Yola, Set for a Breakout American Music Awards Performance, Tells the Story Behind Her ‘Song of the Soul’ Segment

Yola has slowly but surely been creeping toward becoming a household mononym, with six Grammy nominations spread out across her two solo albums to date, followed this year by a key appearance as Sister Rosetta Tharpe in Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis” film. But for as much as television cameras love her, she’s never had a featured TV appearance quite like the showcase she will be getting on Sunday night’s American Music Awards program (on ABC at 8 p.m. ET/PT), a show that is carving a few minutes out of its usual nonstop parade of top-10-dwellers for a full production number that, for much of the viewing audience, will count as a discovery moment.

Yola has been happily drafted for the AMAs’ second annual “Song of the Soul” moment, which will have her singing “Break the Bough,” from her 2021 sophomore album “Stand for Myself,” which like her first one was produced and co-written by the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach. The criteria for picking a “Song of the Soul” to be performed on the live awards show isn’t that it literally belong to the genre invoked in the category title… but in Yola’s case, it doesn’t hurt.

“It’s like a double entendre, because it feels like traditional soul music, but she’s also baring her soul in it. So it fits perfectly,” says Dionne Harman, a producer for the telecast and president of Jesse Collins Entertainment.

Says Yola, a Bristol-born Brit who moved to Nashville resident and often lands in Americana categories as a result: “We don’t really always talk about soul — it’s the elephant in the room with regards to my aesthetic. Through each song, regardless of how much I move through genre, soul’s presence is always there — based in that era specifically, I think, of the ‘60s and the ‘70s — and I feel like there’s definitely a soul moment happening in this song in a big way.”

But pastiche or genre are some of the least interesting things about the song specifically, or Yola generally. “Break the Bough” is a number that is steeped in Yola’s response to her mother’s death in 2013, and part of that is celebrating the kinds of music they loved together, which is why you’ll hear soul in the arrangement, if also a nod to disco in the visual design.

“My mother and I both grew up listening to Otis Redding, and so there’s definitely like a bit of Otis, Sam and Dave, Stax-y energy from that side of her record collection, for sure. That was something that I suppose was one of the first touchstones between us.”

Placing Yola in this spot was a natural, says Harman, who notes, “We’ve been fans of Yola since long before this moment. Stephen Hill, who’s one of the executive producers and heads up music specials for MRC Live & Alternative (formerly Dick Clark Prods.), is a lover of all things music, and he has been raving about Yola for years. So for her to fit so perfectly into this moment and to give her this platform for the first time on this stage… Of course everybody saw her in ‘Elvis,’ but for those who don’t know this side of her, it’s a really amazing showcase. And a lot of times on shows like this, when you have a performance like this, maybe it’s on the dish or it’s on a smaller stage. But this is a full-blown performance, taking advantage of every aspect of all the stages within the space, and we really put a lot of production value behind her in this.”

The sound of the song Yola is performing might be redolent of a soul revue, but, as a song somewhat rooted in personal grief, it’s definitely not a romp. If you read the lyrics of “Break the Bough” before hearing it, in no way will you expect the joyful noise that you get upon doing a needle-drop, or hearing it in performance.

“Big time,” agrees Yola. “I love a bit of sad, happy, happy, sad — the whole ‘dancing away in tears’ thing. And sometimes the really emotional, sad-sounding songs (in her catalogue) actually are really happy. I love being able to play emotionally with that breadth, because I think it’s a great exercise in emoting, in performance, and people being able to believe you and feel something whilst you’re performing it in another way. In Hollywood and movies, it’s all so sad or it’s all so wonderful. I attempt to deal in reality, so that’s why I have these dualities.”

Appropriately, Yola has a story about how she first started writing the song that is a little bit funny as well as a little big poignant. She started writing it when she was driving home from her mother’s funeral in England on a motorcycle.

“It started with the bass line, which is the happiest part of the song. The bass line is a hundred percent pure joy,” she says. “And I almost found it distasteful when I got home! Because maybe it was survival mode. Because you shouldn’t ride a motorcycle to a funeral because you may be crying, and crying and riding a motorcycle don’t go together. Just logically picture me. I’m on the outside of the vehicle, not safely installed in a car. You are in England, and really it’s a windy-road country, so you’re constantly cornering and you need to understand your apex and how you’re counter-turning. The bikers out there will get it. You need to be aware and need to be able to see. So I think I was humming this as a way to uplift myself enough to survive the journey. Little did I know it was a song arriving, and it couldn’t have arrived at a better time because it helped me see the road.”

