“She does not need a microphone,” Yola dryly replied.
She had a point. In a space as intimate as Boilen’s desk, which forces singers to perform raw and unamplified, the sheer power of Yola’s voice was overwhelming. When she was ready to film, her band launched into “Faraway Look,” a standout from her debut album, “Walk Through Fire,” and Yola let out a booming vocal that left the audience of mostly NPR staffers in awe. (Even more impressive: She did so while battling bronchitis.)
That voice is a big part of what made Black Keys singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach want to work with Yola. “For having such an incredible tool, she has an amazing amount of restraint, which is nearly impossible to teach people,” says Auerbach, who produced Yola’s debut and released it in February on his Easy Eye Sound records. “She knows when to sing sweet and she knows when to let it roar.”
After years of fronting a band that wasn’t her artistic vision, Yola is finally breaking out on her own thanks to the success of her country soul opus “Walk Through Fire.” The album earned the 36-year-old four nominations for next month’s Grammy Awards, including a spot in the coveted Best New Artist category opposite such chart-topping pop acts as Lizzo, Lil Nas X and Billie Eilish. Yola was taken aback by all her nominations, but that one was especially surprising.
“Everyone’s got number ones. This is a hard category to even get into,” Yola says. “I can’t imagine the number of people that thought they should have been in that category.”
Yola relishes challenging expectations. She’s well aware that because she’s a black British woman, most people don’t expect her to make country music, the dominant genre on “Walk Through Fire” and even more so on her 2016 EP “Orphan Offering.”
“I knew it was going to be the hardest one to sell,” says Yola, who has collaborated with Brandi Carlile’s country supergroup The Highwomen. “There are loads of genres that are important to me, but there will be some that people will assume that I do and there will be some I’m going to have to push hard so people know that it’s there as a color.”
She discovered country music through her mom’s record collection, and by the time she was in high school, she knew she wanted to explore the genre.
“Apart from maybe being black and British and a lady, in part, in piecemeal, everyone’s been doing it already,” Yola says, citing Elton John and Ray Charles as examples of artists who had successfully challenged the notion of who can make country music. “Then it was just convincing people that I wasn’t completely mad.”
One of the keys to unlocking Yola’s potential came when she met Auerbach, who invited her to come to his studio in Nashville after he saw a clip on YouTube of her performing. “I just felt a connection to her,” Auerbach recalls. “I don’t know exactly what it was.”
The pair quickly bonded over shared musical interests. “I was talking about my love of the Everly Brothers and my love of Roy Orbison, and it was something that we really met on,” Yola recalls. “So when it came to writing songs, we were able to move into these areas that we both knew we’d love.”
The result was “Walk Through Fire,” a country-tinged Americana album with shades of dramatic British folk music, Orbison-esque ballads and the soulful theatrics of Dusty Springfield’s “Dusty in Memphis.”
“I was looking to be outside of genre, full stop,” Yola says. “That was the idea: to be at the nexus of a bunch of stuff, so if I was too far into something, I was doing it wrong for myself, emotionally.”
The album is full of breakup songs — not only directed at an ex but at old versions of herself. “She’s not afraid to talk about hard, personal stories,” Auerbach says, “which always makes it so much more impactful.”
Yola and Auerbach are already at work on a follow-up. Yola says she wants to start adding new elements to her music — jazz and funk, for example — and points to Kacey Musgraves, whom she opened for at Wolf Trap in September, as inspiration.
“She brings disco, and you would not think that would attach smoothly to country,” Yola says. “But people from across all kinds of different aisles love it.”
Just don’t expect to get the full breadth of what Yola can do anytime soon. She’s playing the long game.
“It’s like I’ve got a cake,” Yola says. “And I just had the most basic ingredients, and I’m just going to add another little thing, and another little thing. And then maybe I’m going to grate some carrot because I like carrot cake and then I’m going to go, What about icing?
“The idea is to never get to the point of putting the cherry on top until — I don’t know — you’re dead. Because you don’t want to peak too early and realize that you folded in every ingredient that you could possibly fold in.”
If you go
Friday at 8 p.m. (doors) at 9:30 Club, 815 V St. NW. 930.com. $20.