S1: This ad free podcast is part of your Slate plus membership.
S2: I know that I’m processing stuff even if I’m not consciously processing something. And so when I’m writing, it’s really important for me to be distracting my prefrontal cortex with something like TV or like a view in that distraction, like it is coalescent, great speed.
S1: Welcome back to Working, I’m your host, June Thomas,
S3: and I am your other host, Isaac Butler.
S1: Isaac, please tell me whose voice we heard at the top of the show.
S3: We heard the voice of the great singer, songwriter, guitarist and many other things. Yola.
S1: So why did you want to speak with Yola? Does she have a new album?
S3: Yola new album, Stand for Myself drops on the 30th of July. But that is not actually why I wanted to talk to her. Exactly. To be honest, the immediate reason why I wanted to talk to her is I was really interested to talk to a British musician who works primarily in American musical idioms like 70s soul, country and Western and lives in Nashville. But then because this is a show about craft and process, we actually didn’t talk about any of that at all because we were swept up in discussing the ins and outs of songwriting and recording.
S1: Well, naturally, that’s what makes this working. How would you describe your musical style?
S3: She really blends together a remarkable number of musical influences, sometimes even on the same song. There’s blues, there’s country, there’s decades of RB. There’s 70s soul and funk. On her first album, there’s occasionally a song will even sound like Carole King. It’s helpful to know that one of her main collaborators whose record label she’s on, who co writes with her and is also her producer is Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys. So if you’re familiar with any of the bands that he’s produced and worked with, you know, there is some of that sound in there, but it’s still really her own. And it especially all comes together because of her kind of absolutely remarkable, versatile and powerful singing voice.
S1: Wow. I know from many conversations over the course of working that you are a generalist rather than a specialist in the sense that you read widely and know a good amount about a lot of things. Are you similarly eclectic in your musical tastes?
S3: I definitely try to be. I mean, I am sure I have my biases and areas where I’m very ignorant or I’m too narrow minded. I mean, I think everyone does. But at the same time, if you like everything, then you don’t actually have taste. Right? There’s no sensibility to being open to everything. But, you know, and I definitely go through phases where I feel like I don’t know enough about a certain kind of music or I have a knee jerk reaction against it. So I try to listen to it more to see if I can figure it out and stuff like that. And there’s certainly kinds of music, like a lot of contemporary pop. I’m not super into I’m not a pop to Mystikal, hopefully will not kill me for saying that. But yeah, you know, I try to be eclectic, am I in my music taste. And so I enjoy how eclectic Yola is in hers.
S1: I know from my circle of acquaintances that a lot of dads kind of get really exposed to a lot of contemporary pop when their children start to be music fans, especially if they have daughters, as you do. Has that started to happen yet or is I still too young?
S3: That has not started to happen yet so much. What are Iris’s favorite songs these days? She loves Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run. Well, that she likes listening to that over and over again. But she also likes, you know, there’s like some kids music that I try to ban from the house that there’s one song called I’m a Gummy Bear that she listens to all the time and makes me want to claw my eyes out. So there you go. Oh, I’m like,
S1: this is a fucking baliga. Can’t wait to talk to after I’ve interviewed the composer of I’m a Gummy Bear. All right, I can’t wait to hear more about Yola, but before we get to the interview, I also want to mention that Slate plus members will hear a little something extra from your conversation with Yola. What will they hear?
S3: Yeah, we talk about a bunch of stuff in the plus section two highlights for me is, you know, we have a really delightful conversation about influence and how it works in her songwriting and also with a lot of restrictions about venue capacity lifting and her going back on tour. Starting this summer, we started to talk about, you know, what’s touring going to be like and how does she like to reconfigure the songs when she’s on the road?
S1: Wow. It would be a terrible shame to miss that. Why would you and it’s so easy to subscribe to Slate. Plus, you’ll get exclusive members only content, zero ads on any Slate podcast, full access to articles on Slate dotcom bonus episodes of shows like Slow Burn and Danny Labrys new podcast, Big Mood, Little Mood. And you’ll be supporting the work we do here on working. It’s only one dollar for the first month to sign up. Go to sleep. Com slash working plus. All right, let’s hear ISIS conversation with Yola.
S3: Yola, thank you so much for joining us today on working.
S2: Hey, thanks for having me.
S3: So I thought we’d start kind of with the basics. This is a podcast about the creative process. You know, what does your creative process look like right now? What’s a typical day of you working on your stuff?
S2: Like my typical creative process for me at the moment is essentially waiting for songs to arrive. I’m a real waiter, so I don’t have like a writing period, you know, although I’m going to have to just to get enough stillness at some point. But what I’ve been doing up to this point is going through life collecting, and that writing is never really anything I’m not doing. It’s something that is built into my life. I’m the opportunist and I might go out for drinks with friends and will end up talking about something. And then I’ll go out with some other friends and I’ll drink some more drinks and I’ll talk about some more things. And through these conversations, through being in the world, like through everything that I absorb in media, some salient points start popping up. And sometimes that’s what I’m seeing. Sometimes it’s what I’m not seeing. And as a black woman, it’s a lot of the time I’m not saying. And so my creative process is having drinks with my friends and then turning that issues into my songs.
