What I’ve Been Listening to: Yola/Walk Through Fire

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.

Yola Carter

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.

Yola and Dan Auerbach

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

On This Day in Rock & Roll History: February 2

February 2nd is Groundhog Day in the U.S. and Canada. BTW, I heard that this morning, the groundhog emerged from its burrow and did not see the shadow, which means an early spring! February 2nd also saw the birth of a great songwriter and vocalist, the day before the music died, a recording of a masterpiece and the release of a new album by a Southern Rock staple. Let’s get to it!

1942: Graham William Nash was born in Blackpool, England. Nash, who according to Wikipedia has been active since 1958, is best known for his vocal and songwriting contributions to The Hollies and Crosby, Stills & Nash/Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. He was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as a member of both bands. Between May 1971 and April 2016, Nash has also released six solo albums. Here’s Myself At Last, a pretty tune from Nash’s most recent solo record This Path Tonight, which appeared in April 2016 and was his first new studio album in 14 years. Like all songs on that record, it was written by Nash and producer Shayne Fontayne. Nash who turned 78 today is planning to embark on a tour of the U.S. and Europe in early March. The current schedule is here. Long may you run!

1959: This was the day before the music died. Rock & rollers Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. Richardson, artistically known as The Big Bopper, played their last gig at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa. It was the 11th show of the 24-date Winter Party Tour through the midwestern U.S. The next scheduled stop was 365 miles away in Moorhead, Minn. Rather than doing the entire trip by bus in freezing temperatures as the musicians had done up to this point, Holly decided to charter a plane to Fargo, N.D., close to Moorhead. Initially, his touring bassist Waylon Jennings was supposed to be one of the three passengers (in addition to the pilot). But he gave his seat to Richardson who had fallen ill with the flu to spare him a gruesome bus trip. The V-tailed Beechcraft 35 Bonanza embarked on its fateful flight from Mason City Municipal Airport in the early morning hours of Feb 3 and the rest is history.

The_Day_the_Music_Died

1967: The Beatles were working on their masterpiece Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band at Abbey Road Studios in London, according to The Beatles Bible. While it may not be quite as popular as Jesus, this source captures the ultimate truth about The Fab Four in all of its gory details. During the recording session that evening, Paul McCartney added his lead vocals to the album’s title track, joined by Lennon John and George Harrison in the chorus. For the nerds, and yes, I like that shit, The Beatles Bible further points out their voices were captured on track four of the tape. Track three was used to overdub additional harmonies. Afterwards, a reduction mix was created to free up space on the tape. All instruments were now on track one, and all vocals were on track four. I sharply conclude this left tracks two and three to add additional overdubs. And, yes, separately I read Sgt. Pepper was still recorded in four-track since music studios in London did not start using eight-track tape recorders until late 1967.

1976: Southern rockers Lynryd Skynyrd released Gimme Back My Bullets, their fourth studio album and the second-to-last recorded with original members Ronnie Van Zandt and Allen Collins prior to the October 1977 plane crash. Peaking at no. 20 on the U.S. Billboard 200, it was less successful than Skynyrd’s two previous records. Van Zant and Collins attributed the performance to the loss of the band’s three-guitar attack that had been one of their early hallmarks. While the album didn’t match the Platinum status of the band’s other pre-crash records, it still earned a respective Gold certification in January 1981. Here’s lead single Double Trouble co-written by Van Zandt and Collins.

Sources: Wikipedia; This Day in Music; The Beatles Bible; Songfacts Music History Calendar; YouTube