Yola Discusses Finally Feeling Liberated on “Stand for Myself”
The Nashville-based songwriter tells us about the personal direction of her new album and the “self-education” detailed on the record’s latest single.
If you ask Yolanda Quartey—better known as the voluminous singer Yola, who today released her second single, “Stand for Myself,” from her forthcoming new record of the same name—when she first began to listen and pay attention to music, she’ll tell you it started especially early. “The birth canal,” she says, with a chuckle. “I kid you not!”
Here’s how it happened: While pregnant with the future groovy Grammy nominee, Yola’s mother was working as a registered nurse in a mental institution in the U.K. When she would work the overnight shift in the hospital, her supervisors would understaff “because of racism,” Yola explains. So the singer’s mother had to find ways to keep things in order. “She would find it hard,” she says, “with two nurses to a ward of 60 patients. She used to play disco to chill them out. So, even through gestation, I was grooving to disco—and apparently I quite enjoyed it!” As a child, Yola continued to love the art form. At four years old, she told her mother she wanted to be a singer and she’s never wavered since. Of course, that didn’t mean her path was easy. For Yola, that’s never been the case, despite boasting a singing voice that could fill a room in a millisecond.
Growing up, the successful route to becoming a professional singer wasn’t obvious. As a result, Yola’s parents dissuaded her. It wasn’t that they didn’t believe in her talent, but rather that they feared the career was too difficult for anyone, let alone a dark-skinned woman in the U.K. “When you’re a rich kid, you can get a degree in fine arts or the classics,” Yola says. “It doesn’t really matter if you make money, because you have something to fall back on. We didn’t. So the idea was to do something surefire to make money. Not start in a highly competitive industry.”
Yet Yola found her way. Growing up, she loved poetry, and she had an obvious knack for singing. She performed in school and met other like-minded artists. Yet, she never clung to the school’s formal bands or choir. She always wanted to maintain her creative independence. “I wanted to do everything on my own terms,” she says. “That’s proved to be a pattern!” Yola studied jazz—she calls it her training ground. She began at 14 years old, diving into the music of artists like Ella Fitzgerald. The genre taught her about improvisation and how to keep her cool in an ever-changing sonic environment. “It was like a gym,” she says.
“When you’re a rich kid, you can get a degree in fine arts. It doesn’t really matter if you make money, because you have something to fall back on. We didn’t. So the idea was to do something surefire to make money. Not start in a highly competitive industry.”
One of the most significant professional moments in her career, however, came when she met Dan Auerbach, the accomplished producer and front man for The Black Keys. A friend had sent Auerbach a video of Yola performing at an event in Nashville, to which Auerbach replied, “Let’s get her on the phone!” Soon, he and Yola were sharing ideas and a fruitful creative relationship was born. Auerbach produced Yola’s 2019 landmark record, Walk Through Fire, and he also produced her forthcoming record, which is out July 30. “The first time I met Dan we wrote ‘Shady Grove.’ I hadn’t met him before we started writing the first album.”
It was odd, Yola says, to immediately get personal with a new producer, even such an accomplished one as Auerbach. But in the time since, a friendship grew. Now, they share common ground—history and knowledge of their respective journeys. As a result, the two could get into the depths of Yola’s history on each track on her new LP. “There’s a lot more of my life story on this new one,” she says. “It’s a lot more my baby!”
To make Stand for Myself, Yola fleshed out songs that were both brand new and several years old. She mined old voice memos and wrote new material during the pandemic lockdown—sometimes, she says, on her sofa at 5 a.m. with a glass of wine. To tell the story of the new record is to talk about Yola’s progression, both as a person and as an artist. She’s overcome creative and societal challenges, personal doubt, and general global dismissiveness. At times, she’d even hide intentionally, fronting other people’s projects instead of following her own solo dreams.
“It’s easier to front someone’s else dreams sometimes than it is to go out on your own and ask people to do things for you,” she says. “You’ve got to believe in yourself to a degree to ask people to do something for you. I don’t think I’d ever asked anyone to do something for me until I was 30.” But, thanks to continually betting on herself, that’s all changed. “It wasn’t easy. But I feel live right now! I highly recommend it.”
“There’s a lot more of my life story on this new one. It’s a lot more my baby!”
Yola’s new album and its latest single tell the story of her “self-education.” It took time for her to realize who she was, down to her core. “I didn’t come out the womb woke,” Yola says. “I was conditioned like everybody else. That’s how the record starts. You’re barely alive and you’re just trying to fit in. But by the time you get to the end of the record, I’m not desperately trying to fit in and shrink myself anymore.”
For Yola, the future is now quite bright. Her new album is magnificent and she seems to gain thousands of fans and followers by the week. Yet, when asked what she sees when she closes her eyes to consider what’s to come in the future, she laughs, liberated by the fact that nothing—finally—is set in stone. “I’ve got no idea!” Yola says. “That’s what’s really exciting. Truly, I have no idea at all.”
But what is clear is that Yola, now a four-time Grammy nominee, has arrived and her bountiful story has accompanied her to the stage, front and center. “It’s very easy for people to look at you, especially when you’re the protagonist, and attach a trope to your whole existence without really looking any deeper. But I love that the nature of music as an art form allows you to challenge those tropes, to tell your story, and have agency while doing so.” FL