“No one knew who I was, and then all of a sudden I’m sat next to Billie Eilish”: How Yola conquered the music industry
A whirlwind two years has catapulted Yola from obscurity to the top table of the Grammys. Now on the back of another critically acclaimed album, she’s turning to the silver screen to portray one of the most important figures in the history of electric guitar, and she’s not going to be needing any hand doubles to do it.
Image: Joseph Ross Smith
“I went back to sort my life out and not be in charge of so many random storage units!” Yola is reflecting on her first trip back to her homeland since before the pandemic, chuckling to herself having just returned to the US following her first visit back to the UK in nearly two years. In addition to settling her Big Yellow account and catching up with friends and family, the trip also gave the 38-year-old Bristolian a chance to demonstrate how far she’s come, by mixing in conversations with broadsheet supplements, an appearance on The Graham Norton Show alongside Will Smith, and welcoming in the New Year as the first act of 2022 for BBC New Year’s Eve institution Jools’ Annual Hootenanny.
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It’s a far cry from the first time we sat down with Yolanda Quartey back in 2019. On a rainy day in a house-cum-studio on the outskirts of Bristol, Yola excitedly shared the story of her recently released debut album, recorded with Dan Auerbach in Nashville, and showcasing a remarkable voice and songwriting talent that she’d kept bottled up over a decade working as a session musician.
The UK music industry might not have given Yola the chance that she deserved, but on the other side of the Atlantic, they would not make the same mistake. By the end of the year Walk Through Fire would be on Rolling Stone’s year-end best of, would be feted by Elton John as a star in the making, and nominated for four Grammy Awards, including Best New Artist – one of the legendary awards show’s coveted ‘Big Four’ categories, where she would rub metaphorical (and literal, we’ll get to that) shoulders with Billie Eilish, Lil Nas X and Lizzo.
By any measure, it’s a meteoric rise, and leaves us with so much to talk about we almost certainly can’t cover it all – but to hear her tell it, it would be hard to undersell how crazy the last few years have been.
“It has though!” she exclaims, her warm laughter regularly punctuating our conversation. “It’s really easy to like to see someone’s social feed, and what they’re putting out into the world and go, ‘Oh yeah, but that’s just the shiny end, everyone’s Instagram lives are crazier than their actual lives’. But like, no – my life has actually been legitimately crazy! If anything it’s been more emotional, and more dramatic!”
The applause had barely faded on the 62nd Grammy Awards at the end of January 2020 when the world turned upside down and Yola was faced with a decision. With the world locking down, she faced the stark choice of returning home to England where she could see out the pandemic with her family and friends as most of the rest of us were, but risk losing the momentum that 2019 had given her, or she could stay in the US despite all the uncertainty and try to keep it all going. She chose the latter.
“To decide that you’re just gonna stay in America during the lockdown and just figure it out, was like such a crazy move,” she reflects, the occasional hint of a mid-Atlantic twang telling its own story. “But I think it really worked out.”
Stand and deliver
Work out it certainly did. In 2021, Yola released her second album, the mature, confident Stand For Myself and bagged another couple of Grammy nominations along the way. This time she understood the significance of it all – something that was slightly lost to the Brit abroad the first time.
“I had to talk about what it meant a lot and honestly, I didn’t know!” she exclaims. “I didn’t know what it meant. It was just something that felt so beyond what was ordinarily accessible. Especially as a Brit, you don’t necessarily get much schooling in how it all works, and what it all means even! Like the General Field being this super hard area of the Grammys to get into – I didn’t know about that!”
The General Field, also known as the Big Four, are for album, record and song of the year, plus best new artist. Unlike all the other Grammy categories, the Big Four are not limited to any genre, and as such are the most coveted awards the Recording Academy bestows.
“You’ve got like, Rosalia, Lil Nas X, Lizzo, Billie Eilish, Black Pumas, Maggie Rogers, Tank And The Bangas… and lil’ ol’ muggins here from England!” she reflects on the unlikely nature of her Best New Artist nomination. “No one knew who I was, it was all just insane, and then all of a sudden I’m sat next to Billie Eilish’s squad! It was like, mum, Finneas, Billie, my manager and me! It was bizarre.”
While she was more aware of what they were this time around, that came with its own challenges.
“In a way the first time was relaxing, because I didn’t expect anything,” she reflects. “Then this time round, I was like, ‘Oh, I’m really scared now, because I’ve had it before. Instead of watching it and going like, ‘What!?’ I was like, ‘Oh, God, I don’t know what I’m supposed to feel. Am I supposed to have one, am I supposed to think that I’m not gonna get nominated?’ So in the end I was just hoping that it would come through and then when it did I was like, ‘Oh girl, you’re fine!’ But I was really frickin’ scared man, I was terrified!”
