Between hearty laughs, she said, “As I was burning, it dawned on me — I had an epiphany, a flame — and it was that I was happy . . . I was so happy.” She realized, she said, that if she was so happy on fire at that moment, it meant that her life a few years ago must have been bad. When she retold the experience to producer Dan Auerbach and songwriter Dan Penn, she knew there was a song and an album title in it.
After years of lending her voice and writing skills for other artists’ works, Yola now stood center stage at a sold-out show Friday night at the 9:30 Club, on her first headlining tour. And she shone brightly, with a glittering voice that had the high twinkle of newborn stars and the deep, opulent sheen of underground gems.
The 36-year-old grew up in southwest England and was drawn to her mother’s record collection: Dolly Parton, Aretha Franklin and Elton John. Despite her mother’s wish for a more practical career, Yola pursued music, moving to London and then back to Bristol. She sang with Massive Attack, worked on pop and dance records, and spent a tumultuous era with folk-rock band Phantom Limb.
When she was starting to make music on her terms, she released the heartbreaking, lush country-blues EP “Orphan Offering” in 2016, earning herself an Artist of the Year win at the UK Americana Awards.
With last year’s “Walk Through Fire,” Yola is up for four Grammy nominations, including Best New Artist and Best Americana Album. This time, her heartbreak is suffused with joy and rebirth, and a spirited blend of stirring ’60s pop, sprightly country and tender-to-the-touch soul.
Onstage, Yola shimmered with a deliberate exuberance that deserved an even fuller, bigger band than the four-piece outfit that accompanied her. When her voice soared in the opener, “Lonely the Night,” a swelling string section would have taken her to even more spacious heights.
But despite what a larger ensemble might have added, Yola’s vocal performance was the star of the night. From the gorgeous pop-tinged ballad “Faraway Look” to the rollicking, brassy “I Don’t Wanna Lie,” every flicker of her soul-searing voice was sure to leave a mark.
So it’s truly a treat that, as Yola told She Shreds magazine, she figured she could learn the C, D and G chords for her own songwriting. As the old Harlan Howard saying goes, “Country music is three chords and the truth.”