Not everything is as it seems with Yola. Often enough, it’s more, much more than you thought.
Last year, when the country-soul singer was interviewed after being nominated for four Grammys for her debut, Walk Through Fire, it was the first time many of those who had bought the album twigged to the fact she was not from the American south. Not from America at all, actually.
On the album made in Nashville with Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, the Bristol-born singer sounded husky and smooth, at ease with the pedal steel and ready to spring from the church pew, as steeped in the tensions of earthy southern R&B or the tears and heartbreak of classic country, as anyone from Memphis or Meridian or Muscle Shoals.
Not only did she return to Tennessee and Auerbach for this year’s more soulful, rockier second album, Stand For Myself, Yola (whose full name is Yolanda Quartey) has moved in, at home in Nashville not just because of the music, not just because of the people, but because of something even more elemental.
“I do a lot of research into food,” she admits, running through some of her favourite joints in town, from the butcher with antibiotic-free meat and the Whole Foods offering goat’s butter (“because I can’t do cow butter”), to Folk, a vegetarian restaurant that convinced a dedicated meat-eater she could enjoy a meal without it, and bars that can supply the best Martinez.
“I’m a boojie bitch, that’s the truth of who I am. I go to a lot of prohibition bars, and the fact that they had them was a good start,” says the ebullient Englishwoman whose speech is punctuated not just with expressive arms but a whole body in motion as she makes a point.
“There was all sorts of things: it was the cocktail culture, finding a wine merchant that would not just deliver to me bog standard wine, having a decent sherry game. You name it, food was everything. No one asks this question brother, I tell you, but it was the first thing that allowed me to move here.”
The connection went beyond the kitchens and bars.
“[Texan singer and fellow rare non-white face in country music] Mickey Guyton knew that I was spending a lot of time here and she was like, okay we need to find somebody who knows what to do your hair because no one’s gonna know. Bless them, but the white people might not all be on-point,” Yola chuckles. “And [Mickey] was like, yeah, it’s tough in these streets. So I was looked out for on so many levels, finding people that can just tend to all your melanated needs. Ha!”
If this seems somewhat superficial, you may be forgetting how integrating into a new town or a new culture is made up of so many little steps and adjustments that you must have to survive.
And how the bigger quest – as an outsider, as a Black person, as a Black woman - is an amplification of that that enables you to, as the album title says, stand for myself.
In the opening track of the new record, Yola positions us within this constant quest to be an agent of change, pointing to the work being done, the fatigue of having to do it over and over, and then looks beyond. “We try to get by, and we strive, but we’re barely alive,” she sings but then asks within the same song, “when will you start living now that you’ve survived?”.
It’s not just identifying the barriers, she makes clear throughout these songs, it’s how to be a whole human once you’ve gone past those barriers.
“That’s not what we ever really approach. They’ll ask, cool what were the hurdles you had to get over, as opposed to now you’re over these hurdles, what next? What’s bringing the maximum joy in your life right now?” Yola says, before segueing into the vexed double ground of racism and sexism.
“If you don’t have a sense of community, and I mean being seen at all as a human being, some people aren’t aware of their problem with bias so they don’t realise they don’t have any Black female friends. There might have only black male friends and feel like ‘I’m nailing this’, and I’m like, are you friends with them because they are powerful guys or because they are people of colour? In what other situations are you insulting Black women? Are you seeing their beauty even?”
The interactions beyond power or need (“when it’s voting season and you need all the Black women to rally to make everything go right, and then disappear”), from food and hair to comfort and culture, are the foundations of that lived experience.
“So you have to be able to speak on how you can program your environment to be tailored to you after you’ve survived, so that people can get into the next layer of conversation … and the networks that we have, and the people that we have to work with, will allow us to access our art,” says Yola, adding wryly. “I just write songs for God sakes, I’m not fucking part of the UN love.”
Not yet anyway.
