Yola Pays Tribute to Tina Turner’s Fearlessness and Vocal Genius

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You can easily hear the impact of Tina Turner in the music of Yola, one of the greatest singers of our generation. But it goes far beyond any basic level of influence for this British-bred, now Nashville-based powerhouse. Before becoming a recording artist and Grammy nominee, back in her native U.K., she was a teacher and lecturer in vocal biomechanics who would instruct young singers in how to emulate Turner’s singular voice… or at least how to try.

Yola spoke with Variety about Turner, who died May 24 at age 83. Following are some of her thoughts, on everything from Tina’s pure technique to the unique challenges she faced as a Black stylist without parallels or filters to her place in genre-bridging musical history.

In her progression of moving through R&B, becoming known as the Queen of Rock ‘n’ Roll, and then becoming this pop star, she was collecting these things along the way — not leaving any of them behind. Once she makes it to that point of being a pop superstar, the fact that you can hear the rock and the soul in her voice is what makes her pop interpretation that visceral, that urgent, that much richer for the journey.

I’ve talked about Sister Rosetta Tharpe and guitar and about the imagined riddle of how, if we took her out of the timeline, the number of things that would be changed would be terrifying. I posit a similar expression with regards to rock ‘n’ roll singing and Tina.

Tina always went down down big-time for us over in the U.K. “River Deep Mountain High” was huge there, even though it was a flop in the States. Of course she moved to Europe. I’ve literally done the anti-Tina thing, coming from Europe to the States. She actually inspired me directly to come to Tennessee, just to understand the backdrop of how someone like her is born and made. I visited a few places in Tennessee and eventually found myself in Nashville, but I made sure I got myself over in Memphis. There was something that out of her journey that drew me here. There’s not really a moment of her narrative that I can’t have some empathy for and be inspired by.

Yola performs onstage during MusiCares Person of the Year honoring Joni Mitchell at MGM Grand Marquee Ballroom on April 01, 2022 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for The Recording Academy)
Getty Images for the Recording Academy

I spent a lot of time analyzing her voice; I was a voice scientist. If I want to be technical, she’s using parts of her voice that are often used in the operatic field. Opera singers always sound like they’re in full tears. It’s a technique called the crying tilt — a reflex in the musculature of your face that is designed to make babies loud and be able to cry forever without undue stress to the voicebox. It is highly favorable to recording and performance, and it’s been known to make people’s hair stand up on end, because of its proximity to crying, which is like a human alarm system that we are biologically predisposed to react to. Singers can put that on, but some people are more predisposed to that sob being heavy or being effective, and she had the bone structure to access that at such an extreme level.

I used to teach students Tina’s singing, saying, “Look at the posture she’s pulling in her face, and why” — like, what that does to the voice. Every time I had a student, I’d make them sit down and watch a video and really experience it and really eyeball what she’s doing. When they would actualy focus instead of just kind of watching it blithely, they would all say: I really felt that. What’s she doing? They would come away from watching the video with shivers. Very few singers can really really elicit involuntary feelings like that, whether it’s from music nerds or people that don’t even know what it is that they’re feeling. And it’s not down to a really massive social media presence!

There is a video of this alternative version of “River Deep Mountain High,” this kind of soul revue-type version, the Ike and Tina version [as opposed to the Phil Spector record], that I would zoom into. As she’s waiting for the next phrase, there are these three bars, where you can see her face is just searching for the tone; you can see her face moving before the vocal comes back. I watched that for years, just going: What’s she looking for? What she’s doing is as much of a feeling as it is a kind of technique. In fact, the feeling makes you find the technique, and the technique makes you find the feeling — and they’re not separate, conceptually. If you go into the crying tilt face, your body starts feeling a certain way so you can get yourself into a mindset. And that’s when I started realizing how it’s not just that we react to our biology, but we can create a reaction to our biology. I was like: Now, that’s good for performance! That’s good to know, that regardless of what is going on, I can get myself into a headset to be extremely present. That’s a really big part of what Tina gave to me. Being able to bring yourself out of whatever it is, be it a gazillion emails, be it a late arrival somewhere, traffic issues, or anything in life that could be distracting to you, and then being present to perform… she gave me a really great biohack for that. And anyone can try that. Literally anybody can try pulling a crying face, singing through it, and then moving their face around in a kind of cry-looking way, adjusting the different ways in which you can look sad through singing through it. Just the look alone, getting the reflex right, will start making you feel a certain way.

And that’s something that’s really important, I think, for people who have that kind of voice and haven’t found a place for it. They’re a rarer kind of voice. There aren’t a gazillion mes. I don’t have a lot of people to reference with regards to that kind of voice. So she saved my life many times over, when it came to the what-to-do and the how-to-do-it.

Her kind of voice was welcomed during a certain R&B era, and certainly with the dawn of rock ‘n’ roll, to reference Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Little Richard and where the aesthetic comes from. That kind of blues-to-a-church-tempo wailing, it came from Black church; it’s African American history in its purest form. And as a result of it being that, it got whitewashed. People will say to to your face — I tell no word of a lie! — people will be like, “Could you lighten your voice up?” And they don’t realize what they’re saying. It’s almost like they’re saying, could you put some skin bleach on and be a white person? And I’ve been asked that, personally as a session singer, before I was an artist, more times than I care to mention, for the idea of European appeal or European-descended appeal. People would go, “You’ve got a lot more of Roberta Flack in your voice when you are soft” — but a duality that I always had to live with is that if I wanted to use the full range of my voice, Tina was gonna turn up. And there’s definitely an angle of leaning into that part of your voice that, for me, was like resistance to being whitewashed: No, look, I’m gonna show you the full range of what I am, what I can do, what my body does naturally. I’m not going to filter that for anyone else’s pleasure but my own.

