Interview: Yola Creates a ‘Melting Pot’ on Debut Album, ‘Walk Through Fire’
In some ways, Yola says, her 2019 full-length debut album, Walk Through Fire, and her 2016 EP, Orphan Offering, tell different parts of the same story.
"They both kind of split together about, just black female vulnerability, full stop," she tells The Boot. "But I think that the idea of being a strong black woman is something that I struggle with, regardless of how strong I've actually been at the time. The EP and the album are linked by the story of me coming out of an abusive environment and in the warmth of full love and safety."
In other ways, however, Walk Through Fire was the beginning of a brand-new story: "I kind of wanted the music to be, at least subject matter-wise, not super internal," Yola continues. "I wanted it to be more outward-looking."
To accomplish that goal, she called on an all-star cast of musicians and songwriters, from a multitude of different backgrounds and generations. She started with ace producer Dan Auerbach, and the group that they enlisted reflects a vast array of genre styles -- complementing Yola's own musical breadth -- each of which she needed to complete her multi-dimensional project.
Walk Through Fire takes a bluegrass twist from mandolin player Ronnie McCoury, of the Travelin' McCourys, as well as from rising star Molly Tuttle. Legendary songwriter Dan Penn lends Swampers soul to the album, while Joe Allen -- who has penned hits for Loretta Lynn, Johnny Cash, Glen Campbell and more -- brought Nashville expertise to the recording process. Perennial country icon Vince Gill also lends backing vocals.
"I think that the idea is that we're all unified by love of an aesthetic, a musical aesthetic."
"I think that the idea is that we're all unified by love of an aesthetic, a musical aesthetic," Yola says of the decision to bring in such a wide range of performers. "We may have different tastes in music; some of us might be more bluegrass, like Molly, or on more of the soul track, like Dan, and I've got a varied and eclectic taste in music."
However, she adds, there's a strong upside to that eclecticism: "You could have had someone that only really listens to Britpop, to somebody that only listens to classic country music, to someone who only listens to some music on my record, and I would have understood what they were into," Yola points out. "There's something in the aesthetic of certain kinds of music that binds them past genre."
Yola knows that she isn't the first artist to create a musical voice out of an aesthetic, without really paying much attention to genre. "You know, like Beck's music," she relates. "He goes so far across genre. And I'm really fascinated by him, and want to emulate that sense of linking sounds through an aesthetic more than through necessarily being pinned to a genre."
Yola co-wrote each track on Walk Through Fire with Auerbach and, additionally, brought in one of a rotating cast of songwriters. In addition to Penn and Allen, those co-writers include UK pop hitmaker Roger Cook and blues/country songwriter (and frequent John Prine collaborator) Pat McLaughlin.
"It gives the record this movement, this idea that you're going on a journey," Yola muses. "Dan had a great vision of who to line up, thinking, 'Who is Yola going to bounce off of?' So he'd go, 'Oh, I'll bring this person back; you really bounced off them.' That's kind of how [the album] was built."
"Some people are purists. And the world needs people who are purists. But I really wanted to encourage a melting pot of sound."
There were few collaborators that Yola "bounced off of" better, however, than iconic studio musician Bobby Wood, who serves as a co-wroter on five of Walk Through Fire's 12 tracks. With a storied career in both the Memphis and Nashville recording traditions, Wood has cut tracks with the likes of Elvis Presley, Dusty Springfield and Wilson Pickett, as well as classic country artists such as Tammy Wynette and George Jones. Perhaps that musical breadth is why Wood and Yola clicked so well.
"Bobby Wood is such a gentleman. He is a really relaxed kind of personality as well, and so I think, from my point of view, I really respond to something who is relaxed and open," Yola explains. "I can write a lot of different genres. And so I like to meet people who have ears that are as open, and who don't have little pet hates that stop them from hearing things."
It was this mentality -- a mantra of open creativity and collaboration -- that produced the kind of album that Yola knew she needed to make.
"Some people are purists. And the world needs people who are purists," she goes on to say. "But I really wanted to encourage a melting pot of sound. As I go through records -- and I mean records, because I [intend] to be prolific -- it's important that I have the space to do that."
Who Is Yola? 5 Things You Need to Know