Yola, also known as the British queen of country-soul, will soon be on your radar. If you need proof, simply look to Yola’s music video “Ride Out in the Country” from her debut album Walk Through Fire. In it, the singer (born Yola Quartey) wears a floral blue dress and drives through a bucolic countryside in a custard yellow Chevrolet pickup truck. As she looks out at the horizon, she sings the following lyrics: “I take a ride out in the country/Get some wind in my hair/Let it all go like I ain’t got a care.” (She laters buries two bodies, one of them her own.)
Speaking to Yola, who now lives in Nashville, she explains the concept further: “Lyrically the song is about escapism, and the video adds an awesome twist. We wrote the song about getting away from an oppressive environment." The sound is addictive—a sweet earworm with a come-hither twang. It’s a song that would convert even the staunchest of country-music nonbelievers—and Yola is fully aware of her ability to lure people into this divisive genre. “I’m kind of guiding people that otherwise would have been repelled,” she says.
Yola isn’t the only one taking part in this country revolution: Musicians such as Lil Nas X and Orville Peck are also breaking the country stereotype of mournful white guys strumming guitars. Yola, who is black and British and grew up in London, is aware of her position at the forefront of this new country movement and has the electric, booming vocals to back it up. She remembers growing up on a mix of hip-hop and R&B, but eventually she cut her own path towards the folksy, country-adjacent music of Willie Nelson and Vegas-ready Dolly Parton. And her influences go even deeper: Yola rings off several more unexpected names, from the experimental vibes of Björk to the Motown tunes of Martha Reeves. Her vast bank of musical references has clearly shaped her sound, which doesn’t cleanly fall under country nor soul, two categories that she often gets shuffled into. “I felt like when I did country, I wasn’t country,” she says. “When I was soul, I wasn’t soul. When I did pop, I wasn’t pop. And so I was somewhere in the middle all the time.”
One major influence for Yola has been Charley Pride, a chart-topping black country star who rose to fame during the ’60s. “I suppose Charley Pride started explaining how seamlessly you can move in music as a songwriter when people don’t know what the hell it is that you are offering. I think because it wasn’t the environment we’re in now, where you can look somebody up and know everything about them in five seconds. He turned up and people were surprised that he was who he was. For me that was interesting because he had such a reputation for being an absolutely killer songwriter. The backstory of country music has always been so actually utterly whitewashed. It took me such a long time to hear of Charley Pride, and I was like, Why?”
Finding her place in the music world has not been easy. Yola bounced between genres and from band to band. She grew up in a strict household in which her mother was wary of the music profession and strongly encouraged her to pursue a useful degree. “If you have a trust fund to fall back on, you can take all the risks you want to get a classics degree, then figure out what you’re gonna do with a classics degree,” says Yola. “If you don’t come from anything, make a plan that you know is going to make money so you don’t end up on the street dead.” During her schooling, Yola made connections in the music industry under the radar. Throughout primary school and later in university, she joined a jazz band and a rock group and eventually began to make soul toplines for dance music.
Yola’s career in country music has been a slow burn. After her first year of university, she dropped out to pursue music full-time. She indeed did become homeless after losing her housing accommodation and ended up sleeping on benches in East London. She later moved to Bristol and slept in a friend’s “junk room on a discarded mattress” for several months to get back on her feet. Eventually, Yola began writing her own music while singing for Massive Attack and Katy Perry. Her country-music career kicked off after she moved to Nashville and was discovered by producer (and member of the Black Keys) Dan Auerbach. “My manager sent his team a video of me performing in the backstage of a record store in Nashville, and he decided he wanted to write with me,” she says.
Yola’s style is a mirror image of her music: rootsy but with flair. “I've been drawn to that early-’70s style with new twists,” she says. “I got my sense of style from the era I grew up in. In the ’90s there was so much ’60s- and ’70s-throwback fashion. I really got conditioned by the modern interpretations of that era. I remember wearing a ruffle of my mother’s in the ’90s and hunting for suede fringe jackets on eBay and in thrift stores when I was on tour with my old band. It’s been constant.” She further name-checks Ralph Lauren, a label that she believes reflects her style ethos and “galvanized” the development of her style after she saw its cowgirl-inspired Spring 2011 season.
“I've been constantly searching for that flowy, dramatic, and romantic—meets slightly Western and slightly hippy—look,” says Yola. “I think Ralph does pretty much all of that in some incarnation. Plus I’m just in their sizing, which means everything.” One item she has in her wardrobe that she hasn’t brought to the stage yet? A custom-made corset top and trousers cut from green tweed, with tan calfskin-suede piping. “I haven’t found the right moment to strap myself into it,” she adds. We’ll be waiting.
Originally Appeared on Vogue