S3: Amazing. And are you do you take a lot of notes or do you keep it all up here in your head?
S2: So I only take notes when the idea coalesces. So I’m in a constant stage of sponged, if you will. And and I’m just trying to just interact with people and have like actual conversations. So small talk really pisses me off. I want to go deep and I want to go yesterday. And so that’s it’s really it’s really feeling for me not just on an emotional level, but on a creative level.
S3: You know, I was thinking about the song Stand for Myself off your new album by the same name. And I was wondering then kind of what were the conversations that that led to sparking the inspiration for that song?
S2: Because I’m a collector, it can sometimes take me years to finish a song. And so, oh, that’s what I was meaning to do. I was looking at the voice of that, and I think it came into my head like maybe in like twenty seventeen, but like it was doing my head in for a really long time and like I didn’t know what it wanted to be and like Pott’s would like arrive. I’d sing them into my phone. I’ll be like thinking of like, like a guitar kind of feel or like a drum kind of feel or something. And I’d sing like the Pops into my phone and it just would develop. And the subject landed really hard in twenty eighteen. Like it was just like at that time it was like, like a melody and like I call it the smara. When you go you do all the vowels but no the actual words, you know, it was like something was crowning but it wasn’t there. And then all of a sudden blammo like it lands in twenty eighteen and when it lands it like keeps me up at night. I’m like, this is I need to get
S4: out of my head.
S2: I was definitely had taken a change in my trajectory, if you will, creatively and socially and personally, like I was beginning a journey and I think, like, the song is a commentary on that.
S3: What was that journey from where to where do you do this journey
S2: from being an absolute motherfucking doormat. I tell her I was like I was being labeled as the archetypal strong black woman whilst not being remotely strong enough, a bit strong, like weak, like just trampled in a week. But because I’m a dark skinned black woman. Oh, there you go. You get to be strong black woman. I’m like, oh, that’s my life. I’ve been strong. What the strength is like, I, I’m trampled. But like, like that’s the kind of you can get that moniker and then as a result of that you can endure anything. And so the idea of like moving from that to my Yola with no without any boundaries of any kind to slowly figuring out what boundaries are and asserting them for the first time somewhat late in my life and then going, oh, wow, people really don’t like it when I have boundaries, like I need to change, like a lot of the people in my life and like everything from like actually asking for allies. Shit from people that you think might be capable of giving. That being another thing that was a large part of my life. And then. Yeah, like I’m through that kind of reaching out shit, starting to draw boundaries where I thought people needed them, realizing that there’s something very central to the black experience and it’s neglect and that I need to put myself in environments where neglect isn’t the central paradigm for my existence. And so finding spaces in which that’s not the case was really hard and took a really long time.
S3: And so you’re having that journey and commenting on it at the same time, it sounds like or at least your subconscious is through, you know, these songs burbling up out of it.
S2: So welcome to my Subconscious. You’ve just no one’s ever said that, but that’s the very core of the entirety of my songwriting process. So once, like way back, I broke my ankle. And it’s about the same time that I got vocal nodes and I couldn’t speak for two months. I couldn’t sing for a year and a half. And then about the same time I broke my arm. I know it was horrific. And I broke my ankle and I went to the doctor and they were like, OK, well, off to the hospital you go. And, you know, I get fixed up and they put me on some pretty hardcore meds for quite a while. And but normally I’ve got a commentary on what’s happening in my life. But on these meds, I had nothing to say. I was just like, everything’s brilliant. And and point being is that when I finally came down, like the commentary was waiting and it delivered itself in my mind like a standup that was hilarious. And and so it dawned on me at that point that even if I wasn’t saying the usual kind of like facetious commentary, I would be delivering, but it was still in there. And so that’s something that I now lean into in my creative guys. Like, I know that I’m processing stuff even if I’m not consciously processing something. And so when I’m writing, it’s really important for me to be in a still environment, for me to be distracting my prefrontal cortex with something like TV or like a view or something that’s going to focus my my conscious mind. And then I’m just strumming without an aim. I’m just like maybe trying to get my strum. Nice. I’m trying to get a nice sound and but in fact, distraction like ideas coalesce at great speed. And I was kind of experimenting with that because I remember hearing that a lot of physicists use like menial jobs or prefrontal cortex distraction technique to solve like complex equations or problems that they were having. And so I was like, so what they do and talk about, like how they collectively collect all the information that we’ve ever seen in our peripheral vision, every environment we’ve ever been in, like and it’s all just. In our brains, sitting and waiting, if you’re in the right part of your brain, you can bump into all of that information and make some rather elegant connections. And so it starts as almost like an experiment that then turned into like my main process.
