Yola Had to Break Music History’s Rules to Make Stand for Myself

“It was very clear to me that there was a part of the narrative that had been obliterated because it wasn’t convenient for the theme park-izing of the city [of Nashville].” Photo: Easy Eye Sound/YouTube

Baz Luhrmann gave Yola a piece of advice for her performance as Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the widely regarded “Godmother of Rock ’n’ Roll,” in his upcoming biopic Elvis. “I was informed that the best character actors, when you have to play a real living person or a person that was once alive, will impart that person into them, and it’s the relationship between you and that person that makes the character real and tangible,” the English singer-songwriter, born Yolanda Quartey, recalls from her home in Nashville. Put in those terms, it’s a process she knows all too well. “The same thing happens when you’re writing,” she says. “I am often referring to things that have gone into making me and that I have internalized in a way that I have no idea how deeply I’ve internalized it.”

When a musician’s sound is so steeped in the 1950s and ’60s — like Yola’s, which she debuted on her 2019 Grammy-nominated retro-country album Walk Through the Fire — the door opens to critiques of revivalism, that the artist is imitating the past rather than moving the needle. That couldn’t be further from the truth on Yola’s sophomore album Stand for Myself, which reaches back decades to incorporate funk, disco, R&B, and even Britpop for a set of songs that sounds both strikingly original and wholly classic. “I’m not taking something in and immediately regurgitating it. It has time to become part of my flesh, to mix with all the other things that I’ve eaten — you are what you eat,” Yola explains. “That’s how you can [relate] your parents’ record collection, what it was like growing up with music in your childhood, to what’s happening now, and [to] my love of Childish Gambino or Thundercat.” Revisiting her metaphor for musical satiation: “When you are excited about something, allow it to digest. Regurgitating does make you feel sick.”

Time served Yola on Stand for Myself in other ways, too. Unlike Walk Through the Fire, where most of the songs were born in studios alongside producer Dan Auerbach (of the Black Keys) and co-writers, Stand for Myself collects songs Yola, 38, has been trying to finish for years, dating back nearly a decade. And getting to spend time in Nashville — before moving there permanently during the COVID-19 pandemic — allowed Yola to forge professional relationships and friendships in the city that’s become her musical center of gravity. As a result, she was able to choose all of her co-writers on Stand for Myself (including her previous Highwomen collaborator Natalie Hemby, former Taylor Swift co-writer Liz Rose, and singer-songwriters like Ruby Amanfu and Joy Oladokun) and make the album a more personal statement than before. “This record becomes this exploration of things that I’m obsessed by and things that connect them,” she says. Here’s how all those obsessions colored the record, from Minnie Riperton to Britpop to that upcoming Elvis role.

Her mother’s funeral

I had been writing this record for longer than I thought I’d been writing it. I actually started “Break the Bough” in 2013. I wrote most of it and played it out, and then I realized that there were some bits I wanted to add. I feel like I’m missing some punch.

[This album is] stylistically different because it’s telling more of a broad arc of my life. But that’s happening very organically, from songs jumping into my head as I go through it. In this case, the life event was the death of my mother [that year]. The song doesn’t sound like it was inspired by a funeral — in fact, it sounds quite the opposite, it sounds like a party. But the bassline came into my head when I was riding my motorcycle back from my mum’s funeral. I was like, This is a weird bassline, for now. Then the first verse [“Silently break the bough / Fall into the deepest sleep / Dream of mangos on the tree / Sugar cane and shoeless feet”] just landed in my head, and I’m like Okay, I’m gonna write this down. A third of this record was arriving at moments at different junctures in my life.

Session rhythm musicians like James Gadson and James Jamerson

I’ve always been searching for something, aesthetically. It’s been feel and pocket; it’s been a lot about the groove of something. I was like, Regardless of how rocky these [new] songs are or how soul-y they are, the feel of it always has this danciness to it. My obsession with James Gadson as a drummer is making itself known. Not just in his drumming with Bill Withers, but I would search for soul tunes, disco tunes, and I’d go, Oh, it’s James Gadson again. [Laughs] As a drummer, he exemplifies what I love about feel and time. I said, “We’re not going to be able to record this record if we don’t have a drummer that drums like James Gadson.” And for bass playing, [I wanted the] James Jamerson style — but if you were to take James Jamerson and kick him into disco or funk and give him even more fun basslines than he already has. I really found that there were players that spoke to me.

