Rising country star Yola’s debut album Walk Through Fire may serve as a metaphor for succeeding through adversity. But it’s also based on a true story.
Sitting on stage at the Clive Davis Theater in Los Angeles’ Grammy Museum, Yola explained that she caught on fire roughly three years ago while wrapping a Christmas present for a friend.
“One of the presents I was wrapping for a friend was bio ethanol burner,” the British-born singer said Wednesday night (Oct. 16), in a conversation with the evening’s moderator, Grammy Museum artistic director Scott Goldman. “I was testing it to make sure that it worked, because I do [that] if anything has working parts. I put this bio ethanol in, I light it. It worked just fine apart from the fact that the canister was leaking.”
Her dress was engulfed in flames as she went into a state of shock.
“It dawns on me that I need to think of something worse than being on fire,” she said. “So, I just thought of the first 30 years of my life.”
Yola explained that by the time she was on fire at age 32, she had managed to rid herself of toxicity and reached a place “full of joy” that she hadn’t known in her earlier years.
“It dawned on me. I’d take my life, plus fire, at that moment any day of the week in comparison to the life I’d had before, minus fire,” she said. “That made me laugh so hard that I laughed myself out of shock.”
Yola rebounded from the fire with her sophomore album, released earlier this year by Black Keys’ guitarist Dan Auerbach’s Easy Eye Sound label. The artist called the deeply emotional record an “album of epiphanies” she said she experienced before, during and recording it with a stellar team of writers and musicians, including Auerbach, in Nashville.
“When I sing, you can tell I am going through some things,” said Yola, who has faced homelessness, troubled relationships and a great deal of sexism and racism in the music industry. Prior to her solo career, she wrote songs for other artists across genres and fronted an English country and soul group, Phantom Limb, with five men.
On songwriting in those earlier years, Yola said, “There was one thing that was crucially missing. Everything was always not about me. Even when I was in Phantom Limb, it wasn’t really about me. It was about this five-way white-boy bromance. Let’s just call it a spade.”
Yola added that in order to make a living as a songwriter she had to hide any feminist leanings and was often relegated to the back if she wanted any kind of representation on stage.
“You are this black woman who has a remarkable voice and what’s the first thing people do?” questioned Goldman. They say, “You should be the backup singer.”
Yola agreed, mocking people who have shunned her for her race by stating, “You’re darker than Oprah, get in the back.”
She added that the sentiment has been incredibly demeaning and because of it she has avoided doing most backup singing that included a visual component. Yola explained that she has only been seen doing backup vocals for Adele and Dizzee Rascal as a favor to a friend.
“Those are the only two environments in which I did that and I made sure anything else I did was studio-based,” she said.