S3: And in building up to that, though, just to circle back to something you said earlier, you were talking about leaving voice memos for yourself. Are those like scraps of lyric or are they melody or you, you know, like doing what you think the drum part will sound like? Or, you know, I think the guitar line should be like, doo doo doo doo doo doo doo or whatever, whatever it is like. What are those voice memos like?
S2: They are all of the above. Like, seriously. Like, it depends what comes in. Some songs it will be like from the record, some will break the bow. And that bassline came to me in 2013 while I was on my motorcycle riding back from my mother’s funeral. And the bass line is maybe a bit too jolly for a post funeral rock act like it’s incongruous. It’s extremely incongruous, baseline for funeral times. But it was there. I had to honor it. So that’s what I did. And and so there I am and I’m trying to cry. And I try not to cry because crying and being on a cycle is great. It’s not safe anywhere that I am. And the bass line comes in and there I am and I’m singing it to myself. And I’m like I said that you quite really I don’t want to forget this. And so I’m still singing. No, no, no, no, no, no, no. There I am singing it to myself. But when I finally pull up outside my house, I sing into my phone. I’m like, well, that’s that’s hard to do. But it was something it popped out for a reason. And then I go into the house and almost immediately the idea, just like lands and the lyrics land, the first verse lands in its entirety. And sometimes that happens to me like the entirety of a verse and it’s always a first verse. It’ll just be like, bam, there it is. And it’s everything that I’m feeling in poetry to the bass line. I was thinking,
S3: do the lyrics ever come before the the some part of the melody is worked out or I mean it sounds like they often come off the music, not the other way around.
S2: Yeah, they really do. And like I have had like lyrical ideas that have like come on their own steam. But it almost they always seem to be slightly less poetic when they’re not to some kind of pattern. When I’m not reacting to something a lot of the time in my mix on the road, I have like the bass in my is really high because it has both melody and it has rhythm. And that’s the thing that I focus in on the most, like creatively and in performance. And so, yeah, that’s a big part of it.
S1: We’ll be back with more of Isaac’s conversation with Yola. One of the things we’d love to do with this show is help solve your creative problems, whether it’s a question about finding inspiration, working with collaborators, just about anything, send them to us at working at Slate Dotcom or give us a ring at three or four nine three three w o r k. And if you’re enjoying this episode, don’t forget to subscribe to working wherever you get your podcasts. Now let’s return to Isaac’s conversation with Yola.
S3: You also do collaborate with other songwriters on your material, which is fascinating because you’re at least in its initial stages, this process sounds so intuitive, it’s spontaneous. It’s using the Subconscious. But then you’ve got to get in a room with someone else and like, explain it and talk about it. So like, for example, was there were there other songwriters on the song Stand for Myself and like like how to do this with them?
S2: So I’m tossing and turning at night because this I just keep me up. Oh, God, I got get out of my head. I’m never going to sleep. So I’m due to hang out with a friend of mine, Hannah Vasanth, who is a producer songwriter based in London, South Indian, Berlin by birth. And we were in a band together called Bugs in the Attic way back when in the West, London kind of broken the scene. And we were reconnecting after a long time, kind of doing our own thing. And I said to her, you’re exactly the person who helped me get this song out of my head. I don’t know if I’m going to sleep tonight if I don’t get out. And so she just, like, helps me get it out. And I play it like a million weird voice notes. And, like, I then kind of I sing it to her and like, she’s playing chords and I’m like, that’s the chord. But it’s not quite the voice. And let’s keep rolling and trying to figure out, like I’m just trying to interpret what I hear in my head because it’s there and she’s like, OK, here’s oh, I think I know where you’re going. And then she’s like going like this and like this. I’m like this. And she’s hearing in the melody and then like going, OK, this is this is what is I’m like, yeah, that’s it. And so when we finally work this out, that’s the first half of the situation is the extraction from my mind. And then I sit on it for two years because I’m like, it’s not finished. Like I got the bit out that was in my head, but I’m still waiting for something and sometimes I’ll wait for the thing. Millander sometimes I’m like, you know what? I feel like now’s the time to finish it and I’ll take it into the studio with where I’m making the record. In this case, it’s I’m on easy. I sound Dan Auerbach, the co-writer on all the songs, and we often invite in somebody else to kind of create like a good sense of consensus and add some spice. There’s always a spice factor. And so in this case, it was me, Hamby, and we are like, OK, I’ve got this idea. We got it down to Demo, apply it to them. They look at me like, OK, this is kind of a big, big statement, a big sound. We love this, that it feels like it’s almost there other than the structure. Yeah, I don’t know what it is like. We need to put this into a shape without losing the energy because it was completely progressive. There was no verse, chorus, verse, chorus. It was just like a cone of progression and building an energy and enthusiasm and feeling like I’m getting somewhere. It was the very kind of shape of the journey of which I was speaking earlier, you know, and and so that’s kind of how it came out. And then we needed to. But it was it unhuman and I needed to mold it into something that felt so like and so let’s play that to them. And yeah. And then they will help me pick out like sections that we can chop up and or put a break in here and then dance. Kind of like helping with like the second verse is always something that I need help on because of the way the first verse always lands immediately. Love like the second verse is always something that like I kind of add to kind of elaborate on what I’m saying. And so sometimes I can still get a bit of the momentum off the idea and I get a good few lines that feel authentic and real and true. But sometimes I’m like, OK, I’ve run out. Yeah, we finish this one off. And so that’s often my being bring people in for and because each lyric has to do so much heavy lifting to be essential and meaningful, like I try and put more than one brain on it to make sure that we get like the strongest finish to a song possible.
