Yola: A Journey of Self-Actualization
“I was arguably gestated on disco,” Yola says with a grin. “My mother told me that disco was what I responded to the most when I was still in the womb.”
As she jokingly describes how her in utero listening habits informed her groove-worthy new track “Dancing Away in Tears,” the Bristol-bred singer, guitarist and songwriter is phoning from her current home in Nashville. It’s undeniable, she adds, that the tune has “Barry White energy.” And, due to her love of acts like Earth, Wind and Fire—and her mother’s past life as a disco DJ—she found it only natural to start channelling those danceworthy vibes.
Yola follows that ‘70s sound and several other unexpected influences on her sophomore release, Stand for Myself, defying previously misguided industry assumptions that she’s a straight-ahead folkie or country singer. The album is sonically broad in the best possible ways, brimming over with the musical DNA that made this British expat a tried-and-true showstopper. And, most important, the album has room to dance.
“It’s the kind of album that you need to move to,” she quips.
As for the left turn toward disco, both longtime fans and first-time listeners have come to the same verdict: “What I am noticing is that no matter where I go—opening for Chris Stapleton, playing everything from a festival to a private show, doing streams—everyone seems to love disco. It doesn’t matter if you are a cowboy-hat wearing guy or a 10-year-old Black girl.”
For most American music fans, Yola seemed to burst onto the live-music scene as a fully formed star in 2019, thanks to her first full-length release, Walk Through Fire, which was co-signed by Black Keys guitarist Dan Auerbach. Adding to that narrative, she followed her LP with a highly watched NPR Tiny Desk taping, an acclaimed performance at Newport Folk 2019 and a Grammy nomination for Best New Artist. She’s also formed a close bond with the roots-supergroup The Highwomen.
Of course, the real story is more complex. Yola—born Yolanda Claire Quartey—grew up in Bristol, England, and sang from the moment she knew how to talk. Her voice, as many glowing reviews will remind you, has an incredible depth; she’s capable of projecting a goose bumpinducing howl, an intriguing whisper and everything in between. The singer spent years bouncing back and forth from London to Bristol, offering her voice to a variety of projects and rubbing elbows with such varied acts as Massive Attack and Phantom Limb. In 2016, she released her debut EP, Orphan Offering and, a year later, she won Artist of the Year at the U.K. Americana Awards. By the time Walk Through Fire hit the American public, Yola’s star was primed to rise, if not already risen.
And, even if she had some doubts before, Yola has fully committed to Nashville during the pandemic—she left England around Christmas 2019 and hasn’t been back since.
“At a certain point during the pandemic, we all realized we weren’t going anywhere,” Yola explains. “I was like, ‘I wonder how long this thing is gonna last.’ And then you get through six months and you go ‘Wow, OK.’ So we just went through all the stuff to make my move official. It was the most organic of moves in that I realized that I already lived in Nashville.”
While the success and accolades surrounding Walk Through Fire were incredible, it was the freedom of her second album that became Yola’s true salvation. Sure, she returned to Auerbach’s Easy Eye Sound studio to record it but, unlike the first go-around, Stand for Myself saw Yola personally picking her collaborators. She also purposefully decided to make the album as eclectic as possible.
“When I’m making music, genre is the last thing on my mind,” she muses. “It’s just so subjective. And, a lot of times, a genre changes its definition. Think about what is considered ‘country’ now. And, more importantly, think about what is not considered ‘country’ now. Like, I don’t think Johnny Cash is considered country anymore. If we really start adhering to just to one genre and then the definition of that genre changes, then how is it even meaningful? [Laughs.] It can’t guide your creativity if it doesn’t mean anything. It’s a very tenuous thread to hang your entire career on.”
And, in that sense, Stand for Myself is a glowing success. Each song dabbles in various sonics, tied together solely by Yola’s voice, her story and her conviction.
She enlisted her Highwomen collaborator, fellow Nashvillian Natalie Hemby, to co-write almost half of the album’s 12 tracks (“Dancing Away in Tears,” “Diamond Studded Shoes,” “If I Had to Do It All Again,” “Now You’re Here” and “Stand for Myself”), enjoying the opportunity to work with what she describes a musical “Swiss army knife.”