When it came time to record, we found ourselves with Aaron Frazer, who plays for Durand Jones & the Indications, and we found ourselves with Nick Movshon, who you may know from the well-noted album Back to Black by Amy Winehouse, and the Arcs and many other projects that Dan [Auerbach]’s been involved in. We felt like we were on the right track with those two.

Knowing her producer, Dan Auerbach, and her co-writers

It was probably more collaborative than the first record, because we actually knew each other by this point. The first record, I hadn’t met Dan, so I met him at the first writing session for [Walk Through the Fire]. Everyone that was the third co-writer — ’cause we’d always write [with] three people — they were all his contacts, because I don’t know anybody. And by and large, most of them — most of them? All of them! [laughs] — were older gentlemen, legends who had written over the years some of the most famous songs. Obviously, Dan Penn wrote “Do Right Woman” [for Aretha Franklin] and “Dark End of the Street” [for James Carr] and things like that. But they’re all old, white, American men, so they weren’t of my same ethnicity, age group, continent. [Laughs] We had to find some things that were common, that we could really connect on, and I think that speaks to the universality of the first record.

I didn’t have the resources to go, “These are the kinds of things that I would like to do. I know you have these resources, can we go do this, that, and the other?” I didn’t have that kind of knowledge. With this record, I actually knew Dan and his resources, and we could actually use those to my end, as opposed to just being maybe a bit more of a passenger to this process on the first record.

Minnie Riperton and Tina Turner

In situations where interpretations could be manifold, like with “Stand for Myself,” I played everyone a song by the band Rotary Connection, featuring Minnie Riperton, called “I Am the Black Gold of the Sun.” I’m obsessed with the song; I’m obsessed with Minnie Riperton, generally, and Rotary Connection. So I was like, “Have you heard this song, or maybe even the Nuyorican Soul remix?” And everyone’s like, “I don’t really know.” So I play it for everyone, and everyone’s like, “This is the most crazy, awesome arrangement I’ve ever heard!” It’s really quite an individual piece. It isn’t something that maybe you would just happen upon and then be like, “Oh, that was obvious.” [Laughs] It was really essential that they heard that, so that they’ve got the idea of where I was coming from. But obviously, I then was like, “It’s not exactly this, but it has the spirit of this. And so with that in mind, take this and then pretend Tina [Turner]’s doing it.” And they’re like, “Oh! Okay. I think we get it, I think we’re good.” [Laughs] Then they’re just straight in and rocking out, and they fully grasped the energy: Rotary Connection, if only Tina had had some creative input in the process.

I grew up with Tina and I grew up with Minnie. I often wanted to reconcile those sides of my aesthetic. The [raspy] voice, the roughness, and all that smoothness, the airiness in my voice as well. How I can move between them and have them talk to each other? It feels like I’m working out those obsessions in this record. And I suppose my love of Mary J. Blige, and, maybe not as congruously, Barry White. It became something where I was always trying to understand, What was the aesthetic? — in the same way as when I was obsessed with James Jamerson or wanting to find a drummer that was like James Gadson. The idea of, What’s connecting these aesthetically that makes me obsessed about them? Because I feel like there’s something collective about it.

The exploration carried on — even my love of Smokey Robinson and my favorite song of his, “Cruisin’,” you can hear that in “Now You’re Here” and “Barely Alive.” I wanted to hear the part of me that doesn’t love just rock music but classic rock music, loves rock and roll. Maybe my time rehearsing endlessly for Elvis made me focus more on the legacy of rock and roll, but that was something that I wanted to touch on and then connect that to soul music in all of its formations. I go through a very broad palate of songs on this record, from “If I Had to Do It All Again” and “Starlight” leaning into my Mary J. [Blige] aesthetics, and maybe even in “If I Had to Do It All Again,” a bit of Aaliyah and my ’90s aesthetics, but inevitably through my lens.

Playing Sister Rosetta Tharpe in Elvis

Because Sister Rosetta Tharpe is responsible for such a high percentile of contemporary music, it’s almost impossible to say she didn’t have an influence, because she influenced everything. You have this whole environment of her discovering artists and putting [them] to the floor, and all of which are inspired by her, which is why she gets reached out to in the first place. They’re coming to her. B.B. King is influenced by her; Elvis is influenced by her; Little Richard is influenced by her. She gave birth to this whole scene.

