The selection and sequencing of words in poetry are key. You can stack the images with raw simplicity or intrepid heaviness: but either way, you must take heed with how you do it. Yola Carter, a self-proclaimed “lightning-bolt writer,” suffers her humanity from a deeply-rooted anguish–seeking out her uneasy sorrow to give the audience something plentiful into which to bite–to bestow power and urgency to every single word. They need to mean something. “One thing I say to myself–if it doesn’t hurt a bit, it’s probably not worth writing,” Carter, who was raised just outside of Bristol, opens up to B-Sides & Badlands over coffee, the twinkle of Jack’s Stir Brew in lower Manhattan casting a mysterious but electric shadow across her face.
“It feels like you’re getting something. People ask, ‘what are you selling?’ I’m really selling something. I’ve compromised myself so you can get something that has a gift. I’ve given up of myself. There’s no lie about that whatsoever,” she asserts, then taking a sip of tea, the saucer and cup clapping together with a flourish. “Every time I’m writing, I’m going somewhere and gone through a little bit of agony for the audience’s pleasure. That’s normally my process after the lightning bolt–I go through a bit of a dig and make sure I’m getting down to how I feel about it. I suppose you need a poetic subconscious to be able to get out words like that. Because of an English teacher, he pretty much hardwired me for poetry from about 13 or so.”
“As a babe, was I alone in my horror, every sign rang the chord of dishonor. Oh, I tried to see if I could find the light amid the dust but my kin fell out of love and the others thirst for blood,” flows the harrowing and brittle opening line of “Orphan Country,” which serves as the core of Carter’s 2016 debut EP, Orphan Offering. “The majority of that song came down in one go. Sometimes, I’ll read it again and go ‘is that how you really feel?’” she ponders, gulping more tea, her brow furrowing. “I’m always looking for how I really feel. Sometimes, you can skate over the top of your feelings, in a will to be beige, in a will to appeal so broadly, consciously.”
Despite all odds working against her, being a person of color, poor and a woman, she remained earnest and head-strong in her discovery of self-worth and the music. “I told my mum at four, if you can imagine that–white socks pulled up, Mary Janes on–’I’m going to sing and write songs.’ And she was like ‘that’s not a real job, that’s not a job that poor people can have the luxury of doing.’ It wasn’t really supposed to be an option,” she concedes. “Obviously, that little bloody-minded four-year-old was like ‘oomph.’” Her mother then enforced an “outright ban” on music, outside of the usual school-related functions and projects, naturally. “I was allowed to do things that were musical but as long as it was something kind of casual, nothing that looked like I was pursuing a job, nothing that looked like I was training up,” she adds.
Her education largely consisted of language-based courses, which ironically became the conduit for her to put the building blocks down upon a sturdy, rough-hewn foundation. “My English teacher said to me, ‘you want to write songs? I can help with that.’ He was really helpful with getting me into poetry. He would give me books he thought I’d like and kept me inspired. He sought me out in my early teens. I was focused on doing something music-based–being a singer or songwriter. I was playing fiddle at the time as a kid. Singing and songwriting started landing,” she recounts. “Songs would appear in my mind. They were pretty juvenile as a kid.”
As it turns out, her mother was rather enamored with the pluck and style of Dolly Parton. Her first proper introduction into what country music could be, Carter was hypnotized. During the late ’80 and ’90s, “black kids in the UK were growing up on American R&B and hip-hop, by and large,” she notes. “When I sang that kind of music, it came out a lot different. I was like ‘well, that doesn’t sound quite right. I’m singing all the notes but…’ Then, I’d sing any kind of Dolly song. My mum had a ‘Best Of’ that I’d play until the grooves were worn through to the other side. Country and singing with twang felt really natural to me.”
