Two chart-topping albums into her career, singer-songwriter Yola has already eclipsed the wildest dreams she ever had for her future. From her time in the early Aughts fronting the UK indie band Phantom Limb (cue The Venture Bros theme) to the 2021 release of the jaunty ‘Diamond Studded Shoes’, the soulful chanteuse with the infectious laugh (and smile) born to a Ghanaian father and a Barbadian mother in Bristol, England has quickly become a darling of the realm’s music scene: 2017, 2020 and 2022 UK Americana Awards Artist of the Year, 2022 Americana Album of the Year for her Stand For Myself, multiple Grammy nominations, sold out shows the world over. That’s not to mention her scene stealing acting debut as Sister Rosetta Tharpe in Baz Luhrman’s 2022 biopic Elvis.
And yet, Yola is only now growing comfortable with her power. She’s equal parts empathic, sensual, risqué, funkadelic, classy, curious, intelligent and it’s all laid bare in her music. It’s also the best part of getting to speak with her about communicating with her audience, about her ‘grandmaster’ mama, and her geeky cure to the real ‘fake news’. But first, I had to ask her about a track that has haunted me, in the best way spiritually, for the past few months now.
I’m going to start right from the top with how much I love your song “Like A Photograph”. You told me a story about how the people who like that song all belong to ‘The Dead Parents Club’.
Yeah, it’s really something that I’ve been noticing, not just on releasing the record but also being on tour, that the people that really identify with that song understand the point of view from which I’m writing this. It’s such a moment in your life – to lose a parent. You don’t realize your sense of mortality or that you’re the final stop for the first time until you lose a parent. I’ve talked about this on record before. It’s something that really gives you this sense of clarity. Mourning a parent gives you a real sense of clarity that’s bizarrely useful but, also, weirdly cleansing.
This song has this slightly elevated, peaceful, goodbye energy. That’s the kind of thing that people, who have been through that kind of thing in life, identify with this song massively. In my mind, I’m talking to someone who’s passing away and I don’t know if they can hear me anymore, you know? That’s really where I am. I’m trying to communicate with someone who is losing the ability to communicate; my mother died of motor neurone disease and so it reflects on life, as well.
I feel you on that because my father passed away due to lung and brain cancer. So, at the end, he couldn’t speak; he could only communicate through smiles and things like that. We’re talking to him but, because of how the cancer has spread, you’re not exactly sure if he’s comprehending what you’re saying. I feel you on the cleansing part too, because as much as you’re saying these final words that you really want to say to this person, you’re also saying these things for yourself, you know? You’re cleansing your spirit and, in an equally freeing type of way, you’re getting rid of all the bullshit because you realize…
Yes! Time’s running out, you know? We need to resolve, we need ultimate closure. We need the nature of this connection, regardless of how healthy it was, to be healthy by the time we’re done, you know? (Both laugh)
I could speak on that because me and my mother did not have a healthy relationship; not at all (laughs). And so, that whole process of cleansing becomes so important; that sense of being at peace. I think, similarly with (the track) “Break The Bough” which is more of a party-feel death song, I have a real death period on this record (laughs).
There’s the ‘I’m not living, why am I being like this? Self-hate section. There’s the ‘boundary’ section. There’s the ‘it’s time to love me and have other people love me-self’ sexy section. That’s the ‘wait a minute – what about all the freakin’ systems that stop us from getting what we deserve a variant human’ section, and then there’s a death section. And finally, there’s the ‘yay – I’m doing all the things I want to do’ section, but this is firmly part of the death section.
Photograph is the one that the Dead Parents Club people most notice but Break The Bough is very personal. It was written just as I was riding back from my mother’s funeral and so, it’s very specific, you know? If you’ve got an immigrant parent, you’ll be like, “Okay, this is a funeral song for people with immigrant parents.” But it’s for your first Jennas*, you know?
*First generation immigrants
Some people, you’ll see them start mouthing the song and then be like, “Wait a minute! Um, did you say ‘dreamed to kill’? (Laughs) This doesn’t sound like a party, sir.” And I’m like, “Yeah, actually pay attention to the lyrics; it feels like a massive party until you start reading.” But it’s very specific. It’s not just for immigrant parents; it’s specifically immigrant parents with psychopathic, near psychopathic disorders and so it’s very, very specific. Sometimes you’ve got to do things for yourself and this was something for me.
