of 60,000 at the Glastonbury Festival with Massive Attack in 2008.
"I felt like I was behind this veil. ... You're at the helm of somebody's else's ship," she said.
Beginning in '08, Yola made four albums with her own band, Phantom Limb. Her recordings have been sampled by the Chemical Brothers and Iggy Izalea. She wrote songs for Katy Perry, Will Young and others. She was so consumed by music that she put all her savings into recordings and ended up homeless for several months.
She gets all emo — and intellectual — talking about it.
"People never really associate black womanhood with the need for nurturing. The pretext for black women is so often 'strong,' meaning requiring no help. That, coupled with just being terrified to lead, was a perfect cocktail for not self-actualizing.
"I never ever asked anyone to help me with something I wanted to do in music before I was 30. Never. No one was willing to help. Everyone wanted me to stay indebted to them in some way. I was a utensil to be used."
In 2016, the singer released a self-financed solo EP as Yola Carter and performed a showcase in Nashville, where she did two solid weeks of meetings, often three per day.
Auerbach, who has helmed projects by Lana Del Rey, Dr. John and the Pretenders, and won a Grammy as producer of the year in 2013, caught a video of her Nashville showcase and reached out to her.
At their first songwriting session, they clicked, penning tunes that day that ended up on her first full-length solo album. She also ended up collaborating with such established songwriters as Roger Cook ("Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress"), Dan Penn ("Dark End of the Street") and John Bettis ("Top of the World").
Inspired by a breakup, the songs on "Walk Through Fire" echo the vintage sounds of Dusty Springfield, Mavis Staples, Bobbie Gentry and Phil Spector's Wall of Sound. Yola says her music is informed by her "analog childhood" of her mother's "hippie music" collection.
"I was following what my voice sounded like," said the singer, who also listened to the '90s pop of Björk, Beck and others. "Tina [Turner] popped up. Aretha [Franklin] popped up. I grew up with Etta [James], as well.
"It was all about breath and nuance, not having one tone in your voice. Mavis had a song called 'Hear My Call.' It's almost like a rock performance, really clean, slightly choral in its shape and still very gospel. She moved through the entirety of her textural range."
Black woman in a white world
Yola knew she'd have to find her own path. She always felt different as a dark-skinned black woman in white schools in Bristol, and on white-dominated Music Row in Nashville.
"Everyone who lives in a culturally homogenous society has to deal with the deception of difference," she said. "Even if you're a white woman in this industry, you're aware of sticking out in some way."
The Grammy attention means she's finally on people's radars. It means goodbye to that cramped tour van, hello to opportunities on festivals and award shows, and more risks in her career. Most of all, it means comfort and joy for Yola.
"Anything that gets me to writing and performing music in a healthier and happier and more consistent means, that's the most important thing to me," she said.
Yola has already started writing another album with Auerbach but it's too early to discuss it.
More immediately, she's preparing for Grammy Week. She will perform at the MusiCares tribute to Aerosmith along with Foo Fighters, Jonas Brothers, Alice Cooper, John Mayer, Cheap Trick, H.E.R. and LeAnn Rimes.
All this success has left Yola homeless once again. This time by choice.
"I'm your four-time Grammy nominee hobo," she said with a robust chuckle. "I exist between the U.K. and the U.S.
"I'm on tour so much that it dawned on me that I'm sinking more money into renting an apartment that I didn't see for 10 months. So, I elected to be nowhere until I can figure out where I'll base myself."
She's practical — and happy to be homeless.