“When I was looking for collaborators on this record it started with writers and, obviously, Natalie Hemby is a well-known writer,” Yola recalls. “She is often fighting against herself in Grammy categories, which I always joke about to her. You know, ‘Oh, so it’s you versus you versus some other person this time. So there’s a pretty good chance it’s you, huh?’ It always makes me laugh that she’s battling herself. She’s just that iconic of a writer. The fact that I got to meet her was really great. Visiting Nashville a lot more, and eventually moving to Nashville, I just learned more about the city and the writing scene. And I couldn’t stop bumping into her work. She was a person that I continually wanted to reconnect with as a writer because I’d have ideas— some of which were almost finished—like ‘Stand for Myself,’ which I started writing in 2018. I had made a demo, but it wasn’t structured. I’m one of those people that always comes up with a first verse. But I always need someone to help me look at the second verse. It’s like an ailment— second-verse-itis. [Laughs.] That’s when people who are empaths like Natalie can be very helpful. They can help you connect and understand where you’re coming from, even if they haven’t necessarily had the same life experiences as you’ve had. They can help you complete an idea.”
Yola’s voice fills with even more excitement as she chronicles the narrative arc of Stand for Myself. As the record’s title reveals, it’s filled with stories about self-discovery and self-actualization. Opener “Barely Alive” finds the musician at her lowest point, minimizing herself as she sings, “And we try to get by/ And we strive, but we’re barely alive.”
As she explains: “We start the record with me not daring to be an inconvenience to people by speaking my truth, by existing.”
By the end of the record, however, the listener hears a Yola reborn.
“By the time we get to ‘Stand for Myself,’ we are speaking back to that person who ‘didn’t dare say boo to a goose,’ as we say in England,” Yola asserts. “Who didn’t want to be an inconvenience by fully existing.”
“When I worked with Yola on her Stand for Myself album, I immediately felt the sense that she was striving to show the world more of who she was— a once in a generation artist capable of communicating complex emotions with a simplicity that speaks to us all,” says Aaron Lee Tasjan, who co-wrote “Diamond Studded Shoes.” “We had a mutual, unspoken agreement to see each other for who we really are. On this album, Yola has left no question as to where she belongs, which is front and center, leading her cracking band into genre-fluid brilliance. Her combination of British and American music is as instantly recognizable as her heavenly singing. Though the pandemic made collaboratng a bit more challenging, it also had us very keyed in to the more challenging elements of the human experience.”
Naturally, Yola’s place as a Black woman takes center stage in these conversations, as she moves through a society and an industry that has predetermined—and very outdated— expectations based on race and gender.
Yola admits that performing these songs has been a healing experience. And while the world remains in a precarious state, she has still been able to have a few incredible moments during this album release cycle—including sharing the stage with Chaka Khan during a set showcasing a variety of prominent, Black female musicians at one of Newport’s scaleddown Folk On weekends.
“I said to Chaka Khan, ‘How can you still sing perfectly on pitch for years and years and years and years,’” Yola reveals. “She said that people will want you to go out there and give 100% vocally, and you need to do everything in your power to not do that. She’ll have a moment when she’s givin’ it some, for sure, but she chooses her moments. She was very sparing with anything that even approached 100%. And that was a big part of her philosophy. Be careful how you go with that—that idea of ‘going hard.’ Because you’ve only got so much of that in a lifetime.”
Tasjan witnessed Yola’s ability to learn from those around her, while still sticking to her message, first hard. “‘Diamond Studded Shoes’ was born from the desire for people to have a better life than the one our governments and our broken capitalist society wants us to believe we can have,” he says. “It’s also a rallying cry for all of us to realize the ways in which we pretend things are going to work out when we already have the data to know that they aren’t going to work out—an important distinction in the vast catalog of protest songs. We don’t talk enough about the false sense of hope we give ourselves when we pretend things are different than they really are. Yola is probably the only artist in our generation who is able to nail that down so succinctly in her songs. We heal ourselves and each other through music, laughter and a familial kinship that fills me with regenerative energy and purpose. That is the most meaningful type of collaboration one could ever desire.”
Stand for Myself ends with her triumphantly roaring over a crescendo of bass, drums and guitar: “Now I’m alive, alive, I’m alive/ I used to be nothing like you/ I used to feel nothing like you/ Now I’m alive, alive, I’m alive.”
Yola confirms, “‘Stand for Myself’ is speaking back to that person on ‘Barely Alive’ and going, ‘Now, I’m actually alive. I had to go through all this stuff—all this proving, all this pain and time.’ And you can really do that if you just start asking yourself the right questions. Maybe you’ll feel a little bit more alive than you do right now. So that’s why the concept of being alive is expressed in both that song and ‘Barely Alive.’ The album is a journey from one state to the other.”