Yolanda Claire Quartey, better known as Yola, is one of the hottest new artists on the UK’s music scene, having earned four Grammy nominations in 2020, and winning Artist of the Year at the UK Americana Awards in 2022. But, banging out catchy riffs and hit albums isn’t her only forte, as she makes her big acting debut in Baz Luhrmann’s musical, Elvis.
The drama movie tells the story of the legendary king of rock and introduces us to the equally talented Sister Rosetta Tharpe, played by none other than Yola. Tharpe was one of Elvis Presley’s musical inspirations, as we see in Luhrmann’s biopic of the star, and it is pretty clear why. Tharpe was the first recording artist to use heavy distortion on her electric guitar and is often known as “the Godmother of Rock and Roll”.
Playing such an icon is a tall order, especially for your first acting gig. However, Yola was more than ready for the challenge. In our interview with the star, we discussed how she prepared to introduce Tharpe to a new generation, and went over the surprising story of how she became one of the first actors cast in Elvis.
The Digital Fix: It was so nice to see Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the Queen of Rock ‘n Roll, represented in this movie. It must have been quite an intimidating thing introducing her to a whole new generation. How did you prepare for this role?
Yola: I prepared by doing a whole lot of shredding (laughs). So when you’re playing someone who invented distorting the guitar, shredding, string bending, no one bent the string before her. Well, that is insane to think about that the aesthetic that we associate with rock ‘n roll is her invention.
If you take away the distorted guitars, and the shredding, what have we got of rock ‘n roll left? Not a lot! And the rocking energy, we miss a lot if we take away everything she invented. We don’t have rock ‘n roll.
And so, it’s massively intimidating. You’re 100% right. I had to learn to shred. I’m a rhythm player. And so I had to get this kind of finger isolation thing going. And it took all year.
It took like a year of just being in the Covid-19 pandemic and just using that time to really get on it. So I didn’t have to have a hand double. And I’m really glad I did it. I felt like it got me into her spirit all the more.
Can you walk us through the casting process? How did you bag such an iconic part in Elvis?
Well, I wasn’t aware that it was open to me. To start with, I got a text from Dave Cobb [who is a record producer]. And he was like, ‘we’re doing auditions. And like everyone’s throwing their hat into the ring, I reckon that you should throw your hat into the ring’, and I’m like ‘ah cheers babes.’
It really meant something. I’d only recently met him from working with The Highwomen on a song. And so I was really honoured that he rated me to that level to send me a message. And so yeah, I go in, and I’m just doing the soundtrack. So all the vocals in the film, you hear me like throwing my voice in the way that I know how to.
But then I realised that I’ve done this job for 15 years, called sample replay, when I have to basically start singing acting. But I never really thought of it as singing acting, until I went into the studio to record this soundtrack.
Baz Luhrmann is directing me, and I’m like, ‘This was exactly the same as the job that I did for 15 years. This is weird’. And that turns out to be a massive advantage. So, then I sent him a video of me singing a song, which is how I got the soundtrack thing. But then, when he saw my recording, he was like, ‘this is her’. And then I get the role of Tharpe.
I was one of the first people to be cast in Elvis, I think. I was definitely early in the casting shakes. And I’m like, ‘wow, OK. I would have to really bring it now’. I had to prove him right, you know?
This is your first feature role.
It’s my first time acting ever in anything ever.
Now that you got a taste of the acting bug, will we get to see you in more movies?
Yeah, I reckon I do have the acting bug. But I am going to be really selective about it. Because there are so many deaf roles for women, especially plus-size, dark-skinned women. So, I’m going to make sure that I choose things that are as uplifting as this, that are as relevant.
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So, when we’re talking about it, we’re talking about things that really matter. You know? As opposed to, ‘I’m having a really horrible time, and someone’s torturing me.’ Or a slave movie or some other thing where it’s just like stories of sad people.
We don’t need that. I’m sorry, I ain’t doing that. (laughs) You can take me off your docket now, whoever’s reading this interview, right now. I don’t want it. I’ll make another album instead.
What was it like working with someone like Baz Luhrmann on your first film?
Oh my god, like just iconic. I think so much of many of us of my generation; we grew up with his film, Romeo and Juliet. And I’m obsessed with that! That movie got me into Shakespeare. And so to be working with someone who was that iconic? Who I was a fan of.
I don’t really fangirl about a lot of people. It’s got to be said; I’m basically underwhelmed most of the time (laughs). So I was like, ‘No, this is an icon.’
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‘I’m in. You got me. Whatever you want, I’m here. Let’s do this.’ And then for him to not be a douchebag and to be an angel baby of the highest order, just this wonderful warm energy and this brilliant mind. I’m like, ‘this is all the things that I want from a hero’.
They say never meet your heroes unless they are Baz Luhrmann or Mavis Staples. Brilliant, iconic people like that are in a very small catchment. And I feel very privileged to have met one of that small catchment.
Elvis hit theatres on June 24, 2022.