To borrow Mr. Kristofferson’s lines, Yola Carter is a walking contradiction. She’s black and can belt out a Gospel song as if she was raised on Southern grits but her earliest musical heroes were Dolly Parton, The Byrds and CSN&Y. She has toured the world with Bugz In The Attic and played at Glastonbury with Massive Attack and co-wrote Will Young’s single Hope and Fears. Her co-writer for that song was her fellow band member Stew Jackson in the Bristol based country soul band Phantom Limb, Carter’s first attempt to indulge her country roots. Aside from the apparent oddness of someone from Massive Attack tackling country songs Carter challenges preconceptions, people don’t expect an Afro crowned ebullient character to sing a Dolly Parton song.
It’s a contradiction that has stalked Ms. Carter since her early years. She has spoken about the difficulties of growing up in a mostly white community and her musical favourites just made her feel more isolated back then. Add to that a difficult family background and it’s clear that her career has been something of a victory against the odds. Still it’s been a long journey and Orphan Offering is her first opportunity to let the world hear who the real Yola Carter is. We had the opportunity to hear some of the songs from this five track EP back in the summer when Carter played at Perth’s Southern Fried Festival noting a slight Band influence and she made a big splash at her appearance at this year’s AmericanaFest in Nashville so hopes were high for this debut disc.
The EP opens quite magnificently with Home as delicately picked acoustic guitars trill before Carter makes her appearance sounding somewhat like Roberta Flack. As the guitars continue to trace their way through the song Carter’s voice grows in power before a gear change halfway through when backing vocals kick in, the guitars mildly thrash and Carter moves into full testifying mode. With Carter seeking her spiritual home and the second half sounding like a cross between David Crosby and Aretha Franklin it’s an impressive opener. What You Do is more down home with a sawing fiddle to the fore over a funky country backbeat and chugging guitars, The Band influence evident here although one can also detect the likes of Delaney & Bonnie in the grooves while Carter offers up one of her most powerful performances delivered with a Southern drawl. The fiddle returns on the closing Fly Away with the band again churning up a fine country stew that’s half barn dance, half psychedelic drone with Carter again in top form leading her backing singers on a series of vocal acrobatics whipping into a frenzy before gently letting the listener back down to earth.
Orphan Country is like a Richard Thompson song sung by Aretha Franklin, its melancholic melody and supple guitar solo (by Kit Hawes) deepened by Beth Porter’s sombre cello. Here Carter sings of the restraints she grew up against likening herself to a wild horse who should be allowed to run free. The mood deepens on Dead And Gone, a meditation on the delicate balance between misery and happiness with Carter again alluding to her own experiences over an excellent glimmering backdrop that recalls Joni Mitchell’s Hejira era and the ambient notes of Emmylou Harris’s Wrecking Ball. Finally, Heed My Words is a song that again recalls the metaphysical wanderings of Crosby and the Daniel Lanois ambient sounds of Wrecking Ball with Carter proving that she can be delicate and evocative, her voice here keening and redolent of spiritual searchers.
This is grown up music, deeply thought out, Carter’s influences skilfully blended into a sound that is somewhat unique and here fully realised. As she herself says (in an interview you should read here) “People say, “What’s your connection with American roots music?” I’m like, “My actual roots.” How about that, kids? How about my actual, real actual roots?”