For her obvious soul and R&B influence, Carter’s mother also possessed a wealth of Otis Redding records. “I noticed that a certain kind of song, like Stax stuff, was more gospel and sounded way more like country music than Motown. I didn’t know why Motown was Motown. We know these things now; it’s music history. At the time, I just noticed they were two things I could sing and made sense,” she says. But the task of educating herself on country’s and soul’s roots was arduous, sending her out to “find people who were into this kind of music,” she says. “I had friends who were into a lot of rock and roll music. Their tastes moved into Stax quite comfortably and then into country and into gospel, as well. There were a lot of record collectors in my area where I grew up. It’s very musical. If you want to find something you might not find anywhere else, it’s probably a very good place to be.”
Many of her closest friends were nearly 10 years older than her, and “they had all this disposable income. The second half of childhood was absorbing this. Girls grow up, and they look older. It’s easy to forget someone’s a child and in that impressionable phase and searching for the thing that describes them,” she explains, weaving together her coming of age and coming of musical knowledge. “I moved into doing music like that much later, but I knew the direction I was leading in. I knew where I was going, and it was just a matter of how to get there. It’s equally as hard as finding the what. The how is a whole other level.” The Coen Brothers, who produced and directed such landmark films as 2000’s O Brother, Where Art Thou?, were intrinsically monumental to her development. “People in the UK started getting an idea of American folk music and country music–of all things blues, gospel, spirituals, those things that sit between the cusp of bluegrass and gospel. A number of times I’ve asked people ‘what genre is ‘Down to the River to Pray’?’ They’re like ‘well, it’s kind of gospel, really, isn’t it?’ It’s not exactly bluegrass but it is old-time. It’s also like a spiritual. If you lean it into one way, which way would you? But you can’t. It’s dead center. That was a ‘ping!'”
“Seeing that in the movie, I was like ‘I might not have to explain things to people anymore.’ The things that were happening inside of me as a singer were impossible,” she beams, a lace of exasperation peppering her breath.
By her late teens, Carter was already doing sessions, laying down the cement and plywood for a towering vocal delivery and nuance very few performers demand. “The kind of work you got in those days was someone’s written a song and you’ve got to do a diva kind of vocal over it. Towards the end of my high school, I was just getting into it any way I could. It was the typical ‘hey, hey, hey’ rubbish. Everything I’m doing is to the left or the right. It was never center. I wasn’t doing anything close to what I was supposed to be doing,” she admits. “It made living there quite hard and to get work. I didn’t enjoy a lot of the jobs that I did. I just kind of trying to find my way through the mire into something.”
When she was 16, West London DJ collective Bugz in the Attic enlisted her to topline. “I didn’t know what that meant at the time. It was just basically to sing lyrics and melody. So, I wrote something–can’t remember what it was or what the hell happened to it. I was hooked from that point, really,” she says. Carter’s impressive pedigree also spans spirited anthem-pop and electronic dance music, including work with trip-hop group Massive Attack.
Her weary but fearsome journey would continue, and she formed the country-soul band Phantom Limb, which also consisted of Andy Lowe (on bass), Matt Brown (on drums), Dan Moore (on piano, Hammond organ and background vocals), Luke Cawthra (on electric guitar) and Stew Jackson (on other guitars, steel and background vocals), and released two albums over eight years. “We did a live album just to make it look like we were doing something. It was ridiculous,” she chuckles into her tea cup. “I had been in an environment where a lot of my peers were a lot older than me, and I was attracting a lot of controlling characters because I was that much younger. People have a plan for you because they see your ability and decide to put that to work.”
It is always a tightrope act, compromising a part of yourself to get the work that you need. “You’re not able to self-actualize at all. You’re always the child, the junior. At any point, you decide to wake up. It’s like this horrible epiphany as far as that is concerned. You were so docile,” she continues, noting how creatively stifled she had become, with a backlog of songs awaiting her and seemingly haunting her pen. “I don’t find it frustrating, the whole process of waiting for something. I really like the natural, unforced way of it. When you are writing for other people, you can’t wait. You’re on a schedule. You can write songs retrospectively and pitch them, but that’s a way to absolute misery. Six months later, you hate your job.”
“I’ve done all the co-writing, and it’s a very different kind of writing. I don’t know how much I like that. I like co-writing for myself,” she quips. “I can control the way in which I can create. That’s all I really need to do. I’ve fallen out of love with those slightly more forced ways of writing. I’m sure it suits people just fine. I relish if the song isn’t ready. I’m cool with that.”