S3: It’s interesting, though, because it sounds like one of the things that’s preserved in the song from the demo to the final version is the kind of arc of it is the dramatic action of it. Right, because it starts very small. You’re you know, you’re sort of moving in and out of your head voice. It’s that that strummed acoustic guitar. And by the end, there’s like a chorus of voices, you know, a loud band, a big drum part. You still managed to preserve one of the animating ideas of it, which is it’s just going to grow and grow and grow as it goes along.
S2: So we stand for myself. The song I played the band and done a song that I was talking to them about, a song that we don’t know what it is and they only put out one record. So you might not know about this band, but they’re called Rotary Connection. And there’s a song that really inspires, I think inspired the song, to be honest, because I know that it’s been in my head for a while and it’s so good. I am the black gold of the sun. And it features many Ripperton, Maynard Robertson is one of my all time heroes, and you can probably tell by the production style. Now why? Because he said, welcome to my garden. That goes she’s very delicate, you know, in like LeFleur or something. Well. In. And then all of a sudden, blammo, corazón de
S4: de de de de de de. Like, I’m
S2: clearly heavily influenced by this woman, but also things that she’s touched or been involved in, and this song like was something that had grabbed me from like my teens, like I’ve been out in the clubs with my mates Raven. And like that was a new Urie console remix of the song. And they always played it at the end of the night. And it was like that uplift in my. Yeah. And then they send you out into the streets with a good vibe like. Hide. And so I was always feeling the energy and then I realized that that wasn’t the original and I got obsessed with it. And so I played that to the band and they were like, OK, this is heavy. I’m white. Yeah. So now all of that color, how you interpret this and that’s kind of what happened. You know, I think you can tell by the guitar tone down Sistani goes for. How about that? That’s the guitar to. So, yeah, it’s like we’re always like what, using inspiration and like like like pop from the conception of the idea to the recording of it. It’s like I’ve always got like that it’s identity and maybe where it was inspired from in my mind. And that’s kind of how I think we managed to not lose the energy. And we were very aware that it was important for us to keep the energy because if we lost it, then it would almost be like the function of that song is for its bill. Like to make YouTube almost put a rocket up your ass and make you feel like you’re a superhero, you know, and like, if you don’t get that feeling, the songs failed. And so we had to we’re very conscious of that. If there was anything we were conscious of with this song was like, we can’t lose the energy. Me and Hannah captured something. And Hannah Vasanth is a real, just inspiring firecracker of a human being. And so when we were capturing it, we were capturing something like essential, you know, extremely elemental.
S3: And that’s what you’re really looking for in a collaborator because, you know, finding the right collaborator is such a difficult part of a creative process. Right.
S2: Oh, buddy. I can’t even begin to tell you. And everyone does different jobs. And like so some people, they are the people that help you in the starting process. Like it’s in your head and you’re like, oh, it needs keys. I play keys, OK? It needs kids. It needs this or it needs some beats programming or it needs something I’m not going to be doing. And so then I’m like, someone needs to help me get this out of my head. And like they need to be the kind of person that not only am I infinitely comfortable with, but also like the connection I have to them is one that literally fills me with inspiration. And there are people that I’ve met. I’m very lucky, I recognize to have met these people that have that fire energy for me, one of which is one of the songs, another of which is Errantly Tagine. And the song Diamond Studded Shoes came about in the same way, not so much that I was being kept up, but that I was in the hangout situation and then inspired to
S4: create something different. Rich, white. Did you give up taxes? Anything to keep us there via? So those environments at night,
S2: you know, the people who take it to the finishing school, like I need to be comfortable to say something completely stupid and to go wrong and to look for someone to be searching with me and to have no agenda, like whether it even makes the record or anything to be on a genderless situation or it’s just pure art. That means that I connect with a certain type of person who just naturally has nurturing side. And I’m pretty sure I respond to that because I’ve never really had that in my life. And so I respond to it like, you know, a fish out of water finally plunged back into water, like it’s it’s the life force I’ve been needing.
