Lola Young is an open book and she likes it that way. The 20-year-old singer-songwriter from South London counts Joni Mitchell, Anderson .Paak, Prince and Alanis Morisette as some of her biggest inspirations – “‘Blue’ – I literally have not one thing to knock about that album” – and she already recognises the rewards that come from baring your soul through music. “If I’m going to be super closed-off, what’s the point because no one’s going to be able to relate to that. It’s important for me to go, ‘OK, cool. This is my confession for today’.”
From graduating from the prestigious Brit School to signing with Island Records and releasing her debut album ‘Intro’ at just 18, it’s been a meteoric rise for Lola that hasn’t been devoid of obstacles, mindless chatter, and gnarly vocal surgery, but now her smoky vocals, plain honesty and wit are ready to take on the world. On the eve of releasing her latest track ‘Pill or a Lullaby’, Lola zooms in from her boyfriend’s parents’ house – “I have to be on very good form!” – to chat about confessional songwriting, how she feels about those Adele comparisons and one day releasing a trap-folk album.
You got started in music incredibly young. Do you remember the first song you ever wrote?
Yeah, I was around 11 when I wrote my first song and it probably wasn’t any good. I can remember writing one, a Christmas song on the piano, and it was terrible! I just remember something about Santa and all this rubbish. It wasn’t great but it was the start of my development. I have material from when I was 13/14 that I still use today. Women mature a lot quicker, so I don’t think I’ve changed that much between 13, 14, and 20. Obviously, I’ve changed, but in terms of my songwriting style and everything, I don’t think that’s changed too much. There’s a song called ‘I Learned From You’, which is coming out in the near future and I wrote that when I was very young. I just wanted to be a songwriter at first.
When did you start to work on your voice?
Some artists, they’re born with an incredible voice. A lot of the best are gospel singers who go and sing in Church growing up. They just have it in them and for me, I couldn’t really do that. I had to go to vocal coaching and singing lessons to train my voice to ensure that it wasn’t weak. I’m quite content with the way things are going but I did have a cyst on my vocal cords chopped off last year. It was horrible. My voice is much deeper and a bit breathier now and I couldn’t sigh high at all. I went to my GP and they said: “You either live with this and it’s fine. It won’t do any harm, but you live with it. Or we have to do surgery.” And I was like, “I’m doing surgery.”
After surgery, I had three days of no talking. I had to write everything down on a piece of paper. Obviously, they just didn’t like me talking – rude, right? So then after that, it was honestly pretty traumatic. The whole process of recovery, which is really hard because it’s not only that you need to relearn how to sing. It’s that you need to relearn how to talk.
Is there a moment you can pinpoint where you realised that a career in music was what you had to do with your life?
So there were two people that I used to work with who took me to a recording studio and it was the first time I’d ever been in one. The person I was with kept saying, “This is so boring, just sitting in the studio, cutting vocals over and over again.” Whereas I just remember thinking, “This is literally what I want to do.” You know when you have a gut feeling that this is right for you and it may not be right for the next person, but it works for you. Ever since then, it’s just been studio studio studio, working with different producers and writers. I was speaking to a session musician the other day and they were like, “The studio’s my least favourite part of what I do.” But for me, that’s one of my favourite things, especially with Covid. Not having live shows has really made me want to learn more about being in the studio, production, everything like that.
BRIT School has a huge reputation for producing some of the most exciting UK talent. What was your experience like there?
At the BRIT School… I have a few things to say about it. I would never throw shade at the school because I didn’t have the best time there but that’s because of personal reasons and nothing to do with the school itself. My sister goes there at the moment and maybe my youngest sister will go there too if she gets in. But the ethos and the atmosphere… the whole vibe was so vibrant and accepting and challenging. It was just really nice; you’d walk around and there’d be guys in dresses with huge high heels and no one would bat an eyelid. It just wouldn’t be a thing, whereas in some parts, there’s still so much racism and homophobia and everything. That school was a hub for people who maybe couldn’t be themselves even at home, but they could be themselves there. That was my favourite part about it, for sure.
So with the BRIT School, your voice and soulful sound, I imagine you get a lot of Adele comparisons. How do you feel about that?
I actually hadn’t been compared to her until I dropped ‘Bad Tattoo’ and then I had loads of people say, “Oh, you sound like Adele!” I usually have a problem with being compared to other artists. I think a lot of artists have a bit of a thing about it because they just want to be them. They want to be their own artist. But with Adele, I don’t even care because she’s incredible. If there’s anybody I could pick to be compared to, she’s one of the top people. I’m just like, “Yeah, sure. I’ll take that!”