Carter was only one song away from hitting the mark and with the excellent, moving and unshakable Orphan Offering, her vocal flourishes are anchored with instinctual songwriting of the Loretta Lynn bristle. “I was ever searching for a way to do the thing I felt I was most supposed to do. When I open my mouth, the thing that comes out–how do I encapsulate that into something tangible, something that is reflective. There were a lot of things growing up in the UK; it’s a very different musical landscape in the ‘90s, especially country. Everything has changed with country there. Very recently, at the beginning of that change, it was definitely down to the Coen Brothers and people’s awareness of the roots of country music as we know it now.”
“If you don’t know the roots of country or the cultural history, it’s really hard to get into it. But if you’ve had an education of the things that feed into it, it’s so much easier for your ears to open up. It’s the same with any kind of music,” she says.
One of Carter’s most enthralling vocals appears on “Fly Away,” soused in muggy guitar and choral backing. “There was a time I was playing it and singing it that I kept finding a certain place. I have a thing that if I can find the zone, I get an involuntary twitch, almost Joe Cocker style–but it’s never my left hand. It’s always the right. It just shakes. I’ve seen it recorded, and I’m like ‘oh, who’s that? What’s that all about, love?’” she giggles. “My hand has a bit of an issue. Some songs, I don’t play guitar because my hand is going to do literally anything else.” But more to the point, she traipsed on a path that “was leading me to church. I knew I wanted to build it. I wanted something that was slightly hypnotic. The way it started was very much like pulsating on that E chord. The idea was to work on something like that and build up the layers from that point. In the end, it got this stomp.”
Of course, doubt plagued her, as it often does, and she was unsure what the song “wanted to be.” She explains further, “I wasn’t playing a lot of guitar at the time. I had the chords in my mind. My good friend and co-writer Kit Hawes was on that song, and he was like ‘well, just sing the broken chord to me, and I’ll find it.’ I did. He’s like ‘is that it?’ I’m like ‘kind of.’ He said ‘you might be looking for a change in voicing.’ He plays different inversions of it until we found the ones that worked. He’s shown me a lot of chords over the years. We got our heads into the whole process, and that was, probably, the least lightning bolt song. I knew what the guitars were doing and the bass but I didn’t know what the fiddle was doing. Everything, I had an idea, and we’d just work on each part.”
Aaron Catlow, who plays fiddled on “Fly Away,” came into the studio and “really hit something,” alighting on the bluster and intensity of each puzzle piece until it melted into the whole you witness on record. “We were actually in his living room, and he was like ‘oh, I’ve got it!’ The whole process of that–when I got to that point of being able to communicate my ideas–became easier. I had never been in charge of anything until I was 31,” she says. “I had been on other people’s projects. I had fronted a band that was really like someone else was in charge and I was rolling out as the black girl. It was not getting my hands in it fully. It’s a very different kind of personality, and you’ve got to develop that.”
The simple task of practicing then led her into new, bewildering, but satisfying, territory. “It put me into this state where I wasn’t really analyzing the concept of writing. I was just getting the motor functions to work and my hands better than they were. That process, of not really being present, made me actually present. Loads of ideas flew out,” she says. Through “putting the live show together,” she incidentally “fell into producing records.”
Carter, who has “enough [songs] for two records,” is eyeing a fall release for the first one. “I was like ‘we’re done.’ Then, I played them over the summer and in the fall. I started to go ‘OK, so EP’s out, record’s gonna be next.’ I started listening through to see how it listens. It’s different doing it live–everything I was doing had been live up to that point–than it is when you’re sitting and listening through to a record. You’re live set might not always be your album order. It dawned on me that I had to see whether the songs were related.”
“Live, you can be quite broad, very eclectic, if you want to be. On a record, you try for it to have a genome of some kind, for it to be born, for all of its limbs to feel like they belong on the same organism,” she jokes. “A few things we did were quite unrelated to the body. I was like ‘well, that works great live but I think I need to take some things from the second record and put on the first record.’ I started getting ideas of what those records were supposed to be, and that changed everything. So, I was like ‘yeah, you know that thing about being done? It technically is done…but now I need to know what it is supposed to be. I need to change things so it doesn’t get born without missing an arm.’ That’s where I am. The baby is just dated eight and a half months.”