There are a lot of layers to “Break the Bough” even beyond that, though, making it a social-consciousness song as well as a grief-consciousness song. Because Yola uses the lyric to touch on her mother’s upbringing in Barbados before she came to England, and what happened after. The Windrush era is little known to most Americans, but it’s an important and in many ways sad part of 20th century English history, in regard to class and race. Yola was not always close to her mother, and speaks of how the hardships she endured sometimes made her a hard person to live with. She explains this part of history and how it factors into her own story:

“So here’s the nuance of the song. It’s a song about grief, but it’s specifically a song for a Windrush woman yearning for the pre-Windrush Caribbean. The Windrush was a ship, and its function was to bring people from the Caribbean to the U.K. to replenish the civil service, national health service, things like that, since we lost a lot of people in Europe to the Second World War. They played them this video of the sunniest day in England to get them to come over — and obviously when they arrived, it wasn’t sunny. So you leave Barbados going, ‘Oh, it’s gonna be nice!’ — they didn’t sell the reality. So done dirty #1. It’s a one-way ticket, so you can’t ask to return. Meanwhile, they’re buying up all the beachfront property from your grandma… Then you get older and decide to get your superannuation pension for being part of the civil service or national health service or any of those kinds of jobs. And with my late mother and a number of people that she knew, they said they lost their records — specifically the Black records — in an imaginary fire, and a fire that took the whole building, that the fire department in the area have no record of. My mother was litigating at the time. Anyway, so done dirty #2.

“And if they didn’t get you this way, then you have the potential to be done dirty a third time, which is random deportations to countries you have nothing to do with, like Kenya, or if you’re lucky enough, actually back home, randomly deported after 30, 40 years of service. And not to the plot of land that your family owned, but whatever happens to be there long after they managed to buy the land out from underneath your grandma, or pushed her off her land, as they do with elderly, frail people… It’s just the multiple ways in which you can have the piss taken out of you. And having a front seat to that level of piss is mind-blowing to watch. It makes people angry. It makes people vengeful. My mother was a difficult person to deal with, as a result of this environment that she had to live through. But as tough as it was when she was alive, with this song, I was like, let’s try and give her some grace.”

Not exactly the kind of back-story you were expecting to read in an American Music Awards article, right?

Cut to now, and Yola’s AMAs performance will include some modern, wildly disparate visual elements that may not seem to have anything to do with all that, even though, inasmuch as they relate to her late mother, it’s all strangely of a piece. Besides reflecting her and her mum’s shared love of disco, there’s also an element of science-fiction to the performance look. This comes in as Yola imagines her mother in heaven — a pop-culture-influenced heaven that comes out of the singer’s imagination.

“A funny thing is that I’m an absolutely obsessive sci-fi head, and I almost exclusively watch sci-fi,” Yola says. “And I put that 100% down to her. … I can’t actually create heaven. I’m an agnostic, but I’m open. I don’t have the tools to actually define where she winds up or whether or how it exists for that matter. But I basically created this construct, starting with the seaside where she grew up in Barbados, and then she moved to the disco (era), and there’s my nod to sci-fi in the environment that I’m trying to create, this false heaven.”

Got all that? It’s going to be all right, regardless — the mere understanding that the song sounds like Yola doing Otis may be all the false heaven viewers require to enjoy the song.

Harmon and her team were down to follow Yola’s vision, which they found intriguingly well-developed. “In our first Zoom with her,” says the producer, “she had built this amazing mood board with everything that inspired her around this song — disco, outer space, magical qualities. It was so amazing, because we had our entire creative team on, and it was like looking inside of her mind and her heart. It really helped us to build this moment that’s truly a reflection of her spirit because she has touched every single piece of it. And it is the Song of the Soul, so it’s about lyrics. There are key moments in the song where we show the lyrics on-screen, so maybe if you didn’t initially catch some of the subtext, you’ll see those words and maybe that’ll help people connect it as they watch.”

Yola says that, for all her growing fame, people are still confused about her, asking, “Do you live in the U.K.?” (a reasonable question) and “What is it you do?” (at this late date, a less reasonable one). Since “Elvis” helped spread her fame but didn’t give people a lot of context for who she is when she’s not emulating one of the original rockers, she’s hoping things like this AMAs moment help frame her better as she looks toward writing and recording a third solo album next year.

Certainly she doesn’t lack for obsessive fans, which she sometimes finds out about in the most unexpected ways.

“I spent my birthday week in New York and went out for lunch with (fellow artist) Emily King, and someone came up and was like, ‘I was so happy to get this table. I’m coming to the show,’ and then shows me a Yola-associated tattoo. I’m like, OK, so we’re here now. I’m definitely noticing a change, because previously I definitely hadn’t seen any kind of tattoos.” So she is rising on the tattoo charts, basically? “Hey, I don’t know. I don’t have X-ray vision. There could be more tattoos out there than I know.”

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