It’s easy to see how artists can feel a sense of expectation and even entitlement when they make a habit of getting nominated every year, but it’s something Yola’s determined to avoid.
“This whole concept is utterly bizarre as it is,” she says. “Like I said, all these people crammed in a room. And then we give them some statues and Bob’s your uncle – it’s utterly bizarre! But as long as there is a great sense of representation, and as long as we’re not being like, ‘If it’s not a white guy then I’m not giving them a frickin’ award!’ If we can, we can get away from that kind of mentality, I’m gonna try and not be the kind of person who’s like, ‘Oh my god! I didn’t get nominated! How dare you!?’”
Stand For Myself is a very different album to Walk Through Fire, pulling in from a wider pool of golden age influences, while upping the orchestration and ambition along with it, it’s a bold and confident statement of a songwriter that has a clear vision of her art, and is more comfortable in herself with it.
“So the first record, every song bar one was written in the room, on the day that I met the people. And finished in the room, on the day that I met the people,” she explains of the process her and Auerbach undertook when she first moved to Nashville. “It’s like, ‘Hi, this is this person, you’ve never met them before – now open your guts and spill! Oh and FYI, you’re not the same generation, and most of them weren’t born in the same country or even continent as you!’ Then just add on the black woman scenario – and none of the co-writers were black, or a woman, or brown, or anything else for that matter.
“And so the hard bit was getting that album to feel like it was just deep and profound and coming from somewhere. It was the idea of trying to find that common ground, and so it felt like a collaborative album, because I was having to kind of reach further in the direction of these writers to connect.
“But with this record, I’ve been in America for enough time, that I’ve met people, so I didn’t have to depend on Dan’s Black Book Of Legends! Obviously, Natalie Hemby is celebrated upon celebrated, successful upon successful, doing all the wonderful things. But then there were people that I knew who were really inspirational as writers, who just needed a very small amount of time with me to get an idea to fire – artists like Aaron Lee Tasjan and Ruby Amanfu. And then with Hannah Vasanth – we were friends in London and in a band called Bugz In The Attic together.”
Pulling in a different and more familiar group of co-writers was half the battle, but before she could get to sharing ideas with her collaborators, she needed some herself – something that had become worryingly tricky, with a simple if unplanned remedy.
“I hadn’t really wanted to write since Walk Through Fire,” she reveals. I’d been so busy that I just wasn’t inspired. I was like, ‘Is this a block? Because normally when I want to write, it happens, but nothing’s coming’. So I was kind of slightly freaking out and trying to hide the fact that I was freaking out… because maybe I was still clinging to the ‘strong black woman’ paradigm, which is a curse. But then I get to lockdown, and it feels like my brain unlocks – I just needed to be still. And then all of a sudden, it was just ideas, ideas, ideas.”
Working with her collaborators and this new wellspring of ideas gave Yola the freedom to expand her horizons and delve deeper into the writing.
“There’s layers and layers,” she agrees. “You’ll listen to something like Diamond Studded Shoes, and it’s rockin, and you might think it’s just a party song until you listen to the lyrics and you’re like, ‘Hang on, this is about Theresa May?! She’s not a commonly known muse!’ Well I think actually she serves fine as a muse this time!
“But it felt really organic – it felt like they were busting to be known, and we just had to kind of take care of them, and send them to the right floor. It was talking to Dan Auerbach about it, and I was like, ‘It seems like these songs, they know what they want.’”
While all this has been going on, Yola’s relationship with her instrument has evolved in new and dramatic ways, taking her into directions she never anticipated.
“When we spoke last, I’d probably been playing for about four years at the time. And, so from 2019 to now, that’s a lot of time if you’re working like an absolute crazy person!” she chuckles.
“So I feel like, psychologically, my comfort with it has really got somewhere. I think it’s a part that people might not talk about as much, or they’re not always aware of it. You need to get over the hump of someone programming you to think that you have no right to play this instrument, or that you might not be as good as a certain person, or that someone else has the right to decide what’s good and bad – whether this person is imaginary or real. And I feel like I traversed that hump in the process of the album cycle, and then I was just able to grow from the process.”
The evidence of her evolution as a guitarist will be on full display as she takes on the role of guitar trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe in Baz Luhrmann’s upcoming blockbuster musical biopic, Elvis.
There was no expectation that Yola would do her own guitar-based stunts for the movie, which will hit theatres in June, but she was determined to give it a go.