Note to self – don’t read Yola song lyrics at a party.
Yes! You don’t actually want to know what’s going on. (Both laughs) You know, I don’t always sneak profoundly sad lyrics into party songs, but it is something that I enjoy doing. I like a little trick.
Recently, I spoke with (Making Movies lead vocalist) Enrique Chi about the inspiration for his music. Similar to the idea of inherited trauma, he talked about the idea of a singer-songwriter tapping into an inherited melody, something from their past, something that their great-great-grandmother hummed or sang as a child, you know? I’m curious about your thoughts on that concept.
I always find myself responding to serious things with comedy but like, my mother – my late mother – had perfect pitch but the worst vocal tone I’ve ever heard in my life. She could call a note out of the air but (in a severe nasal voice) ‘the tonality’ – unbelievable! I never heard anything more nasal in all of my days (laughs). I used to lecture vocal mechanics so, I’ve heard a lot of students when I was in university, and still, I think I’ve heard one person potentially close to the level of nasal my mom could produce. but laughs. It was nasal to the power of nasal; unreal.
I think one thing I’m very aware of – and was never a secret in my household – was that my mum used to DJ disco. Her audience was not the usual audience, though. She was a psychiatric nurse, so her audience were the people at the mental institute where she worked. One day, she noticed a record player attached to the hospital radio and said, “wait a minute. I think we can do something with this” So hospital radio goes from being just playing whatever’s going on in the local radio station to real DJ sets, you know?
Did she have a DJ name? Please tell me she had a DJ name.
No, she did not, sadly. But yeah, she loved music, and she always played a lot of disco.
I’ve always had this obsession with (drummer, songwriter) James Gadson and his contribution to music; his style of pocket and feel combination, even when I didn’t know he was drumming in a session. I remember when I was looking for drummers for this record, and I was listening to some of my favorite drum performances. Every time I looked, it was James Gadson that was in the session. And I didn’t even know! I’d be like, ‘oh, this is the amount of feel that I like,’ and every time, it was him. So, clearly, he was central to my understanding and my appreciation of sound. Then I remember going through my mother’s record collection, and a lot of these are from, you know, what I grew up on. So my mother, unknown to herself, had an obsession with James Gadson, and it’s passed down through my gestation. And so, somewhat directly – not even – this is just like my mum’s DJ set.
That’s why even on the songs that aren’t disco on the record or that there’s this kind of Gadson feel; like, everything has that same kind of philosophy because I was like, ‘if we don’t have this philosophy on this record, I ain’t making this record.’ I’ve been in America just about enough time to have met some people and to be able to make some calls on how I might want to do this record. That became a really just important part of the process– bringing in these really foundational things, even if it was down the umbilical cord to me.
You know you must do a mixtape called My Mum’s DJ Set.
Absolutely (both laugh)! I’m actually quite the playlist maker, and so – really – I’ve been thinking this is something that I’m going to start doing with my downtime after tour, so yeah, maybe I will. Watch this space.
When you’re on stage performing, do you have – outside of the set list – an idea of what you’re going to do, or are you just feeding 100% off the audience’s energy?
Here’s the deal with me and the stage. Everyone loves to romanticize the concept of tour and, you know me, I’m a truth-first-everything-else-later person; I presume that’s what endears me to people (laughs). But um, when you’re on tour, you’re kind of a zombie because your whole body clock just gets flipped upside down. But the upside of that zombie thing is that you’ve got one thing to do on this tour, and it’s to make sure that your body is in the right place, health-wise, to be free to express.
All I’m trying to do, every time I step onstage, is reconvene with the song and its meaning and make sure that it’s still true. It helps writing a good enough song, right?
If you write something so temporary and so trend-based, I’m not even going to be feeling this in six months, let alone six years. Like, you know, you’re trying to reconvene with the song and find its truth over and over again. And then I open my eyes, and I’m like, “oh hey, guys. Sorry, I was just really having a moment there. Are we in the feels? Excellent.” (Laughs) It’s like, this constant diving down into the meaning and the feeling and emotion of something, and rising out of that, to almost bring it to people.
