Released in February, Walk Through Fire is Yolanda Quartey’s first full-length record as a solo artist. The British musician debuted the Yola moniker with her 2016 EP, Orphan Offering, which bagged the UK Artist of the Year gong at the inaugural UK Americana Music Association Awards.
Quartey has a long history working as a musician, largely as a session vocalist with the likes of The Chemical Brothers, Bugz in the Attic, Chase & Status, Will Young and Massive Attack, as well as a member of the Bristolian country-soul band Phantom Limb.
For many years pursuing a solo career had seemed not only unattainable, but undesirable.
“I was terrified and I wasn’t really in a place where I could admit I was terrified,” Quartey says. “I bought into a stereotype, which was of the Strong Black Woman, even though I wasn’t strong. I was terrified of so many things. I was terrified of social media. I had a very negative environment that I was in that made me scared of a lot of things.
“Every time I tried to do something, I was ever so slightly ridiculed. I was only really accepted when I stayed the hell in my lane. I wasn’t ready to be a leader and if you do start to write songs for yourself, the process of writing songs on your own is a real mental departure from what I was used to doing, [which is] being collaborative.”
Removing herself from this environment gave Quartey the courage to write and record Orphan Offering. But while the EP is a statement of Quartey’s independence, Walk Through Fire is a collaborative effort through and through.
Quartey made the album alongside The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, who not only produced the record but also co-wrote the majority of its songs. It was recorded in Auerbach’s Easy Eye Sound studio in Nashville and released through the label of the same name.
“I came to him with a song [‘Shady Grove’] and I was like, ‘Well this is something I have. It’s true to who I am. What do you think, could we colour in around it?’” Quartey says. “Because it’s definitely got a country sound to it and there’s definitely soul in it. And he was like, ‘Yeah let’s colour in around that space.’”
Despite Quartey hailing from North Somerset in the West Country of England, Walk Through Fire is very much a Nashville production. There are songs co-written by Bobby Wood, Joe Allen and Nashville stalwarts Pat McLaughlin and Dan Penn; the latter of whom wrote classics like ‘The Dark End of the Street’ and ‘Do Right Woman, Do Right Man’.
Singer-songwriter Vince Gill sings backing harmonies on ‘Keep Me Here,’ while bluegrass exemplars Molly Tuttle, Ronnie McCoury and Stuart Duncan all contribute to the title track.
The result is a record encompassing strains of country, folk and classic soul, as well as rootsier and rockier departures.
“[Auerbach and I] talked about the music we were into and found a lot of common ground,” says Quartey. “We started exploring that common ground and I was talking about wanting to be genre fluid – to be happily situated in the middle of a number of genres.
“So you can hear the influence of one poking out a bit more than another from song to song, but in every song you can hear little traits of all genres.”
For instance, ‘Faraway Look’ showcases Quartey’s taste for classic pop singer-songwriters entwined with threads of cinematic soul. ‘Walk Through Fire’, on the other hand, hews more to the rootsy side of her taste.
“That’s the difference between something like ‘Ride Out In the Country’, which is more the country rock side of things that I’m into, and then ‘It Ain’t Easy’ is very classic country sounding, but with a soul feel as well,” she says.
“‘Still Gone’ has that soul feel and then there are little bits of all the other genres that poke their heads out in that song.
“I wanted to be free to explore this particular nexus of genres so then as I move through albums, I’m able to edge towards something and bring other influences into the fray of the stuff I’m already doing.”
Catch Yola on her debut Australian tour next April at Byron Bay Bluesfest – tickets available online.