Yoli Tamu

A funny thing happens when you stop thinking about yourself and start helping others. As they say, do good to others and good will be done to you. Such is the case with adult contemporary pop/soul artist Yoli Tamu, who after a long break from her true love – music – found a way back to her true self in an unlikely way, paving the way for her long-awaited debut album, “Back To Me.”

Though raised on music with a mom who is an accomplished pianist and gospel director and with a professional head start at age 14 when she led the church choir, Yoli’s life took a sharp left turn when a troubled first record deal with Warner Bros. Records in 2001 left her debut album, “Breathing Under Water,” unreleased and a soon-to-follow chaotic marriage left her without a song in her heart. With a defeated musical soul, she turned to teaching and through that selfless work formed a nonprofit organization to inspire and empower students called the Unity Theatre Foundation. It was through booking a guest speaker for that foundation that her life turned around again.

“I was so pissed off after my record deal blew up and I lost interest in the business,” explains Yoli, who was born in Altadena, California, attended LACHSA, a performing arts high school in Los Angeles, and received her BFA in Musical Theatre from Howard University in Washington, D.C. after performing in Hong Kong, China as a co-lead in the college touring musical, “Dreamgirls.”

She continues, “After it all fell apart, I was more excited about being a new wife and trying to find my own family rather than a career. Then when the marriage ended, I was just devastated. There was just no song in my heart at the time. I remember just being on the floor for three days and then something, a spirit, just rose up inside of me and said, “This is not you. This happened to you, but this is not you.’ And I began to feel strong again. It inspired me to write, so I started writing poetry to get things off my chest.”

Prior to this, things had been moving fast in Yoli’s early career. She worked with Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds right out of college before heading for a 6-month Top 40 piano bar gig in Kobe, Japan. While in Japan, she met Frankie Beverly and Maze and was later asked to be his opening act for a show in Los Angeles. Soon she was signed to Warner Bros. Records in 2001 and working with Grammy-award winning producers and songwriters, such as Narada Michael Walden, David Kershenbaum, and Siedah Garrett. In 2003, her song “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Sunshine” was chosen as the theme song for the romantic comedy “Deliver Us From Eva” starring LL Cool J and Gabrielle Union. “I was so happy and thought maybe this could lead to a new label opportunity,” she said of the time.

But life and a difficult marriage happened instead and after a few years of soul-searching she finally found herself in a happy place for the first time in a long time. Yoli says that she wasn’t even thinking of reentering the music industry. Rather, she was just writing, teaching, giving back to the kids at her school and finally feeling good again… feeling fulfilled, feeling grateful, and developing a love for herself and a relationship with God. But then she booked 22-year-old music producer Augie Ray, who has worked with Heavy D, Musiq Soulchild, Mary Mary, and Tristan Wilds, to speak for her Unity Theatre Foundation program and life changed.

“My intention wasn’t to work with him,” explains Yoli, who cites Anita Baker, Whitney Houston, Nina Simone, Phyllis Hyman, Barbra Streisand, Des’ree, John Mayer, Coldplay and Adele as her musical influences. “I even told the kids and my close friend to not mention my musical background to Augie, but they didn’t listen. They kept saying to him, ‘You gotta listen to Miss Yolonda. She sings.’ Augie said he wanted to hear me and we clicked immediately.”

Over the course of a year, the two hit the studio to help Yoli get back to her musical self. “It was therapeutic. It was cathartic. Augie pushed me to go deep and really get out how I feel. I felt this transformation from within. He was put in my life for a reason. And, it’s funny how things happen when you’re least expecting it and it’s really interesting how good things come from doing good things because I would’ve never met Augie, or the rapper Karma Free whose featured on “Holding Onto Us,’ if it weren’t for my nonprofit organization,” she says.

What came of it is a 10-song collection of heartfelt, adult contemporary pop/soul songs that would make up Yoli’s new CD, “Back To Me.” “This record is all about getting back to myself. I’ve been in the business a long time and I took a break, got my feelings hurt, got a little experience and I feel like with this life experience I finally have something more to say, something more to write about. Before, I didn’t really have anything to say. Now I have a story to tell about overcoming life’s problems. I’m getting away from an old life and entering a new life. I’m really coming back to myself,” she explains.

“Back To Me” was recorded in Warryn Campbell’s Fever Recording Studios in North Hollywood, California, which was especially significant for Yoli as she’s a huge fan of his work with Mary Mary. The album kicks off with the powerful “Aftermath,” which was inspired by war, the tsunamis in Japan and the tragedy in New Orleans. “It’s about how destruction seems to bring people together and how strength and power can come out of tragedy,” explains Yoli, who co-wrote all of the album’s 10 tracks with Augie Ray and a variety of songwriters.

The album moves on to tell the story of Yoli’s emotional journey over the past several years as shown on “Gone Away,” which is about the “dark life” she was living and the “strength and energy it takes to get out of the familiar and into something unfamiliar,” she says. Likewise, “Headlights” is about being caught up in the lights of showbiz and the title track, “Back To Me,” dives into going from a place of hurt and blame to taking charge of her life and feeling empowered to move forward again.

“I don’t know how he did it; he’s only 22, but working with Augie was life-changing. He helped me really tap into the deep stuff and he taught me how to write again. I was amazed by him,” she says.

The feeling is mutual. “Amongst the artists I’ve worked with, Yoli has been one of the most inspirational and highly motivated. Yoli’s determination and drive has kept me on my toes during this entire project. Her soulful and angelic tone has the power to captivate and move an audience. I truly believe Yoli will be one of the best in her genre and will be recognized amongst the greats,” says Augie.

Though her first big shot was supposed to be in 2001, the timing couldn’t have been better for it to happen now instead. “Back then, I was scared, fearful, and people-pleasing. I was living in fear instead of living in faith. Today, I am empowered and fearless. I am dangerous, actually,” she laughs. “I’m ready to take it on. I finally really have something to say and I’m glad things worked out the way they did.”

Yoli, who was named after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s daughter Yolanda King, and activist Angela Davis, briefly known as Tamu (and, Tamu means “sweet one” in Swahili), plans to blend her music with her inspiring story for a motivational speaking tour of colleges. “The premise of my talk is about never giving up, never quitting. I feel like I have something to say, to teach, college girls, especially, with my story,” she adds.