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Yemi Bolatiwa On a High Note

We talk to the Manchester singer about a love of soul, melodies, and music as a means to attract people's attention to the big issues.

Yemi Bolatiwa

Yemi Bolatiwa is a talented vocalist and songwriter who is a leading light of the Manchester music scene.

Working with orchestras, bands and DJs in a range of different genres, she is a versatile performer, as her recent single, ‘Water’, showed.

With a string of gigs across Manchester this summer, and recent airplay on national radio, the singer’s future is looking bright. We found out more about what’s in store.

How did you get into singing?

I've sang since I can remember, started writing full songs at the age of 6 or 7. Melody has always occupied my brain. I sang when I was a teen in school choirs and talent shows but I stopped that around 14. Then I got asked by a producer friend to do some vocals for him; just messing about like. I met a collective of DJs at Outlook Festival the following year, who asked me if I can sing. Long story short, I said yes, we met up in London and they gave me my first gig at Plan B in Brixton. I've been gigging ever since with a myriad of collectives, bands, DJs and artists. It's been nearly 10 years in the making now.

Why do you love to sing?

To this day, I find it astounding that singers can control the sound of vocal chords by just thinking about it. It’s like where are the buttons or the strings, you know? Most people with vocal chords have the ability to sing, but it's this strange innate ability to use it in music which is just astounding. It's so powerful and visceral and I can't explain it.

You’re so versatile in the range of genres you sing on – drum and bass, house, soul, funk, reggae... Do you have a favourite singing style?

Yeah, it's a problem. I can't stick to one genre. But, ultimately, sweet soul music, 60s, 90s, and 00s style soul. It's hard to say soul without saying RnB – am I allowed to say RnB Soul?

What are you working on at the moment?

I'm doing a lot of icon shows with the wonderful Untold Orchestra on shows paying homage to Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Ella Fitzgerald and Nina Simone. It’s such an honour to be part of these shows.

I'm also paying homage to the queen of 80s UK Soul Sade at Blues Kitchen on the 1 June which I cannot wait for.

I'm also working on several music releases doing top line vocals for various producers. I do a lot of house, drum and bass, and electronic / garage sounds. I'm big on bass music culture.

Yemi Bolatiwa singing live portrait

Yemi Bolatiwa singing live

What have been the highlights of your career so far?

Being played and hearing my name on BBC Radio 1 in January this year - a big milestone moment - for ‘Work’, a track I did with DJ Piem. It was a lockdown project, so a big moment for me and made light at the end of a weird tunnel for musicians.

The first time I sang Nina Simone with The Untold Orchestra was special too. I will always remember that night at Niamos.

What inspires you as a songwriter?

I'm more a lyricist than a poet. I like to add depth and expression by using my voice to tell the emotions in the song. I am inspired by melody so I write melodies and then fit them to words.

How have you coped with the loss of the live scene in lockdown?

I just had to block that part out, to be honest. I replaced live music with recording vocals for producers and collaborating in different realms. I'm fairly good at suppressing things, but we all have our limits. I am soooo ready to gig!

You’ve sung ‘Strange Fruit’ with The Untold Orchestra and done live streams for BLM and Love Music Hate Racism. What role can music play in eradicating racism?

Music and singing tells the stories of racism that are hard to speak about. You can reach people through music. Can music eradicate racism? No way. The music industry harbours its own racist traits. People have to eradicate racism. But music is a useful tool to get people's attention.

You’ve recently released your new single, ‘Water’. What was the inspiration behind this?

I wrote the song years ago to an electronic beat my friend Sam Abrahams created. I like to think it marks a time in my life where I was feeling self-confident, growing up stronger and more secure.

What advice would you give to people who want to develop their singing?

Practise, sing your favourite songs. Gig, take gigs. You have to sing wrong notes and push boundaries. Be willing to try new things until you know what you can do. I'd argue 70% of singing and using your voice is confidence and grounding. I still learn things about my vocal abilities and restraints all the time. Never stop learning.

Who are you listening to at the moment?

A lot of Ella Fitzgerald and Sade, but I mean looking at my recently saved on Spotify... Little Simz, Jazmine Sullivan, The KTNA and Brenda Fassie.

With the return of the live scene, where will people be able to catch you?

The Blues Kitchen on 1 June for A Night of Sade.

11 June at Manchester Jazz Festival performing my own new tunes, old tunes and favourite jazz and neo-soul music!

Loads of other shows ranging from covers to my music, but just follow me on Instagram.

What are you looking forward to the most about performing live again?

Having fun on stage with my musician pals!

What are your future music dreams?

Keep doing soul my way, in a UK style, and keep growing vocally. I will keep gracing stages until people are bored of seeing my face! The next stage is an album, released on vinyl in 2022. Fingers crossed...

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