S3: That’s amazing. You know, you said in a in a past interview that you’re a genre fluid artist, which I think is such a great term because you’re combining so many different things in what you do. But it’s all still sounds like you, you know, and I’m wondering that said, it’s not like the second album is identical in sound to the first. I feel like you’re trying to push in a different direction. Do you have a sort of like on this album? I have a kind of global idea, even though we’re working with a lot of genres of what I want it the sound to do. Did you sort of have that idea going into it or did that kind of develop through the process?
S2: Yeah, it definitely the latter. It developed through the process. Maybe the only thing I could say to the former is that I had a mission that I’ve always had in my life, that maybe because I hadn’t met anybody on the making of the first record until we actually started making music. But it’s like, yeah. So I hadn’t met Don and like, I go into a room which turns out to be the shoot the back half of the studio, and I meet him and someone else. So I have no idea who’s going to even be there. And then we start writing a song. So it’s like smashing with people you don’t even know, you know. I mean, like, it’s it’s it’s over personal very, very quickly. And as a writer, you’ve got to get used to that kind of feeling sometimes. But it’s not always going to you’re not going to bring your sacred little light, delicate kind of idea that, you know, you want to go on a long exploration with into that space because you don’t know them. So you don’t know how it’s going. You don’t know if they’re even going to understand what you’re saying, especially if that two white guys and your black lady from England and Rock Continent, a completely different demographic. And so, like, you go into that space going, where can we connect? And so the first record was very much every song written in the room at BO1 actually that I brought every song written in the room on the day at the time within a space of three hours. Wow. And I think we still, because of the writing power in the room and our collective grasp of poetic license, we were able to create something beautiful. But like I was fully aware that I did not want to write the album like this this time until I wanted to be doing going into my process and to use my process to get the best of myself. And that meant that genre wise, I’m coming across like times when I’m really absorbing certain kinds of music or I’m getting into something that I was into set number of years ago. And then, you know, two years later I finished the song and I’m listening to something else. And that kind of is what it is that gives it that rounded sense of it feels like there’s a few things in this song because like I’m always farming from my life experience of my childhood music exposure in the 90s in the UK, plus my mother’s record collection, you know, we’re always like the pool I was drawing from, but from different points of view, depending on where I was in this journey to feeling more self actualized. And so, yeah, like it’s always been like the process over, like any preconception as to what I should be doing. Like I don’t think I’m capable of having a full idea of what I want to do on an album ever until I’m right in the process of doing it, actually constructing it and taking it into the studio to be finished. I have no idea, like, until I’m like halfway through the process, three quarters of the way through the process, I’m like, oh, this is what I’m trying to do. Because it’s already happening,
S3: you have an amazing voice, you have a four octave range, there’s a huge variety of things that you can do with it. And if you just listen to even any one of your songs are usually doing six pretty impressive things over the course of the four minute runtime. I’d love to just learn some more about your voice. How did you train your voice to do what it does?
S2: Well, a big part of me training my voice was me losing my voice. So it was around age 23. I was in a few bands, including Bugs in the Attic at the time, and I got bilateral vocal nodules, which are growths on your vocal cords. And so, like, it stops the vocal fold from making contact with itself completely enough to generate sound. I luckily caught them early and so they were diagnosed as soft nodules and by that they hadn’t created a strong callus yet. And which is what it is, it’s a callus. And so like when you were ill-fitting shoes. And so I did a lot of speech therapy to stretch out my vocal muscle that got very, very tight. And in the process of doing that, I learned most of what I needed to learn in a very, very short space of time that normally is over a six month period. And so I still had multiple months left on my time with my doctor, who I always named check Amanda Carr. She was brilliant and she was like, I’m on the NHS. And, you know, if I was private, that would be done. But because I’m on the NHS, we have this time and I get paid anyway. So what else can I tell you? And my answer was everything. And so we start talking about the general voice pathology and the kind of the psychology of how, like when the way that we brace and like how that primitive brace position we’ve had since before we were upright humans can create tension in the shoulders and then the trapezius as a running parallel to the ACM muscles and then the neck muscles. Everything is getting tighter, the hand of this brace that we do when we are tense or more stressed. But I’m also just reading excessively on anatomy. And then it dawned on me that I can’t really go to one place to find everything that I need to know. So I stopped writing course and the course is for my own rehabilitation. And so there I go. I write this thing and then I put myself through it. And it’s dealing with essentially concepts from Alexander technique and essentially what it is in the voice osteopathy side of things and the speech therapy and what I developed earlier in my understanding of phonetics and phonology, if you will, a technical question. And I just created this thing and I put myself through it. And as I put myself, I got stronger than before I lost my voice. And also this is where it was like I expected to get it back, but I didn’t expect to carry on building. And so then all of a sudden I could do things that I was dreaming of doing. Like my heroes were the Aretha’s, the ETAs, the allies, you know, of the world, the Tenez, the Mavis’s. And like, why my capability? My imagination for what my instrument could do was massively multiplied during this time because I was able to look at what my body was to do on a scientific level and then just decrease the amount of strain on my voice and maybe be a bit more of a conservationist when it came to the use of air and like. Yeah, like and then when I looked at music again, it was with these new ears of like almost fanatically coding what they were doing and being like, wow, okay. So that’s what’s going on. Okay, no, I understand. I wonder how I can get my instrument to do that.