I knew about Sister Rosetta Tharpe from a young age, but how she then influenced these people, you think, Okay, but what did they then give birth to, and how far does that reach? We could reach quite far with Little Richard; say Prince, it’s kind of obvious. There are all of the people that Little Richard touches, or the people that B.B. King influenced, or the people that Elvis influenced. Then it’s just the invention of rock and roll at all, and you’re like, Oh God, so that’s everyone that’s ever done rock and roll! But then what about what rock and roll’s touched or influenced or been a part of? So then you get onto the Parliament-Funkadelics, how they had rock and roll and funk and soul in what they did, and then you’re like, Oh God, even Ella Fitzgerald covered “Sunshine of Your Love”! [Laughs] What you discover [is] everything’s connected and nothing exists in a vacuum. So what I’m really into is not necessarily making [Tharpe] aesthetically known on [my] record by it being very much up above my head; her tendrils are in everything that we now take for granted. And so it’s like, “So, did she influence you?” I’m like, “Hell yeah!” [Laughs] Eighty different times over, in ways I can barely imagine.

English music culture

The song “Whatever You Want” — the melody isn’t necessarily a soul melody or a rock melody. What is that? [Sings melody] That kind of run is Britpop. [Laughs] It’s because I’m English, and these are the things that people can forget. Like, Shit, she’s English! So English things are going to color what’s going on as well. That is quite a Stone Roses thing to do. It’s very easy to put something in a very specific way, but because of my varied exposure, nothing’s ever coming out straight reflective.

Being British, we import everything at once. That’s one thing that you won’t have in America as a concept, so I’m going to tell it to you. We’ve got Nirvana the same time as we’ve got A Tribe Called Quest. We got Brownstone the same time as we got Beck. So people just listened to everything at once to see what it was. You would then get the chart that looks like that in our top 40 — you would have a completely genreless playlist for three hours every Sunday on BBC Radio 1. It was important. Everyone listened to it to find out what was going on. And because we didn’t have, necessarily, as genre-ized radio, we got exposed to everything, so people’s tastes were varied. Not just because it was a chart and that was the order of things, but because then they were the things that were popular, so you’d have to play them. You’re going to have to play Beastie Boys and Blur, because this is what people want. [Laughs] Really, the era that I grew up in was one of Britpop and very, very imported American music. Hip-hop was becoming massive; it was the great renaissance of the time, along with grunge. I think that played a lot into why the record is the way that it is. That’s how we heard things. We were getting everything at once because we were across an ocean, thousands of miles away.

The Truman Show

You’ll see me on a motorcycle and some clouds behind me on the back cover, which is also a pull from the “Diamond Studded Shoes” video, which is based on The Truman Show. That’s why the colors are so bright: It’s the idea of the perfect world, the kind of Truman Show–esque coldness of a construct that isn’t really giving you anything really real. Then we get into the “Stand for Myself” video, and the aesthetic changes abruptly, because I have crossed the film, somewhat — I’ve gone beyond the edge of the set, and I’m in the back staging, almost in the connective space between [the film] and reality. I’m making that move toward something that is more meaningful. And [for “Starlight”], I will emerge in something that feels more real, and more joyful, and maybe a bit less overtly summery and trying to be perfect. That’s kind of what the journey went on in the artwork, with some of of the aesthetics of the eras that I’m pulling on.

Moving to Nashville permanently

This business is as much people as any business. If you don’t have people, you don’t have your ability to self-actualize — you’re always getting into someone else’s black book, into someone else’s connections, which spoke to them and what they need from the world. It’s not tailored. The need to move here was the need to become part of the city and to look below the theme-park surface of the [Broadway] strip and to really dig into the soul of this place, literally. The soul music of this place! [Laughs] It was very clear to me that there was a part of the narrative that had been obliterated because it wasn’t convenient for the theme park-izing of the city.

I looked at my [calendar] for 2019, and I was like, I think I live here already. The amount of times that I’ve had tours here or had to come here to do promo, and then left again and then come back and then left again and then come back, total, [was] more time than I spent in my own home or even in the country I’m from. [Laughs] So it wasn’t a matter of “I decided to move here”; it’s that I was essentially drawn here through demand. I hadn’t really had that experience, of people going, “You know the things that you’re doing that are across a million things? We’re not choosing to see that as a downside.” I’m used to people going, “Can you just do R&B, please?” Or, “Aren’t you doing backing vocals? You’re a bit dark,” you know. These are the things that I experienced in my life. I didn’t have, like, “You are exploring the depth of your musical life and being an exponent of extreme music freedom, and we’re totally cool with that — in all of your lady Blackness, go forth.” I was like, “Really? Okay! I’m gonna stay here.” [Laughs]

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Yola Broke Music History’s Rules to Make Stand for Myself