Country-soul singer Yola makes Stax and Nashville her own | Concert Preview | Chicago Reader

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Country-soul singer Yola makes Stax and Nashville her own

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Like many a British singer before her, Yola (born Yolanda Quartey) is obsessed with American roots music. She’s a worthy heir to predecessors such as Dusty Springfield and Rod Stewart, mixing country and southern soul into her own distinctive sound. “Faraway Look,” the first song on her Dan Auerbach-produced 2019 debut, Walk Through Fire (Easy Eye Sound), puts listeners on notice that they’re in the presence of something special: its chorus is a soaring powerhouse diva blast of country-inflected soul that makes wistful regret sound like a hurricane and vice versa. And the title track—cowritten by Muscle Shoals legend Dan Penn, whose songs have been recorded by Percy Sledge and Aretha Franklin—is even better, with the muscular, haunting clarity of Penn’s best work. The song’s lyrics describe Yola’s narrow escape from a house fire and her equally frightening experience leaving an abusive relationship. Her voice is rough, bluesy, and yearning as it rolls over the fiddle and strummed acoustic guitar, giving her personal story a mythic force. Her esteem for Stax and classic Nashville runs so deep that when she sings “Your love is like a rescue vessel / Carries me through the night,” she seems to be talking to Otis Redding and Dolly Parton as much as to any lover. But for all its nostalgia, Walk Through Fire doesn’t whitewash the past—instead it turns to it as a continuing source of strength that can speak to and interpret the present.   v

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