S3: Well, Yola, thank you so much for joining us today. I’m working and talking about your process.
S2: No problem. My pleasure. Thanks for having me.
S1: Isaac, this is where I confess that I’m not familiar with Yola music, but I am going to fix that immediately because she is clearly an artist with, like, a really clear sense of her process. I love that she was able to narrate all the things that went into the creation of Stand for Myself, not only about the process of capturing ideas, but also how her personal growth affected how she writes songs. I’m always in awe of people who have that ability. Yola really knows herself.
S3: Yeah, indeed. She calls her artistic journey a journey of being self actualized. And I think that really comes across when you talk to her. You know, she’s both open to intuition but also knows herself very well and her taste. And she’s extremely confident in her abilities. And, you know, like as a collaborator, I can be indecisive, maybe even at times, wishy washy person. It could take me a while to figure out what I want. I’m very open to lots of input, and that is actually a totally fine way to do it. But it is also very refreshing to work with someone who is extremely clear about what they want because it really gives you something to respond to.
S1: Yeah, I love how she manages to balance what seems to be intuitive creativity with a very conscious sense of what she needs to write and record and whatever it is that she’s doing. And I was really struck with her concept of collecting, you know, how she brings together a baseline that invaded her thoughts one day and a vibe that comes from a song she loves and just things that she’s gathering together. That’s a really great way to think about the act of creation.
S3: Yeah. You know, for whatever reason, I think most of our interviews have tended to focus on people who are maybe a little less driven by intuition. It’s less about being open to those moments and it’s more like I have a set time of day that I’m going to do this. And I’m very self-conscious about it every step. And I think this conversation with Yola is a really good reminder that that is not the only way to do things, even though that’s kind of the way I do things personally. But what she does that I think’s really important is capturing those ideas as soon as possible. There’s a piece of advice you can really take from this process. It’s that as soon as you get that idea, write it down, sing it into your voice, memo, do whatever it is. And then the other thing that she does is let it marinate until it’s ready and trust that it will make itself apparent to her when that moment happens. Another artist who works like that is a very different artist, but another artist who works like that actually is David Lynch. I wrote a piece for Slate about David Lynch and his process, and it’s actually not that different from Yola. And, you know, I wish I was more open to and capable of doing that.
S1: I mean, you’re right. It’s about confidence. In large part. You have to not spend all your time worrying that something is going to be wasted or won’t find its other half something. You just have to have faith that things will become a whole. Yeah, totally. I also really appreciated how open she was about her influences. I mean, I get or at least I can imagine why some artists choose to be a little reticent, let’s say, about their inspirations. And I mean I almost said they don’t admit to being inspired, but that’s crazy. Like every writer, every musician, every composer, everybody is pulling from all kinds of things that they’ve consumed and loved or been moved by. I mean, that’s how we learn. That’s almost the apprenticeship of art.
S3: Totally. You know, when I was in Barcelona, I went to this museum that’s of the art that Picasso made in Barcelona, which is only the very beginning and the end of his career, actually. And what was really fascinating was to see the paintings he did as a kid, which are I mean, they’re incredibly brilliant paintings, but they are not what we think of as Picasso. He is copying very exactly the techniques and sometimes actually the actual paintings of other artists that used to be how you learn to be an artist. And there is a way in which some mistaken ideas of originality have kind of screwed this up and given people a lot of hang ups that I think are really confining. One thing that helped me personally break out of that box is an essay by Jonathan Lethem, who was a guest earlier this year on working. He has this brilliant essay called The Ecstasy of Influence. You can read it on the website for Harper’s magazine right now, or you can buy the essay collection of the same name. And that essay, which is about influence and how it really works, actually completely changed my thinking about. It’s a brilliant, brilliant essay and I hope people seek it out.
S1: I can’t let go of the image of Yola going into the studio and playing a song and saying, I want this vibe. Like what a fantastic image. And it reminds me of how some writers put together playlists to establish a mood as they’re working on a particular project. Is that something you do with music?