“I thought, ‘Do you know what? Screw it! I’m gonna try that solo!’” she exclaims. “Have you ever done a solo in your life? ‘Nope!’ But there are plenty of people who are thick as pigshit and they manage to shred. I got great grades, and I’m really artistic – I’m from, like, a whole lineage of people in Ghana who for millennia have been like the core of the arts in West Africa. I’ve got, if anything, potentially an unfair advantage!
“So I thought, ‘Let’s see how deep this rabbit hole goes!’ Y’know, don’t sack the hand double just yet, but let them know that they can take a break, and you’ll give him a call if they’re needed.
“So I went to the frickin dojo man – I did the work, you know? And it turned out that the pandemic was a stroke of luck, as it gave me a lot more time to get these fingers going. I sat down every gosh-darn day mate, just getting my fingers going and at first it was slow.
“One thing that really got me through was the idea that eventually it’ll be very easy. It reminded me of how it felt when I was first picking up the guitar – I remember learning my first chords, and my hand feeling like it was a bloody claw – like I was half crab, half Yola! It felt so weird, but then that goes, you’ve just got to be patient enough to get over the hump.
“If someone were to tell you, ‘You’re not supposed to play this. It’s just too hard for you. That’s why it feels that way’. Or if you were to think, ‘I don’t really see a lot of people like me doing this’ you’ve got to be a certain way, and have a certain kind of mind to keep going.
And that’s something I have, the mentality of knowing that something is inevitable, you’ve just got to stick with it, and it’ll be fine. Those little things are important – people say representation matters, but it’s also about encouraging people and letting them know that, seriously, it’s actually not too hard. As long as your fingers do as they’re told you’ll be fine!
So I got to set and I was like, ‘Okay, I can do this. I can do it while not staring at my fingers – this is a real gift! And I was like, ‘These are my first solos, and I’m gonna be doing them on the silver screen!’”
It would have been very easy, in the dog days of trying to become a lead guitarist, for Yola to have thrown in the towel and, like scores of other actors in the course of cinema history, handed over the tricky stuff to a hand double – nobody would have been any the wiser. But it’s clear that Yola felt the weight of responsibility of portraying Sister Rosetta Tharpe in a major Hollywood film, and exposing a global audience to her remarkable impact on the course of the electric guitar. It was a conviction that drove her to put any misgivings aside.
“I was like, ‘You know what, I’m gonna do it because Sister Rosetta Tharpe did not get her due for inventing rock ’n’ roll’,” she states matter of factly. “Let’s just not be shy about this – distorting the guitar and shredding in that way, bending the strings in that way – that’s a Sister Rosetta Tharpe thing. Yes, I know, everybody does it now, but she was numero uno!
“That’s actually a part of the narrative that we get to explore in the movie – we get to see that. So it was important for me to not phone it in. It was important for me to actually represent this woman that pioneered this thing that we now all take for granted. All of these runs that we think are like, ‘Oh, they’ve been there forever’ – it started with this woman.
She was a queer black woman who grew up in the South, and despite all of that, she could be so… unabashed. So I felt like she was a really important person to portray as accurately as possible.”
Yola’s woodshedding might have been done for an unexpected reason, then, but the results are already bearing fruit in her day job, where she feels more at home with her instrument than ever.
“I just felt really really comfortable,” she explains. “I felt that having examined playing with a thumbpick and soloing in a certain way [to play Rosetta], I got around my relationship with picks versus just playing with the backs of my nails. I got to understand the way that I play, and my guitar-based identity.
“The whole process made me analyse what I’m doing and make it fit for me, in the way that she did – you’ve got to make your guitar playing a reflection of you. So that’s something that has led me to playing this [Noventa] Jazzmaster with P-90s, and I’ve got a Custom Telecaster that we’re working on at the moment with a humbucker at the bridge and a soapbar in the neck.”
On that rainy day in North Bristol, Yola was frank about how new she was to the guitar, but how embracing it even in a rudimentary way had lit a fire inside her. Now she’s ripping solos in front of her “dear friend” Gary Clark Jr (who’s also in Elvis) and using the guitar knowledge and skills she’s developed to help her evolve as a musician. It’s quite a leap.
“[Playing Sister Rosetta Tharpe] just gave me the freedom to go, ‘Oh I can now do this!’” she affirms. “But also I’ve had this opportunity to jump across all these guitars and realised that this feels like a really great medium for me to express myself, and I think that’s so different to where we were last time.
“Like, for a while I was practising on a replica of her Les Paul Custom, but then they were like, ‘Actually she’d probably have used this one that’s more 50s…’ So I played it and was like, ‘Well the string tension on this is a lot different to what I’m used to…’ but then I thought, ‘You know what, it’ll be fine! It’s all uphill – it’s all cardio!”
Stand For Myself is out now on Easy Eye Sound. Elvis will be in cinemas worldwide on 22 June 2022.