Yola Is Listening To Lady Gaga, Emmylou Harris, and Plenty Of Salt-N-Pepa

Published February 21, 2020

This is “Add to Queue,” our attempt to sort through the cacophony of music floating in the algorithmic atmosphere by consulting the experts themselves. Our favorite musicians tell us about their favorite music—the sad, the happy, the dinner party-y, the songs they want played at their funeral. 

Yola, the Bristol-born musician whose first U.S. tour begins this month, is no stranger to struggle. Born to a single mother who worked several jobs and resisted the prospect of her daughter entering the music industry, Yola was forbidden from singing for much of her adolescence. Later, 21-years-old and relentless, she made her way from the outskirts of Bristol to London with the hope of breaking into the city’s tight-knit music scene. When she fell behind on rent and no one could take her in, the musician found herself sleeping under a bush in Hoxton Square. Between this period of homelessness and the house fire that inspired 2019’s Walk Through Fire (her debut album), one might expect Yola’s music to be a punch in the gut. In reality, it’s something quite different. 

Yola’s voice on Walk Through Fire is like some tectonic, irrefutable fact of nature. It’s broad, twangy, and forceful—ideal for anchoring the album’s country-soul instrumentation. She marries the tragedy and heartache in her lyrics with bright fiddle and slide guitar to produce nostalgic Americana à la Dolly Parton. Over the next five months, she will bring this sound back to the region that birthed it, with a tour that spans the American South and West.

I reach Yola on a crackly international line, the kind with a lag that tends to swallow up jokes and stretch out uncomfortable silences. But a bad connection is no match for ebullience and charm, and Yola has both in spades. From the best album to throw on at a dinner party to the perfect song to belt at karaoke, Yola knows what to play to make us feel good.

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MARA VEITCH: What was the last song you listened to?

YOLA: Oh god. I’m going to have to look that up … the last song … Oh! “Telephone,” by Lady Gaga, featuring Beyoncé.

VEITCH: You must’ve been pumping yourself up for something.

YOLA: That’s exactly what was happening.

VEITCH: Who was the earliest musician to influence you?

YOLA: Ooh, earliest? That’s a real hard call. I know that I’ve been singing since before I can remember, so of what I can remember, it must have been Aretha [Franklin].

VEITCH: Is that why you say that you’ve been singing since before you can remember? Did other people tell you that?

YOLA: Yeah, apparently, I always was. I don’t really have a living memory of not singing.

VEITCH: That’s really funny. Do you remember the first concert you went to?

YOLA: Oh, god. That would have been a lot later, because we didn’t have any money. I lived in a very uncultured place so I didn’t really have that experience until I was older. The first time I went to a concert might have been the first time I did a gig.

VEITCH: So the first concert you went to was your own!

YOLA: Yeah. I did jazz gigs for a little while when I was 13 and 14. They would have been the first gigs I went to. Little jazz gigs in South England.

VEITCH: What’s your favorite movie soundtrack?

YOLA: It’s a hard call but O Brother, Where Art Thou, the Coen Brothers’ movie, just had a huge influence on me. The soundtrack from that movie is kind of what sparked popularity of roots music in the U.K. Before that, I don’t think that roots and country music had a very positive reputation in Europe and in the U.K. There seemed to be an explosion almost in direct response to that soundtrack.

VEITCH: I didn’t realize that film had such an impact abroad.

YOLA: It was pivotal. For a while, all the sing-alongs at bars would be based on that soundtrack. It’s like people started realizing they were into roots music. Of course, it must’ve played differently in the U.S.

VEITCH: I’ll have to re-listen to it. Moving on to your own music, who are your dream collaborators—one of all-time and one alive today?

YOLA: Paul McCartney and Childish Gambino. Double-whammy.

VEITCH: What’s a song that always puts you in a good mood?

YOLA: Hmm, a no-matter-what song. “What a Fool Believes” by Doobie Brothers is, 100 percent. Doesn’t matter how I feel—that goes on, instant good mood. Bam.

VEITCH: What do you listen to before you perform?

YOLA: I actually made a little playlist to get me in a performing mood, so I listen to that. It’s got everything from Chaka Khan to Beck to Michael Kiwanuka.

VEITCH: What’s a song that you think if everyone listened to it would change the world?

YOLA: I think if everyone listens to “I Am Black Gold of the Sun” by Rotary Connections, that people would be changed.

VEITCH: I agree. What would you put on a road trip playlist?

