With her 2019 debut album Walk Through Fire, English-born songstress Yola used soul-soaked, country-fried gold to gild the madness of nearly burning to death and the trauma of an abusive relationship. It was a stunning full-length debut that championed survival and individual faith while balancing the nostalgic tendencies of producer Dan Auerbach with the rich integrity of Yola’s delivery. It would’ve been easy– even expected– for the follow-up to retrace its steps, but the universe had other intentions. Stand For Myself finds Yola relinquishing the skin of the survivor and embracing the power of an artist defining what it means to be a black woman or “other” in a 21st Century consumed by racism, poverty, war, and the political indifference compounding the devolution of society. Locked down in Nashville at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Yola was nevertheless offered an unobstructed view of the music industry, America, and Great Britain. She’s once again joined by Auerbach and a wealth of talent to bring her songs to life, and if the sound manages to still harken back, it also shines forward with warmth, style, and Yola’s undeniable charisma. Stand For Myself will be released on July 3oth through Easy Eye Sound. Pre-order now!
AI- I’ve got thunder and lightnin’ and dark skies outside– perfect for an intimate little conversation. So I will begin by sayin’ Walk Through Fire was very much rooted in a classic sound. It was very lush, easy to get lost in. I’ve only heard a couple of tracks from Stand For Myself, but so far, while you still employ that classic tone, it also feels firmly of now, today, really this minute.
Y- Very much so! And wonderfully astutely noted! Walk Through Fire, it wasn’t a figurative fire. It was a literal house fire that I was in– and I was burning alive! I wanted to provide something that was almost the antithesis of that horror, which was just this calming. Actually, the process of burning led me to an epiphany and that epiphany was one that transformed my life and was actually a great comfort. So bizarrely, a house fire led me to this sense of calm, and you feel that across the record. Now, I’m in this state of calm, and I’m growing and I’m doing things. It’s almost as though that the function of self-actualizing of really achieving my potential is the antithesis of that. It is being present. It’s being energized. And so that’s how you feel in [Stand For Myself].
You’re back with Dan Auerbach. Making an album that goes beyond what you’ve already done, how were you able to step in this transformation, you say, and do things differently?
Oddly, and maybe, fortunately, the pandemic forced our hand. So we may have– I don’t know what would have happened– we may have, when we booked our writing sessions, which we did before the pandemic, gone into the studio, sat in the room, written the songs all on the day like we did the first record. Outside of ‘It Ain’t Easier’, every song on that record was written in the room on the day. Then we listened to the work tapes and charted them out and then tracked them. And that’s how they were made! Whereas on this record, I took songs from live sets I’d been playing, that I’d written, one of which was written as early as 2013 called “Break the Bough”. It was written on the evening of my mother’s funeral. When I was riding back from the funeral, the bass line came into my head. By the time I pulled up in front of my house, the lyrics started coming to me.
We took that and the version that I’d been playing out and we gave it some polish and we gave it a new bridge come middle eight type thing. We just would take things that I knew had fire and just bring them to completion. ‘Cause they were always being worked on in that regard. I had things like that, that I knew needed someone else’s eyes and ears to finish. And also I was isolated! So anything that I wrote at the time was on my own (laughs)! And then I had to take that into the studio, once we could get into the studio, and go, “This is something that I’ve come up with. I feel like it’s got fire. Can we finish it?” I was starting such a large proportion of this record, whereas before it was more like a collaboration because outside of “It Ain’t Easy”, I didn’t start one of the songs on my own. [Walk Through Fire] didn’t necessarily come from only my lens. Although my lens directed it, it didn’t come from it. I think you can hear that these songs [on Stand For Myself] come from my lens as well as being directed by my lens.
Do you think that comes from being in and observing an extraordinary time in history? You’ve been in Nashville, I believe, for the majority of the lockdown, right?
All of it, yeah! I got stuck here!
Seeing around you, the music industry and how the pandemic has affected that. And then of course being an ex-pat and watching what’s going on in your own country– how much of [Stand For Myself] comes from being in this extraordinary point in time that, in my lifetime, I can’t ever recall being even close to experiencing.
No! I don’t think any of us, really! Certainly, I don’t have any memory of that, of being anything close to in such a desperate situation internationally as we are now. That definitely colored some of the songs, but maybe not the ones you’d think! So for example, “Diamond Studded Shoes” was actually started in 2017 and then we finished it during the pandemic– and it only got truer in that intermediate time (laughs)! Which is bizarre with some of the songs that you’d think would make so much sense if they’re written right now! “Stand For Myself”, again, 2018 started in Hackney with my dear Hannah Vasanth. We were meeting up and talking about what connected for us as a dark-skinned black lady and a dark-skinned South Asian Berliner, and how we felt like others in our way, and how we had to manifest our agency. And then that just became truer!
It’s bizarre how it’s not always the moment of genesis of the idea, but it’s the moment of inflection, that moment where it chimes with something that you can’t not speak on it. It’s like it’s so [timed] to the truth within you, that it’s across everything that you’re doing. That’s how everything, regardless of when it was written or when it was started, came to be on this record. Because of the time. So that’s exactly how the time affected the record. It highlighted the songs from my past that needed to be spoken on now.
Coming up– and as I understand it, you’ve already completed the work– you’ll be stepping into the role of Sister Rosetta Tharpe in Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis film. When you look at the history of music, I’m not telling you anything you don’t know, without her, there would be no Johnny Cash, there’d be no Little Richard, there’d be no Dolly Parton, there’d be no Aretha Franklin, there’d be nothing like it. She’s really one of those catalysts that began the whole thing. Can you share how that character is presented and how you stepped into the role to make it your own?
I think I can say a certain amount of how it’s presented, but I’m going to court the parameters of the NDA (laughs) as closely as I can for your benefit, darling!
As much as I have said before already, Baz has been like, “Don’t worry about it! You’re good!” Part of his motivation was this absence of the narrative of her influence in rock n’ roll and in popular music and contemporary music and how foundational that moment was to everything that we now benefit from and love and feel and identify with energy in contemporary music, with innovation in contemporary music. It all came from this seed that was Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
Even though I play this woman who creates rock n’ roll and discovers Little Richard and does all of these amazing things that influence Elvis and influence BB King and influence everybody who is on this scene– and you realize it’s a scene– it’s about presenting her humanity and her queerness. I have to dig into my imagination of what I would be like if I was playing music with my girlfriend if I had a girlfriend and I was queer. I had to kind of lean into that. And that’s something that was interesting because of the time, you could imagine that it’s not the kind of thing that would be accepted. But she stood in her power and [was] very authentic to herself.
That was an interesting thing to play in the context of the era that we were in. The piano player was my girlfriend in the movie, and that idea of being able to give that energy and then also be this foundational, this matriarch to all of these people and them know it. It’s not that it’s secret. It’s out there. They all know how important she is and they are all just obsessed and enamored with her.
That’s the kind of power I had to stand in. And it was one of security and of right to the space and of creation and innovation. To be able to embody that is a lot (laughs)! It’s a lot of pressure! And I also had to play like an absolute monster because she was one of the greatest guitar players as well! Yeah, I have a lot on my plate– and I never soloed in my life! So when you see those solos landed, FYI, I practiced for a very, very, very long time to land every one of those solos!
Is that stickin’ with you? Do you feel like you’ve become a guitar player now?
Well, if I do more practice! When I get time to do more practice, that will definitely land! But the joy of putting out a record is that such a large part of it is not doing music (laughs)! So yeah, eventually!