Speaking of ‘Bad Tattoo’, the song sees you looking back at an old relationship and accepting how it changed you, rather than dismissing it completely. Talk us through the writing process and what the song is about.
I wrote ‘Bad Tattoo with two of my friends – Conor and Will – and we got super stuck at the title of the song. We had the melody and everything else but we didn’t have that ‘Bad Tattoo’ line. And then I went to the bathroom and came back and Connor said, “Bam! Tattoo”, and I was like “Bad tattoo” and then we looked at each other like, “Yeah, that’s it.” It was so fun writing it because I remember we had a completely different idea and then it morphed into this.
[In terms of the song’s meaning] It’s really interesting because recently, Elton John played it on his Rocket Hour show, and I was screaming and jumping up and down, but he said that it’s about toxic relationship and it kind of is and it kind of isn’t. It is about a toxic relationship in one way because you’re coming out of something but then it’s also the beauty in the fact that regardless of how toxic it was, it’s still gonna be permanent internally and externally. You can still see them in things or remember them and it’s just a bit deeper than that, I guess.
Your songwriting is remarkably confessional and direct. Do you ever hesitate about being such an open book?
No, never crosses my mind if I’m honest! That’s what songs are for, you know. If I’m not open in real life, I should be open in music. If I’m not open in music, I should be open in real life. That’s my motto to follow. It’s really important to remember that there’s a reason why the artists who are big, are so big. If you look at the Adeles, the Amy Winehouses, the Frank Oceans or whoever it is personally for you, there’s a reason why you relate to them. In some aspect of their careers or in some aspects of their life, they’re an open book. That’s why I feel like it’s important just to be super honest and have a lot of integrity.
Talk me through the ‘Woman’ music video because it’s such a defiant celebration of diverse bodies. What drew you to that concept?
I wanted to do the video, I wanted to get naked and I wanted to just be like, “this is who I am”. This is women and women’s bodies in all their beauty, even in the state that everybody deems not so perfect with the rolls and stretch marks and cellulite. The video came hand-in-hand with something that was really important to me. I wanted to get all types of women and non-binary people. I’m still up-and-coming so I didn’t have loads and loads of people flooding to the video but for the people who did watch, the majority of the response was positive. I did have a few people make some stupid comments but it was the first video I made where I just didn’t care because I felt so strongly about it. Women, in general, are massively sexualized. I’m not going to be one of those artists who is. I don’t want to be, but at the same time, nobody should have to be. I wanted to say something about the way I feel women are being treated, but in a different way than just “men suck!” because…they do, but I wasn’t gonna say that in the song.
I’m curious if the industry has encouraged you to be more defiant. Is it an exciting time to be a woman in music?
I think it’s always going to be both. At the moment anyway, because sometimes it’s hard and sometimes it’s very liberating and freeing. It’s an exciting time to be a woman in music because there’s clearly change that’s happening – even if it’s minuscule, it’s still change. I feel like we are fighting. People who care and understand and aren’t ignorant, they are fighting. And obviously, there are still loads of issues but I feel like, with certain political movements that have been happening recently, there is a little bit of change. But it’s hard because there still isn’t enough. If you look at, for example, what happened with the football and [Bukayo] Saka and [Marcus] Rashford, all of the backlash they’ve been having is horrible. It’s horrible. So I can’t say there’s masses of change, but I feel like at least there are people speaking out.
What was it like playing The Jazz Cafe after so long of not playing any live shows?
It was very nerve-wracking, especially on the first show, but I enjoyed it so much. I always get a bit of a thing where you don’t really know if you over-performed or underperformed. I just have to remember that I did what I did and I was happy with it. I’m excited for the next shows – I’ve got Camden Assembly coming up and it’s the biggest gig I’ve ever played by myself. It’s gonna be really, really fun. I can’t wait. I’m happy that things are starting to move because obviously, with Covid it’s just been horrible.
Finally, what can we look forward to seeing from you in the future? Is there anything that you can tease?
So I’ve got a project coming out, which I’m very, very excited about. I’m not gonna give away too much, but it’s an EP called ‘After Midnight’ that’s very raw and not really like anything that I’ve done before. If I’m going to be honest, all the music I’ve made so far I’m happy and content with, but I also do feel like there’s more to me. Without sounding like Kanye! But I do think there’s more to me and I’m just excited for the next few projects. One day, I’d love to drop a trap album honestly, like straight trap songs, or some pure folk. So we’ll see!