YOLA: I like a singer-songwriter type situation if I’m doing a road trip, so Emmylou Harris is on there. The early Bee Gees and Elton John will be on there. “Run to Me,” those kinds of tracks. Also I’ll put a bit of Glenn Campbell on there, and a bit of Dolly [Parton]. Certainly, if I were driving through the Rocky Mountains I’d have to listen to Gillian Welch. She tends to go very well with a scenic route. So yeah, I think I’d go quite country on a road trip.

VEITCH: How about a dinner party playlist?

YOLA: I’m in a very different mood for dinner parties. I love to make playlists for every situation, and one of mine is called “How Not to Piss Off Your Neighbors.” It’s a lot of Buena Vista Social Club and Los Hacheros. So I tend to go the Latin route. Maybe a bit of Les Baxter and a bit of the lounge-exotica type stuff. 

VEITCH: That’s such a great combination. How about if you’re having a house party?

YOLA: Ooh, if I’m having a house party … well, the songs that are good for hyping you up for a gig are also good for hyping you up for a house party. I either go in a disco direction—Earth, Wind and Fire type stuff, “Rock the Boat” by Hues Corporation. Or I’ll go in a completely different direction with some modern Afrobeat, like “Drogba (Joanna)”  by Afro B. It almost depends on the friend group. Some people really want to dance. Others are more into the drink-and-talk type thing.

VEITCH: You have to know your audience.

YOLA: Right. I also really love ’90s East Coast hip-hop, so KRS One and all that stuff would be on the menu as well.

VEITCH: How about a crying in the bedroom type of mood?

YOLA: I think if you’re going to be crying, you need artists who have crying in their voice. Because that’s a requirement to purge those feelings.

VEITCH: Mmm.

YOLA: For that, I’d look to Aretha. She’s got that wail. Anything from the Young, Gifted and Black era feels really emotional without requiring that you process. Sometimes you just need to wail for the sake of wailing. Also Brandi Carlile, “The Joke” because half of the time she sounds like she’s crying.

VEITCH: You’re right. I think I’ve fallen victim to that myself once or twice. Do you have any guilty pleasure music?

YOLA: I don’t really deal with guilty pleasures. I’m very proud of all of my pleasures. There’s no part of me that’s like, “Oh, I shouldn’t be enjoying this.” Maybe it wasn’t cool for a young black girl to be totally into Shania Twain when I was growing up, but I was, and I loved it, and I still love it, and I met her, and she was lovely. So there’s no shame. I’ve never been cool so I don’t see why I should start trying now.

VEITCH: That’s beautiful. How about go-to karaoke songs?

YOLA: Oh, goodness. If I’m given complete free-reign to do whatever I bloody-well please, I really love singing “Nutbush City Limits” by Tina Turner. I love that song. I really love singing “Spanish Harlem” by Aretha. I really love singing—

VEITCH: You really belt it out when you’re doing karaoke.

YOLA: Oh, yeah. Karaoke is go hard or go home. On stage, I’ve covered subtler stuff, like the Beach Boys “’Til I Die,” and it was beautiful. I’ll tend to be more delicate in a show because you’ve got space to create that art.

VEITCH: But that’s not the stuff of karaoke bars.

YOLA: Right! If I’m getting pissed, if I’m absolutely crowbarring tequilas, I’m not going to sing you a tender lullaby. It’s not happening, mate. I’m drunk.

VEITCH: Do you know what songs you want played at your funeral?

YOLA: I don’t. What I want to listen to tomorrow is a bloody mystery. There’s no guarantee it’s been written yet either.

VEITCH: You know, I never thought of that. It might not exist!

YOLA: This is the thing: we don’t have enough faith in music. We assume that all the best music’s already happened. I have a little bit more faith in humanity. Yeah, I’m holding out.

VEITCH: Is there a song that reminds you of your youth? 

YOLA: Oh, my goodness. “Push It” by Salt-N-Pepa.

VEITCH: Do you sing in the shower?

YOLA: I’m mute in the shower.

VEITCH: You have to take a break sometime, I guess.

YOLA: Yeah, I’m on tour all the time so any chance I take to be completely mute, I take it.

VEITCH: If your life were a television show, what would the theme song be?

YOLA: Oh my god. If my life were a television show. I’d think the theme would be… oh my goodness gracious. I have absolutely no idea. Because my life is so … polar. It’s finally gotten steady. Maybe it would be “Bohemian Rhapsody” because it’s nothing but drama. It’s been an epic. It’s been long-winded, but triumphant in the end.

Listen to Yola’s “Add To Queue” playlist below, and follow Interview on Spotify for more.