Her voice is among the mightiest in pop music today. Raised outside Bristol, England, Yolanda Quartey knew at age 4 she wanted to sing.
Now, Quartey, known as Yola, is up for two Grammy awards, including for her song “Diamond Studded Shoes.” It earned the British singer-songwriter a nomination for best American Roots Song. Her sophomore album, “Stand for Myself,” a mix of country, disco, soul and rock and roll, is up for best Americana album.
Yola has joined the country supergroup The Highwomen, and after opening for Chris Stapleton last year, she is embarking on her own headlining tour next month.
The song that helped Yola realize she wanted to be a songwriter was actually ‘ABC’ by The Jackson 5,” she said.
“Seeing him, I was like, ‘Wow, I could do this,'” Yola said.
Before the 38-year-old singer made her way to Nashville, Tennessee, she spent nearly two decades in music supporting other acts.
“I was told that no one would wanna listen to an artist that looked like me. And so, like, I was just terrified,” Yola said. “There’s so much programming that goes into anti-blackness in the U.K. and anti-blackness towards women … it can really harm your sense of self. And I think, I think it just did.”
For years, Yola freelanced, doing gigs with DJs and with the influential electronica band Massive Attack at the Glastonbury Festival in 2008. Massive Attack ended up wanting Yola to join.
“Although that stuff’s really iconic, it’s the antithesis of both my musicality, the way I write songs and my personality,” Yola said of the band. “But they hadn’t had anyone say no, ever.”
In her song “Stand for Myself,” she calls herself a “coward in the shadows.”
“I put on the façade of badass, so I didn’t have to do it for real,” Yola said of the line. “… I just think I chickened out.”
Yola said she finally found courage at rock bottom, when her mom passed.
“I really felt I’d fallen out of love with music,” she said.
Her mom, a psychiatric nurse who emigrated to Britain from Barbados, died in 2013.
“It was, like, a really tough relationship. And she wasn’t, she never really managed to grab any sense of joy. And I was just, like, ‘if I’m not careful, that’ll be me,'” Yola said.
“Anyone out there that’s lost a parent, they’ll know that when they lose a parent, they get this freakish clarity,” Yola said.
After her mom’s death, Yola put together a business plan. She started building everything she is doing now at that moment.
“It was, like, ‘this is where you are. If you want that thing, all of this is not gonna work … These are the things you need,’ and the strategy became clear, so I wrote a business plan,” Yola said.
In 2018, Yola went to Nashville to record with producer Dan Auerbach, who is a member of the band the Black Keys. In the video for the song, they co-wrote, “Ride Out In The Country,” Yola symbolically buries her old self.
In addition to the two Grammy nods she received for her second album, her debut solo album, “Walk Through Fire,” earned Yola four Grammy nominations in 2020.
“It feels really good. I feel super greedy and I’m loving it,” Yola said of her nominations.