S3: That that definitely is. But before I get into that, I will also say, if you’re going to play a song for your band, it’s pretty great if it features Minnie Ripperton. And for our listeners, if you don’t know Minnie Ripperton, just go look up her album, Perfect Angel. It’s most famous for the song Loving You. But the whole thing is great. It’s in a lot of different styles and it’s produced by none other than Stevie Wonder. It’s an awesome album and she’s got an amazing voice. But think your question. Yeah, I would say there’s a bunch of different ways that I use music. Sometimes there’s an emotion that I feel like I need to access, and there’s a song that triggers that emotion in some way or is reminiscent to what I’m trying to do. And so I listen to that song or album on repeat. When I’m on deadline, I have a playlist that is all long guitar driven jams by the band Yola Tango, and that just makes me just propel straight through and get those 800 words out or whatever. On the latest book, though, I listen to a lot of what’s called process music from the especially from the 70s to music that’s sort of composed according to rules. There’s a piece of music called Canto Ostinato that’s been recorded by a bunch of different sort of musical configurations. There’s an old cello version of that that I listen to or listen to a lot of Philip Glass and Steve Reich and various versions of Terry Riley’s in C. What that was more about was like, well, first of all, my book is about an artistic process. So I thought there was something funny about listening to process music, but also it was about having a kind of repetitive groove that you can just lean into for a long amount of time. That’s going to carry you through the hours
S1: well before we can never leave many repeats in completely. I have to tell you, I’ve always wanted to sign up to karaoke loving you. It’s famously absolutely impossible to sing unless you have what I believe is called the whistle register. And I can picture myself like walking up on stage just to see people’s faces, and then as soon as the music starts, I’m going to run like Biblio writer of the bar, because there’s no way know me like me are just about anybody, except maybe Minnie Ripperton and Yola could even attempt that song.
S3: But I heard someone do it a karaoke once and it was a disaster. It was. And I wish I could tell you like and it was amazing. But at first you’re like, OK, this is a little pitchy. But like, she’s she’s doing it. She’s making it work. They’ve got the reverb turned up. It’s going to be fine. And then it gets into the you know, the. Yeah. And I was like, oh no, no, we are in trouble. And it’s not it’s not a short song when it’s not done well.
S1: Well, I’ll just hold it in the realm of fantasy then. But it’s a long it’s a long held fantasy of mine to get back to Yola. She talked about how you have to be prepared to put aside ego and certain emotions when you’re in the studio, you just have to go for it. Or as she puts it in a slightly different context in your interview, you have to feel like you have a rocket up your ass. And that reminded me of a concept that is particularly bruited about in British theatre circles. That’s where I’ve heard it most, but applies to all creativity, and that is that creators have to feel that they have the freedom to fail. I mean, they do. I guess we all do. But everybody also needs some kind of support to get to that emotional place, I think.
S3: Yeah. You know, this is the thing that I frankly worry about. Do artists have freedom to fail right now, like right now in these circumstances? I’m not totally sure that they do, because, like, being an artist is so economically precarious and there are so many ways that audience members can get any kind of art. They want one demand. And this is just radically change the ways we acquire, watch, think about, discuss and value art. And I’m just not sure that artists have the same space to fail as they did before. I mean, to give one example, since you mentioned the British theatre, you know, so much great British culture came about as a result of the dole, you know, because people were on the dole. So they have more time to make art. But also, like, if it’s screwed up and they didn’t work out, they went back on the dole and started working on the next thing. And it just does not work that way anymore. But even though it might not work that way anymore, you still have to feel like you have permission to fail for sure. That’s the part I think you’re right about. And I think the thing that unifies that feeling to fail and emotionality is that making art requires taking risks and being vulnerable. And it’s not really a risk. If there’s no chance, you’ll screw it up. And that’s really scary. And one of the parts of having a creative process is figuring out how to develop techniques to allow yourself to take those risks. But it’s never going to feel good. Do you know it? Like like, you know, we’re we’re like six months away from my book coming out. And, you know, I’m still waking up at five thirty in the morning being like, what if I screwed this thing up? What if people don’t like that thing? And, you know, it’s like you just have to figure out how to adapt and use that, I guess, because it’s not going away.
S1: Yeah, you certainly can’t. The right choice is not just to play it safe, that’s for sure. Yeah. There’s something incredibly inspiring and Yola story of rebuilding her voice after it literally disappeared. And it’s great that she was able not only to rehabilitate it, but to strengthen and expand it. But that must have been terrifying. What is a singer without her voice?
S3: I know, right? But what a triumph from adversity, which is everyone’s favorite story. I mean, she became this autodidact into how the human voice works and that in turn unlocked the thing that makes her truly extraordinary as a performer. And like whether you wind up digging Yola songs or not, I dig them. But even if you don’t, you have to respect that voice. And it turns out it wouldn’t have been possible without her really going through some shit. And I don’t think suffering is necessary for great art. I actually think that’s a really dangerous myth. But if you’re an artist and you do wind up suffering, you can at least hope that you’ll get some great art out of it.
S1: Absolutely. That’s the best outcome possible. All right, listeners, we hope you’ve enjoyed the show. If you have remember to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts, and that way you’ll never miss an episode. And now let me tell you how awesome a Slate plus membership is.
S3: It’s so awesome.
S1: Slate plus members, which we are, of course, get benefits like zero ads on any Slate podcast, full access to all the articles on Slate dotcom bonus episodes of shows like Slow Burn and Danny Liveries, Big Mood, Little Mood. But I also hope that you would like to support the work we do here on working. Membership is only one dollar for the first month. To learn more, go to Slate Dotcom Slash Working.