“Oh, I don’t want to be mate,” she laughs. ”It’s not that crazy to say I just want to sing and write songs bitches. But the effort it’s taken me to just get to this point in making this record: you know I’m 38, it’s time. I’ve got these skills, you’ve heard them, they’re good, and has taken this much time. Never mind the hurdles, it’s that when you’ve got over them, survived, no one’s gonna kill me now, touch wood, now what?”
Getting over the hurdles and how you live after is one thing, but there’s always - in songs, from the pulpit or the campaign stump - the fundamentality of being in control, and Yola tackles it head-on in her public presence, from songwriting and a central voice in production decisions to speaking up rather than politely staying silent.
But again, Stand For Myself works from the notion that being in control is just the start of it; it doesn’t mean you don’t need or seek help. You stand for yourself, but not by yourself, a more nuanced concept within her song, Be My Friend, that argues for these other things that make your life better.
“1000 per cent. Exactly that,” Yola says. “I’ve been telling these bitches the whole damn time and that’s just boiling it down for a motherfucker: quality human connections. Done. You’re not just going ‘I’m in control, I want somebody to do this thing for me’; I want to connect on a foundational level, on a friendship level, on a human level, and for that empathy to be a foundational part of that connection.
“I want you to feel as much as you do when you watch that movie about a delicate blonde lady, and look at me and not rob me of my femininity because I’m not a white woman. I want you to see me in that moment of needing and of vulnerability equally as anybody else. Not to rob anyone of anything they are already getting, just to attribute the same privilege to me. And that’s really what that song is.”
One thing that Yola returns too often is getting people to examine their bias with “the analytical part of their brain instead of doing it via their fricking emotions, which are not going to help”.
However, what is clear in what she says and what she sings is that emotions like anger are valid and useful cohabitants with the analytical part of the brain. The anger in Diamond Studded Shoes, inspired by a patronising speech by then Prime Minister Teresa May, is right there in the marrow of the song, but it could also easily be unseen if you’re just digging the groove and that killer chorus hook.
I tell her that one thing I remember growing up as a dark-skinned kid in the outer suburbs, and then later moving up through a media industry which was even more white then than it is now, was that showing your anger at the patronising or racist attitudes wasn’t acceptable at all. This was a failing, a weakness that marked you as different from them, and therefore different from normal.
But what’s more is people like me restricted ourselves so that even thinking the anger wasn’t allowed. Some of us in that generation learnt eventually that it’s okay to feel and express those emotions and despite what the comfortable, middle-class white “betters” would say, it didn’t make us lesser. We’re clued in to this album’s theme of not just getting past the barriers but actually living on the other side.
“It’s part of the shucking and the jiving isn’t it? Thank you, Sir. You’d be so grateful for everything, even though I’m working like 16 hours more than everybody else, thank you, thank you, please, thank you,” Yola says. “All of this stuff is the neutering of our agency, it’s the neutering of our consent. Let’s really talk about consent here because society still struggles with consent, and we have to give a false, coerced consent to the way that we are being treated.
“People than attribute that false consent to real consent: they go ‘okay, well they didn’t complain and cry for hours and hours and jump off a cliff, consequently that’s consent’. No, you just coerced them into silence, that’s not the bloody same.”
She talks about how often even the suggestion of emotional intensity in artists like her is weaponised and she is described “even in the voice I’m using now, as screaming because I’ve made a point that makes them uncomfortable and fragile in their whiteness”. If, as she says, what’s to be gained for any of us then in not always holding back and playing the dominant group’s game?
“Being able to show that you can be in control of your faculties and also righteously pissed, is really an important thing to go through. Anger is dangerous because it’s one of the tropes, oh you’re the angry black woman, or emotionally out of control, or without emotion altogether – but nowhere in between. So I speak on the tropes out of the fricking gate. I’m like, this is the de-tropefying album: I’m going to talk about Every. Single. Trope [smacking her hands on the beat of each word] before you can do it,” says Yola.
“Every song on this record has a real, real purpose that if you are of colour and you know what it is, you’ll be like, oh you did that. Not everybody is going to pick up every single one, but as long as we all do across the cycle [of the album] I’m going to be a happy bitch.”
Stand For Myself is out now through Easy Eye Sound/Nonesuch.