Yola emerges triumphant from her breakout year

Joel Oliphint

Since the February release of Yola’s breakthrough album, Walk Through Fire, the British singer has tallied a list of accomplishments that most musicians don’t attain in a lifetime.

In addition to amassing countless glowing reviews for her country-soul debut, Yola has showcased her stop-you-in-your-tracks, powerhouse voice alongside Kacey Musgraves, Mavis Staples and Dolly Parton. Sir Elton John himself endorsed her cover of “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.” And in November, Yola earned four Grammy nominations, including Best New Artist. On Sunday, Jan. 19, she’ll make a headlining stop at A&R Bar.

The accolades and opportunities have been nonstop — so much so, in fact, that Yola hasn’t had the chance to truly process the past year. And while she’s looking forward to some built-in downtime in 2020, she’s also grateful for the surreal nature of a rise that hasn’t allowed the full impact of every milestone to land with its full weight.

“I’m ignorant of the reality of it, and I think, in a way, that is liberating. People want you to give everything the credence it deserves because it allows them to live vicariously through you, but on a chemical level, it's dreadful for your body. Who needs to be exhausted, elated, exhausted, elated?” she said recently by phone. “I'm not too interested in becoming constantly flabbergasted and over-amazed by a situation. I don't think that helps the body at all. I don't think it's healthy.”

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Yola’s backstory is one full of drama and trauma. Growing up poor in Bristol, England, Yola wasn’t allowed to make music in her teenage years. At different points in her life, she lived homeless in London and endured a devastating house fire (hence the album title). And after a year in the limelight, the singer has been forced to discuss these events in interviews, revisiting painful moments of her past with strangers over and over again. But rather than shrink from her backstory, Yola has reveled in her newfound platform.

“I've enjoyed the ability to talk about things that I previously very purposefully kept quiet, [thinking] no one wanted to hear my point of view. The whole point was for me to be voiceless. … Just by talking about your experience in a way that is easy to understand, you can light a fire under people who previously felt silenced. That makes it so much easier to talk about,” said Yola, who also credits her wicked sense of humor for retaining sanity amid the various retellings. “Humor is the one-way ticket to going through any kind of tragedy with some level of grace, some level of fortitude. If you've been through tragedy, you end up having a dark sense of humor.”

Thinking back to the making of Walk Through Fire, which she recorded with the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach in Nashville, Yola said she knew something was different about the album compared to her 2016 EP, Orphan Offering. “I was surrounded by magic,” she said. “The magic came straight out of the gate, like a colt bolting. It felt like it had a will of its own, that it was being born, and we all had nothing to do with it. We were just vehicles allowing it to come into existence.”

While heartache and loss come through in many of the songs on Walk Through Fire, Yola said they’re meant to be both personal and broad. “Shady Grove,” for instance, may initially play as a song about lost love. “I gave it all away, all away/It takes my breath away,” she sings over lush strings.

“But really, that song's not about that. It's about the virtues that you throw away in your 20s. You spend all that time and that patience and all that energy,” Yola said. “It’s a nostalgic look back at that period of my life and what a shame it is that you throw it all away, but you can't help but do it because the 20s are a joke.”

Yola refers to Walk Through Fire as “a breakup album from myself — breaking up from doormat Yola, a past integer of myself,” and the more distance she has from the songs, the more perspective she has gained on them. “I'm able to be a little bit more philosophical about how I feel about it. And the more you sing it, the more you understand the material. You sing yourself away from those feelings,” she said. “I’m on a headline tour right now, and singing these songs now, that energy is gathering in them, because it's a state I no longer feel on an emotional level. I don't feel the loss of a heartbreak. So then you're singing it with a sense of triumph. That sense of triumph is there in the recording, but it’s sneaking up more and more live. It's less morose than it used to be. It's far more triumphant now.”

A&R Music Bar

6 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 19

391 Neil Ave., Arena District

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Yola 'Walk Through Fire' World Tour