You’d hear that in people’s narratives all the time. I think I remember seeing something saying that people tried to encourage Whitney to sweeten up her voice a little bit at times; she’d heard that narrative. You’ll hear across the ages of people where that’s been a note on their voice. I don’t doubt that part of the Motown dynamic of vocal production would’ve been: “If you wanna do that gravelly stuff, go down to Stax in Memphis.” And so there’s a really big part of Tina’s aesthetic narrative that provides a route to resisting that. Because you don’t always realize how much that kind of aesthetic erasure feeds back into this sense of disassociation from ownership of certain genres. The second that something gets whitewashed or colonized, you’ve ceased to be able to recognize your ownership of it or where you or your ancestors had anything to do with it. And so having people like Tina manifest the full range of their voice, and more importantly, have more than one tone in their voice… She had multiple tones as a singer, and such full expressive range. And to not be reduced to one or possibly two tones if you’re lucky, and that’s it… and if you sing these kinds of songs, “Don’t gravel it up too much,” because that’s terrifying! You need the examples of people to show you how to do that in a way that’s tasteful… and that it’s also not painful. Because, beyond seeing that style go out of fashion, if you have gravel, you’ve got a higher-risk voice.

In the ‘90s, when I was growing up, it wasn’t in-vogue to have that kind of breakup in the voice. The clean-voice generation knocked it out of me! At the high-frequency application of the crying tilt, Tina had this brilliant breakup that turned into a scream. It was like blowing an amp. The low-frequency application of that was a sob. And for me, it was essential to have a model who exemplified that style of singing, who was not unmelodramatic with it, who really put her process up front. She was a technical inspiration for me as well as a career-arc inspiration of how to keep on redefining yourself on your own terms. Even though it was arduous, the message was: Keep trying. Keep reinventing. Keep moving to whatever your true north is.

What she had was not down to any of the stylistic bells and whistles that people make you buy into — although she was always dressed to the fricking nines. Even with all of the glamour and the beauty, her artistic ability was so profoundly undeniable that it’s at your peril that you focus on that less than you do the acres of leg.

We can fall into a number of pitfalls talking about her — one being the “strong Black woman” paradigm. “Oh, wasn’t she strong and resilient?” It’s like if I said to you, “You are really great at taking a punch in the face.” It doesn’t sound like a compliment, does it? It’s preferable to not being good at it, but I know I don’t want that to be the overarching thing that people remember about or associate with me — there are more winning parts of my personality! The pornography of Black trauma for non-Black people is an unhealthy arc. And people don’t always realize that their attempts at what feels like co-signing, or supporting, or even activism can start masquerading their need to absorb Black pain, to feel like they’ve witnessed the process, as if that’s the work— and all the while, the person is having to relive the worst parts of their life. It’s a price that gets paid.

There were points at which Tina was like, “I don’t know if I wanna do this,” like with the documentary she recently did, because she didn’t want to just have to be perpetually reliving this shit. I never want to be dismissive of the impact of stories of coming out of abuse in a relationship, or in any dynamic; it’s something I feel very profoundly passionate about. But it can overshadow the greatness conversation. There’s something very heartbreaking about her loss because we feel like she deserved more joy in her life, and part of that root might have been saving less people and just being fucking happy, rather than reliving the worst parts of your life for the sake of other people’s entertainment. I posit we’ve had more documentaries about how hard Tina’s life has been than about how iconic her influence has been.

I project that concept outwards toward Tina and I go: Therein lies some really authentic genius. We struggle to talk about women and genius, and even more so Black women and genius. You know, the number of times I’ve heard someone talk about a white guy with a guitar that’s a genius that has literally written a C, D and G-chord song — and yes, maybe the words are super poignant and it’s well deserved, but it would be easy also to overlook it because it’s a , D and G-chord song. Yet we never miss the opportunity. And so when you look at something that is totally more complicated and we ain’t saying shit about genius… We talk about people like Sinatra when it comes to delivery. If we are to talk about Sinatra’s famous timing and how that was genius, then we have to be able to talk about Tina’s pioneering timing and tonality and how that was genius.

And, in the same way, how it was an aesthetic that became indelibly marked in popular culture. I’ve never seen so many different kinds of people on my timeline respond to someone passing. … Her singing was true to its roots by going, “Hey, you can hear the church in this, you can hear the blues in this, you can hear the soul in this, you can hear every stop — all the way to me being a pop star. You can hear every single permutation of music history in my voice.” It’s not like everyone has to do that, but it’s an important that we have someone that does that, so we can reference it at all.

One of the things that is really profoundly important is that idea of being able to be not necessarily genre-agnostic, but to be a person that is a collection of their life experience and musical experience, and to merge that into your identity to the point where you are irreplaceable and inimicable. And I think that’s something that gets increasingly discouraged in music, not being put in a box. It’s easy to convince people there’s no other way to operate and you have to conform. But if that isn’t the hardest thing you’ve had to deal with, then you just do it. Whoever those people were, they weren’t the pinnacle of her life challenge, or the toughest people to freaking negotiate with in her life. It’s almost like she’d been to the gym for bullshit, and she’d just done more squats than everyone else!

There’s something for me that was profoundly important with regards to her range and how, even in the hardest parts of her life, she never lost that sense of ownership of expression. Some singers are scared to be that emotional. When you sing like that, it physically feels chemically different in your body. It’s not easy if you are struggling to be that present with things. This was vulnerability from a Black woman. It’s a great sense of sacrifice, bravery, honesty and self-love to not filter that.

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