And is the idea behind that 1) so that you can give the best performance of the song that you can at the moment while 2) being respectful to whatever feeling the music gives to your audience?
Yeah, exactly! Because you’re wanting to commune with the audience because they’re experiencing it, and sometimes, when you’re singing it at that moment, you’re imbuing it with a very specific meaning and tone that day. And that can be something that they connected with one way, and then you talk about it and sing it, and they’re like, ‘Oh wow. So now I feel it in this whole other way of my life.’ Sometimes it’s the same feeling that day that it was yesterday. Sometimes it’s a completely different feeling. But it’s honesty, and that’s the really important part of me and performing.
Like, I don’t think people like being lied to. I think people have gotten used to being lied to. Faux sincerity, faux emotion, faux connection. action. I think we’ve all got used to all the false connections, and if there’s one thing I want people to feel, it’s that I haven’t lied to them. Everything that they’ve experienced is profoundly that day’s truth. It’s up to date and really felt. I stand by what I am saying in my banter; there’s always quite a lot of banter in my shows. I stand by what I’m singing, and all of this is imbued with truth.
I think that’s really important in an environment where we’re lied to, for really specific political reasons, for marketing reasons. We’re constantly lied to. And I’m, like, ‘if this can be a space where that’s happening a lot freakin’ less, then great. I want it to be that reprieve, that sanctuary away from the bullshit.
One final question for you. You’re familiar with Batman? Batman is very famous for having a utility belt that has everything in it under the sun. He needs a batarang; It’s there. He needs shark repellent, he needs chapstick; it’s there in his utility belt.
Probably like a billion dollars is there as well because he’s rich as hell. Like, all the AmEx Platinums under the sun. (laughs)
If you could have your own stylized, personalized utility belt, what’s going to be in your utility belt?
Oh my gosh. So these is, like, the things that you always need wherever you are. Like, one thing I always say that you should always carry around is apple cider vinegar. It’s really good for toning your skin, and if you’re wearing makeup a bunch of days on tour, it’s really helpful in making sure that you don’t break out all the time. It’s really good to gargle with, although it’s not very pleasant. It’s really good for throat infections, anything like that. So I really use that. I always carry that.
I always carry my Voice Straw. It’s a company called Voice Straw, and they have these straws, these cups that help stretch your pharynx; you do laryngeal stretches with them, and it really helps stretch out the muscles that you use in your larynx to sing. Okay. And so I would 100% have that and obviously, my phone because I’m talking to you on it. (Laughs) I talk to everyone on it, I communicate with all my fans, all my friends on it; internationally obviously, being from the UK.
But also, I’m a superhero, right? And so, you know, how in Superman (same universe, FYI), they have like a special calling button for Superman, that only he can hear? I would have that but for only scholars in subjects that are constantly miscommunicated to the public. And so anytime that someone’s just talking some bullshit, I’m gonna press my emergency expert button, and they’ll go “TA-DA, I think you’ll find this is bullshit.” (Both laugh) “I think you’re purposefully misinforming people for your own gain or just for the narrative of white supremacy or just because of your own kind of insecurity or just because you want some more money in the situation, you want some more credit because you’re incapable!”
I’d have an anti-bullshit button where experts would literally just rock up to disprove people’s bullshit. Not just, like, Google it so people can try to refute the freakin’ research. No, we have a person that’s literally going to school you. This is a superpower I’d have – I can open portals to any expert with this button, and they will come through a la Star Trek style (different universe, granted). We’d have a language translator, inherent in that process of coming through the portal, so they would speak in whatever language is necessary to get the message across, even if it includes Dumb Ass. They come through speaking fluent Dumb Ass.
Like, in all realism, I’ve been to summits on the subject of the impact of just purposeful misinformation. It’s one of the most dangerous trends that obviously has given rise to so much kind of what we’re experiencing at the moment, like white supremacist extremism, you know? And so, it’s a real service. If someone starts getting on about some shit, you can just hit it and have somebody that goes, “Well, actually…” (Both laugh)