S3: Plus, thank you so much to Yola for being our guest this week. And as always, enormous gratitude to our fantastic producer. Cameron Drus will be back next week for the long anticipated return of Rumana alarm to the host’s chair. We’ll be featuring his conversation with photographers James and Carla Murray. It’s a great conversation. You definitely don’t want to miss it. And until then, get back to work. Hey, Slate plus listeners, Isaac Butler here, thank you so much once again for everything you do to support the work we do here on working. We have a little bonus tidbit with the delightful Yola we hope you enjoy. Take a listen. I love that when you’re in the studio, you’re you’re playing records that have the feel or have influenced the song for the bands, they can kind of get a sense of that because, you know, you do hear about artists were kind of a get a little freaked out by influence or don’t always want to acknowledge it or whatever. But it sounds like you’re you embracing influence is really a part of your creative process.
S2: Yeah. Sometimes it’s like what you really get. This is what I found out anyway. Is that the way that I describe something and then when I play the influence, they don’t always marry up. And so what then comes out as the kind of combined interpretation of those things doesn’t ever resemble what I’m explaining or the thing that has been influenced by. But you can kind of hear Mylan’s processing metabolising that thing. So you never really know. Like, it’s very hard to know exactly where it’s come from because it never really Mylan’s always happens to distort something in some way. And so that’s kind of why I could I could literally play the song. You go, OK, kind of. Oh, are you OK? Yeah. Yeah, maybe kinda if close. Yeah, sure. But you can hear it but it’s not like obvious because I’m because of that sense of metabolising. I think that’s the thing that people can get scared by is that maybe they’re too transparent in that metabolising of their influences. And so because they don’t add a noticeable funk to it, then all of a sudden they’re like, oh, this is literally just me copying this person. Right? I don’t fit into places very easily all the time, most of my life. So the upside of that is that I don’t fit into places most of the time, most of my life. And so what I try and do a full on. I’ve got to really work and actually like almost phonetically code something to mimic it properly. Like, I can’t I don’t. I always sound like me and everything was sounds like it’s through my lens and it’s what I’m doing. It’s always me. And the thing that you’re buying into is my lens is my interpretation is my aesthetic processing all of this information, all of this influence, all of this stuff. That’s who I am as an artist. That’s what you appreciate as to me as an artist, not a genre.
S3: And, you know, now with the pandemic somewhat receding in the United States, I saw on your website that you’re touring again starting later this summer. How are you thinking about adapting or arranging or whatever, you know, the body of work that you’ve created on this record for the road? Are you trying to recreate the sound of the album as closely as possible, or are you trying to do some rearranging with a somewhat different band or, you know, how are you thinking about it?
S2: Yeah. And so, like, this is the obviously the great debate is do you go right on the album or do you lean into the resources that you have in mind? For me, if I go so far into like running track and really recreating something verbatim, I can almost lose my connection to like the constituent parts of the song. And so I really want to be, like, connected to every part of it. I want to be able to hear the layers and and to do that, breaking it down becomes really important. And when you’re making a record like it, it functions it serves a different function almost when you’re alive, you almost want the song to do something a little bit different. And so that’s what we realize the strength is. And so if I’m talking to and you, my guitar player, if I’m talking to write Hasseltine, who also played on the record itself. So he’s very familiar with, like the organ parts, for example, or him. And so when the record starts out and you hit that creepy, like, fairground organ type vibe and it’s like, how is that like bending but also reverberating and oscillating? That’s right. And and so he’s very familiar with those layers. And his familiarity is very helpful in the way that I see what I notice as the kind of prominent identifiers of each song. And sometimes we have a second key player in the guise of Ryan Connors and like. So their styles becomes something that really give us an identity. And so it’s really important that, like, I lean into these musical identities in the same way that Dan will choose players to build the palette that you hear. That’s what I’m doing live as well. I’m choosing players to build the palette of what you hear. And so I’m not OK. I want this, but I want this to be like, groovy as fuck. OK, like, the album is groovy. Anyway, I want this to feel like, you know, that it’s chugging. You know, I want the energy. So I’m going to find these players. Like Mag’s Buckbee is tough and I feel in and pocket all day. And so, like, you know, that that’s kind of like something that’s giving you that energy when you’re in a festival environment, when you’re doing the show and you’re playing for an hour and a half and two hours or whatever you’re playing, and you want everyone to gradually feel as though, oh, Zober, oh, that was way too short, you know. And so it’s really important for us to engage with the music and create something like a third incarnation. You’ve got how it was born in my mind, how we how we built it into the record and then like how we can interpret that to make it feel as though that every time we come to a show, you’re getting a different experience. It’s not just verbatim. You could come to one show and see all to the same thing. That’s not really what I want to do. I want to have different moments with each song. I want to have memories with each song. And to do that, I have to see them anew every day.
S3: All right, that’s our plus segment for this week. Thanks again for all of your support. We’ll catch you later here on working. So.