“You get a lot of these records that I like, they move from one color to the next. Then, you get these other records that sound like the same song 50 times over. I wanted a progression that works. The record is–I’d like to say 99.9% done–but I don’t know what’s going to turn up. There were things I had to fix that I finally fixed. I’ve listened through it and it feels like everything’s there,” she says, expecting only one or two songs from her EP to make the transition to the full-length. “Orphan Country” and “Fly Away” are strong contenders, she teases. “I don’t want to do and be that person that goes ‘hi, here’s the same thing plus four songs.’ I’m not going to do that to you. When making an album, one of the most important things is not necessarily listening to the songs but the intention of the songs, what they’re trying to create as a whole. Obviously, you have to find a producer who gets what that is.”
Amid an industry which seems to “roll through the season of promotion of a record or a cycle of writing/recording, people like to encourage the prefrontal cortex of writing,” she muses. “They like to encourage to write where you’re slogging it. There’s a time and a place for slog and a time and a place for focus. I don’t think that focus and slog are synonymous. I don’t think you’re formulating ideas on the hop. I’ve really gone out of my way to try and from the early onset to establish the importance of that sense of balance for the sake of max creativity. At the end of the day, we want lots of songs. Everyone wants lots of songs. If we all agree on that, then all we have to get is the how lots of songs exist. As your album matures, you want to have movement and allow it to grow into what it wants to be. Some people have really great ability to do that.”
“I’m a big fan of Gillian Welch, as a lot of us are, and you’ll notice in her releasing cycles that it’s ‘I have these records’ and when she doesn’t, she doesn’t. It’s very much that you can hear the focus. It’s probably harder in the climate that we are in to maintain that focus. Maybe in the days of Bob Dylan, there were a lot of things that you didn’t have to do that you now have to do. That can compromise productivity, to a certain degree,” she adds. Moreover, she also has “really struggled with the absence of grooviness,” citing the transcendence of folks like “James Gadson” with “his giant afro and shades, constantly laying it down fat and nasty.”
“If there is anything I’m on the hunt for, it’s that. I was a big fan of Levon, as well, in all of his incarnations. I don’t know if I’m going to get there in the first album. I’m definitely constantly pursuing this something,” she suspects. Songs like “Home” and “Dead and Gone” are firm and purposeful, mounting the kind of vulnerability and strength which define legacy acts.
“It’s a longer road doing those things in the right way. There’s no lie about that. If I’d done the hacked up kind to the lowest common denominator, I could have written some cheap, poptastic stuff that I’m not as attached to, cerebrally written, and gone down another road,” she concludes. “I’ve had the opportunity to, but I just don’t want to. I don’t see the point. In my topline life, I’ve done things that were poppy. I can do that, but I’m over it. Ego satisfied! It’s really unnecessary. I know I can do that, but I don’t need that part of my life to be the full cheese. It just needs to be authentically where I need it to be. It has to be something that has that element of sacrifice in the creation of it, as opposed to the marketing of it.”
As we both shuffl our belongings to depart and the sun had all but vanished beyond the skyline, she imparts one last bit of insight. On forging her own path to indisputable eminence, she considers: “You’re hunting for things that you really connect with so you have a real identity. That’s what everyone’s trying to do. If you do get the most you concept out there, it’s very hard to replicate. You don’t have this whole competition problem when you’re so you. You can be like someone but it’s very hard for even identical twins to be identical. And so, the more you you are, the more valuable you are. You know, people really try to homogenize you. It’s important that you set precedent early that this is what you’re like. The people that are into you are really into you for a real reason. You can move across your palette of things you like, but those early days of doing your own thing and people knowing the core of what you sound like are so important. You’ll find yourself surrounded by people who are moving in the same direction you’re moving in.”
Orphan Offering EP is out now on iTunes, and you can spin it below, via Spotify: