"I’m interested in the connective tissue more than I am in a genre itself..." - hmv.com talks to Yola
It's not often that you hear the words 'soul' and 'country' in the same sentence to describe the same artist, but both have been used regularly to describe Walk Through Fire, the 2019 debut album from Yola Carter.
Raised in Bristol and cutting her teeth on the live circuit as a voice for hire, performing with the likes of Massive Attack, Sub Focus and Bugz in the Attic, Yola's performances at the Americana Festival in Nashville caught the eye of Black Keys guitarist and Easy Eye Sound boss Dan Auerbach, who worked with the singer to record and produce her debut album.
After picking up several Grammy nominations for her efforts and earning some rave reviews for her mesmerising live shows, Yola returned to Auerbach's studio in Nashville to begin work on its follow-up and the resulting album, Stand For Myself, makes its arrivals in stores this week.
With her second full-length offering landing in our stores this Friday (July 30), we caught up with Yola to talk about how soul, country and classic pop became such big influences on her own music, why Nashville has been a learning curve, and her role in Baz Luhrmann's upcoming Elvis biopic playing 'the Godmother of rock 'n' roll', Sister Rosetta Tharpe...
When your debut album arrived a couple of years ago it was quite a unique sound, with elements of soul and even country music. Country has never really been a big thing in the UK, how did all of that music become an influence on you in the first place?
“Well, I think what happened was that I was raised on a lot of soul music, my mother had a very extensive record collection and that really played a big part in my musical upbringing. And she was also really into Dolly Parton, Shania, Kenny Rogers, and The Staple Singers. I was really enamoured with The Staple Singers, and with Mavis and her young voice, how it started as a family band and she now has this solo career, everything she’s done has been this mixture of her southern roots, of soul and the folk voices in there too.
“Soul Folk in Action is a big record for me, and it does what it says on the tin, you know? It has the soul and it has the folksiness. So it then became a sort of fixation, her voice really explained to me what my voice does, it has this gruffness. On both of my records you can hear the smooth side of my voice, but I grew up in the 90s and there were so many people that had these super-smooth voices, and I didn’t really feel that my kind of voice was as reflected in that time, or even now.”
So you found yourself listening to the older stuff a lot?
“It started as a way to kind of understand what my voice was doing, and I then came to understand that the connection between those genres wasn’t that disparate at all. Because so much of what was happening in soul music in the early was coming out of Stax in Memphis, and so much of what was happening in country music was coming out of Nashville. They’re only three hours away from each other, and in American terms that’s as close as Bristol and Bath.
“So they’re right on top of each other, and you start seeing the songwriters crossing over and the players crossing over – only in areas where the able to, because obviously you had segregation – but it really shows the connective tissue between not only those two genres, but also classic pop music. Everyone always wants to talk about my connection to country music, but no-one wants to talk about my connection to soul or classic pop. ‘Faraway Look’ is a song of the first record. Is that a soul song? Nah, not really. But is it a country song? No. It’s none of those things. It’s maybe more in the Dusty Springfield, Minnie Riperton direction of wall-of-sound, classic pop, maybe. If anything, I croon harder on that song than anything else on the album! Even on a record where people go ‘oh, there’s a lot of soul and county’ a good third of that record isn’t either."
Do you think what you’re doing gets misrepresented a little bit?
"I’m interested in the connective tissue more than I am in a genre itself. A big part of what I wanted to do with the first record was to highlight that, and I don’t know if it’s worked? No-one wants to talk to me about that, or they do and then they don’t print it. For some reason, all it ends up being is people talking to me about being country. And then people that are country are like: ‘I don’t think this is country’, and I’m going ‘I know, right?!’”
“I’m never really in one camp alone at any one time, my fingers are eternally in many, many pies, and that’s the way I like it. Country is definitely in there, but it’s not the only thing in there. So that was the mission with that record, and it carries on being the mission again on this record, finding the connections between something that’s slightly countrified, slightly rock ‘n’ roll, soul, disco, everything. I’m trying to find all of these things, when I was growing up I could just hear where the connective tissue was, and I think British radio really encouraged that."
By being quite eclectic, you mean?
“Well it wasn’t very ‘genrefied’, if you know what I mean. Maybe it’s become a little more like that since.”
American radio stations do seem to be more genre specific…
“I think it’s a more British thing to do, maybe, to crash genres together, more so than in America. I think that explains people like Elton, the Bee Gees, The Beatles and Stones. The Beatles are thought of as a rock band, but when you think of the number things they did that were not rock, it’s like: well, no, they’re not really. I think it’s a very British thing to do, to be across it all like that, you know?”
So the new record is out at the end of the month, when did you start working on this one? Has the pandemic held things up at all?
“Well, somewhat ironically, it’s been quite the opposite. The pandemic massively helped, because it was going to be a situation where I wasn’t going to have time to do as much as I wanted to do, we were going to try and squeeze it in. But that’s the battle that you face with being on the road, you’re trying to constantly cut the difference between being on the road and playing the music for the people who’ve bought it and who’ve invested in you as a person, and trying to create more of it, because they want more. But I’m like: ‘You can’t have both, mate.’
“So the good thing about it was that I had more time to actually write it, but then also I was able to dig into my back catalogue a little bit. So to answer the other part of your question of when did I start working on it, technically it was in about 2013.”
Ah, so there’s a few older songs on the new album too?
“I’d say a good third of it is stuff that I’d started writing before we recorded the first album!”
How did having all that extra time affect the way you made this record, compared to your debut album?
“I didn’t have any sense of how everything was going to work on the first record, or have any contacts, on the production side it was all very much left in Dan [Auerbach]’s hands. Because I didn’t know anyone, I lived in Bristol in the UK, the writing scene in London is what I was used to and it’s very different in Nashville. I felt like I was still learning very much. So when I got to doing this record I was able to use some of that knowledge to my benefit, and use some of the people I’ve met along the way to co-write with.
“Instead of it being us sitting in a room writing together, necessarily, it was much more about: ‘I have this song and it’s in this state of repair, whatever stage of completion it was at, I could choose people who I knew could do the thing that was required to bring it over the line. So I might need someone who is more of a songsmith to help me restructure something, or someone who was more of a top-liner, or a lyricist who could help me re-lyric a verse that needed some lines patching. But I was able to be a lot more surgical because I had all this time to create ideas, and all the contacts to help me get them over the line. Whereas on the first record I didn’t know anyone, so Dan chose all the co-writers and al the songs were written in the rom, in one go, in the space of three hours.”
So you’ve taken quite a different approach to the new record, by the sound of it...
“It’s been almost the complete antithesis of the first one in terms of the creative process. So by the time we’d done all that I was so much more aware that I’m telling my musical story, what it was like growing up in the 90s and listening to music imported from the States through my mother’s record collection, and also the throwback vibe of that era. If you listen to all the R&B music from that time they were sampling 70s music so much, so the connection between the 70s and the 90s and now is really strong, because we’re very much in a 90s throwback era at the moment. That’s probably because people my age are at the peak of their nostalgia right now. And I’m no different."
It does seem like there are a few more funk and R&B influences on this album…
“I wanted to tackle this idea of ‘playing in the pocket’, of feel and groove, and the feeliest pocket drummer of al time is James Gadson. You would know him from a bunch of disco songs, but perhaps most importantly he played with Bill Withers, and if you think about that breakdown in ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’, and it’s just the grooviest thing you’ve heard in your life. Every time I looked up another song from that era where I thought: ‘Oooh, that’s really groovy, I wonder who played on that’, it was always him. There was no moment where I did that and it wasn’t him. I was like: ‘Oh my GOD, I am obsessed!’
“He is a legitimate hero and the inspiration for how I wanted the feel of this record to be from the rhythm section, and then James Jamerson was a real inspiration on how I wanted the basslines to be. I wanted it to be like James Jamerson got contracted into a disco band and had to really throw it down. No part-timing for James. So with these conversations in hand, Dan went and hunted down people who he knew could satisfy that brief. That’s where we started from in terms of the recording, and we were really in a groove mindset."
You’ve worked with Dan on both your records so far, what is it about him that makes him a good fit for you as a producer?
“Well, he’s an exemplary producer, let’s be 100% clear about that. He’s a very, very talented producer, but he also has an almost infinite black book of badasses to call on and make these things happen. This is something I’ve learned by being here, you have players that have chops, that are technically very good, then you have ones that are creative and that have little motif ideas or hook ideas, that understand song structure. When you put them together, they know how to tessellate with other players like this and come up with ideas that don’t obliterate the song. There’s a difference between that and a live player, who might have more chops, but when you’re looking for a studio player that’s what you’re looking for.
"So he has a great crop of people to call on, as well as having the vision to hear a song and know how it should be interpreted. That’s a really big part of his skill set, and there are many other things that he does, but his vision is one of his biggest assets, and I think there are only a few producers out there that have that ability to see so far into the future, it’s quite a rarity.”
Did you record all of this album in Nashville too?
“So here’s the deal. I’m signed to Easy Eye Sound, and it’s a label, but more than it being just a label the first thing it is, before it’s a label, it’s a studio. So it’s a bit like the old days with Stax, the idea is if you’re on the label, you’re in house. So yes, everything is recorded at Easy Eye, that’s the make-up, it’s very much like the traditional, studio-based record company.”
So besides the new album, you’re also going to be featuring in Baz Luhrman’s Elvis biopic as Sister Rosetta Tharpe. How are things going with that?
“Yeah, I don’t know how much you’ve read about it but we’ve already filmed, I went out to Australia in January and filmed my scenes. It’s a great person to play, and it’s an honour to play her, because as you’ll see in the movie, she created rock ‘n’ roll music. Let’s make no bones about it, that’s what we’re taking about here. Because of her influence on the broadness of the scene in Memphis at the time, she had a night on Beale Street and the great and the good of what later become rock ‘n’ roll all went to this same bloody night! Everyone! It was a scene, and all these people who then went and spread across the globe and became these icons, all of that pivoted on this pinhead of her night at Beale Street, at Club Handy.
"So I’m playing the matriarch of this scene, the main influence on Elvis, who used to run home and listen to her on the radio, and he’s obsessed with her and everything she’s doing. She discovered Little Richard. I mean, he was doing shows in the 50s in make-up, almost in drag. Do you think a white man in the 50s, in segregationist America, books a black man in drag? No. A queer black woman did. And all of sudden you’re like ‘Oh, Sister Rosetta was queer?’ Yeah, the piano player was her girlfriend, and she wasn’t even closeted about it at all. And these are things that are out there to be read about, all of this stuff is out in the world, but that’s why it’s so important that story is being told through the prism of Elvis."
That must be an exciting thing to be involved with…
“It was a really big thing for Baz, I was taking to him on set and he felt it was important to tell that story as it is as opposed to what we’re used to doing, which is the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll version where you go ‘I was really big, then I fell off and then I died’. It’s a human story, and we also need to show the flaws and to tell the truth about where all of this came from and not whitewash the story. So it feels like we’re finally unravelling the story, it’s an important part of the movie, and it’s not the entirety of the movie, of course, it’s still a movie about Elvis, but it’s important that it’s framed in the way that it is.”
So obviously touring is still challenging at the moment, do you have any plans to take the new record out on the road?
“Yeah, well, we have quite good testing here in Nashville, so we’ve been very able to test and then go into record, and similarly with the vaccine, it’s not a secret that Biden managed to get his hands on a whole load of it very, very quickly. So over here, we’ve been fully vaccinated since May, so a lot of people have been able to get back into doing some sort of shows. We’re doing Newport Folk Festival, and Newport Jazz as well – only half a dozen people in history have been able to do that because they’re across both genres at once, so that’s a really cool thing to be able to do.
"Apparently we’re edging towards herd immunity here, but because of our access to vaccination we’ve been able to get out on the road and doing things more now than in a lot of other places. So with decent numbers of people vaccinated we’re tentatively edging into festival season at least being outdoors, and I’m also touring with Chris Stapleton and all of those shows have been moved to amphitheatres so we can continue the thing of being outside. That seems to be something that we’re able to lean into, but we’re not quite in venues yet, not inside, but festivals are going ahead."
Stand For Myself is available in hmv stores from Friday July 30 - you can also find it here in our online store.