When I included the latest single by Yola in my last Best of What’s New installment, I noticed her first full-length solo album Walk Through Fire received many accolades. Since the strong voice of the English singer-songwriter immediately grabbed me, I checked it out and have to say it’s a true gem, both musically and in terms of her vocal performance.
Getting to that point wasn’t exactly an easy path for Yola who was born as Yolanda Quartey in 1983 in Bristol, England. According to this review in Popmatters, Yola had a tough childhood characterized by poverty and a parent who didn’t care for her and banned music. Later she lived homeless in London for some time before establishing herself as a session singer and touring with acts like DJ collective Bugz in the Attic and electronic music outfit Massive Attack.
In 2005, she co-founded country-soul band Phantom Limb and recorded two studio albums and a live record with them. But ultimately, as her artist profile in Apple Music notes, Yola felt the need to strike out on her own. Over the next few years, she started writing her own songs that were influenced by Muscle Shoals era country-soul, R&B and classic singer-songwriter style. In 2016, she released her debut EP Orphan Offering under the name of Yola Carter.
Eventually, Yola went to Nashville where she met Dan Auerbach after he had seen a video of her. Apparently, Auerbach was immediately impressed by her. “Her spirit fills the room, just like her voice,” he reportedly said. “She has the ability to sing in a full roar or barely a whisper and that is a true gift.” Auerbach teamed up with Yola to co-write songs, together with other writers, including Bobby Wood, Pat McLaughlin and Dan Penn.
Auerbach also assembled an impressive group of seasoned studio musicians, including Dave Roe (bass), who played with Johnny Cash and John Mellencamp, among others; harmonica player Charlie McCoy (credits include Elvis Presley, Dolly Parton, Bob Dylan, etc.) and drummer Gene Crisman, who together with Bobby Wood was a member of the Memphis Boys. They were the house band of American Sound Studio in Memphis, Tenn. where artists like Elvis, Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin and Dusty Springfield recorded. Auerbach also produced Walk Through Fire, which appeared in February 2019 on his Easy Eye Sound label.
With all of the above, it’s not surprising the album has a retro late ’60s sound. This is also matched by the cover. And yet, to me, Walk Through Fire feels like an album that will hold up well over time. It simply is a work of beauty. Let’s get to some music.
Here’s the opener Faraway Look. The track was co-written by Auerbach, McLaughin and Yola. BTW, McLaughlin’s compositions have been performed by artists like Bonnie Raitt, Alan Jackson, Taj Mahal and Al Kooper, among others. Sure, the production might be a bit on the lush side, but this is just a beautiful tune.
Ride Out in the Country is another great track. The song was co-written by Auerbach, Yola and Joe Allen. Allen is a county songwriter and bassist who since the early ’70s has worked with the likes of Loretta Lynn, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash.
Next up is the title track, which according to Wikipedia references both a fire that damaged Yola’s home and an abusive relationship from which she escaped. The tune was co-written by Auerbach, Yola and Dan Penn. Penn has co-written many soul hits of the ’60s, including The Dark End of the Street and Do Right Woman, Do Right Man and Cry Like a Baby.
Rock Me Gently is my current favorite on the album. It’s another Auerbach-Allen-Yola co-write.
Let’s do one more: Love All Night (Work All Day), co-credited to Wood, Auerbach and Yola.
As noted above, Walk Through Fire was very well received. The album also generated three Grammy nominations: Best Americana Album, Best American Roots Song (Faraway Look) and Best New Artist. Walk Through Fire was also nominated for Album of the Year at the Americana Music Honors & Awards. And, yes, the album also did score a win: UK Album of the Year at the UK Americana Awards.
At age 37, Yola still is relatively young. I look forward to much more great music from this talented songwriter and vocalist.
Sources: Wikipedia; Popmatters; Apple Music; YouTube