Sister Act: In Conversation with Yola

Yola is the Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter playing rock pioneer Sister Rosetta Tharpe in 'Elvis'

In partnership with Warner Bros.

Yola’s career is something even more stirring than an overnight success story: it’s a triumph of perseverance, self-belief and pure talent. The Bristol-born artist has toured as a member of Massive Attack and written songs for Chase & Status and Katy Perry, but now she’s a star in her own right. With two brilliant albums melding americana, soul, rock, doo-wop and disco, 2019’s ‘Walk Through Fire’ and 2021’s ‘Stand Up for Myself’, this genre-fluid musician has picked up six Grammy nominations and established herself as a major live draw who’s soon to headline Glastonbury’s Leftfield Stage.

First up though she’s playing Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the trailblazing singer-guitarist who invented rock’n’roll, in Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis (as well as contributing to the official soundtrack). Here she discusses why it’s such a pivotal role.

Hey Yola, how does Sister Rosetta Tharpe feature in Elvis?

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“Who she is in the film is who she was in Elvis’ life: his raison d’être. He grew up idolising her and would run home from school to listen to her radio show. He was drawn to music because of his obsession with her, so I come into the film as this incredible point of inspiration. On the other side of that, you have this person who takes all of that inspiration, all of that excitement, and destroys it: Colonel Tom Parker, played by Tom Hanks. He and Sister Rosetta are almost the antithesis of each other.”

Will we be shocked to see Tom Hanks, who’s so universally beloved, in such a villainous role? 

“If there’s ever been a show of range from Tom – and he’s had so many in his career – it’s got to be this. I think it stands to be an iconic moment in cinematic history when we finally meet a loathable Tom Hanks character. I can’t wait for you to see it: honestly, your mind’s going to explode.”

Early in your career you were told by a record exec that no one wants to see a Black woman sing rock music”. Does it feel amazing now to be playing the Black woman who quite literally invented rock’n’roll?

“It’s the ultimate ‘fuck you’. I grew up listening to Sister Rosetta, so when I heard that, I thought one thing: that some people at the top of this industry don’t necessarily know about music. I realised you could be an idiot and still be in a really high position because of nepotism and privilege. And from that point on, I figured it was safe to assume that this industry might not be a meritocracy. You know, it took everything for me to come from nothing, from literally having lived on the streets, to where I am today. And it took a long time. So that moment was just an early indicator of the way it was going to be.”

Who she [Sister Rosetta Tharpe] is in the film is who she was in real life: Elvis’ raison d’être

You’re headlining Glastonbury’s Leftfield stage on June 26. Are you excited? 

“For me, it feels like a real moment of recognition without any kind of asterisk or condition attached. You know, I played Glastonbury in 2009 with Massive Attack. We headlined the Other stage and opened the set with a song that I wrote (‘All I Want’). And then I sang some songs they had recorded with Shara Nelson and Hope Sandoval. I was in this exalted position, but I was attached to someone else’s machine. So now, it feels like a real uplift for me as an artist to be headlining a stage like this. And to be doing it with a record that contains protest songs is even sweeter.”

Finally, what do you want people to think when they hear the name Yola? 

“I guess I’d like people to recognise the unifying I’m doing in my music. I like rock’n’roll, I like disco, I like soul, I like Americana – and I find myself in all those spaces. But those spaces aren’t separate from one another. Hopefully people will notice that the connections I’m making musically show that everything is a lot more related than you think. That’s the message I want to spread.”

Take a look at NME’s special film edition Elvis digital magazine right here. Don’t miss Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis starring Austin Butler and Tom Hanks, in cinemas June 24. Book tickets now.

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