Yola stands tall
She floored critics and audiences alike with her debut album, 2019's Walk Through Fire. Now the 38-year-old singer and actress is back for more.
Yola has no interest in lyrics with fairytale endings. "All those 'uplifting' songs that tell you that somehow everything will work out, they're like opiates," she says. "I've had it with that kind of sentiment. It's rubbish. It's not going to work out and we all know it!"
Just in case that declaration doesn't convince you, the 38-year-old singer utters no fewer than 40 variations on the line "it ain't gonna work out," on the new single "Diamond Studded Shoes," off her forthcoming album, Stand for Myself (out July 30). While the refrain may sound defeatist, Yola uses it as a kick-in-the-ass protest against complacency — a reminder that significant change, whether personal or political, doesn't come without sustained vigilance and considerable sweat. The lyrics in this song and others on the new album not only reflect Yola's attitude towards her own life but also her thoughts about what's necessary to achieve social justice in the Black Lives Matter era. "Things don't just happen," the singer says. "You make them happen."
For Yola, that realization didn't arrive by calm reflection. It came as a direct result of the high dramas in her life over the last few years, including the death of her mother and her own brush with mortality in a house fire. Such personal challenges, along with the many hurdles she has had to face to maintain her vision within the music industry, has both informed every syllable she sings and made her road to stardom long and hard. "I really had to fight to be heard," she tells EW over Zoom during a recent summer afternoon chat from her new home in Nashville. "As a dark-skinned Black woman, I live in the knowledge that I have to have my head on a constant swivel to make sure things are aligned for me."
They didn't start to until 2019, when she released her debut album, Walk Through Fire. At that point, Yola was 36 years old, at least a decade older than common pop newbies. But the maturity and experience she had accrued by then gave her first full-length release added depth and a gripping backstory. Produced by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys, Fire floored critics with its genre-blurring mix of country, soul, and pop. Listeners were even more impressed by the striking character of Yola's voice. With its meaty texture, rich timber, and unquestioned authority, her vocals recall the poise and grandeur of music's greatest vintage pop singers, from Dusty Springfield to Shirley Bassey. "There's history in her voice," says Auerbach. "It almost feels ghostly. Her voice has an eerie familiarity yet it feels so fresh."
Clearly, Grammy voters agreed. In 2019, they showered her with four nominations, including Best New Artist. All the attention has only raised the stakes for the new Stand for Myself, an album that widens her sound even further to include everything from disco to folk to '70s R&B. To certify her encompassing style, this month Yola will have the rare privilege of playing both the Newport Jazz and the Newport Folk festival. "It's just a half a dozen or so people who have ever played both," she says, proudly.
In addition, Yola is about to make her debut as an actress portraying the pioneering guitarist Sister Rosetta Tharpe in Baz Luhrmann's upcoming Elvis Presley biopic. "The world knows of Yola's vocal strength," says Lurhmann. "But she naturally has a great presence and can hold a room, which is fundamental to a character like Rosetta Tharpe. I realized she had to play the part." Not only was Yola a long-time fan of Tharpe's, she feels a kinship with her struggle to be properly recognized. "She invented rock and roll and no one was paying attention," says Yola. "For many years I was infuriated that she wasn't in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. While now she is in, I'm still infuriated because that's hella late. If I invented something, I'd want to be in first."
If Yola sounds riled up when she speaks about such things, it's important to note that she delivers even her most righteous lines with a laugh. "The humor machine is always going on in my mind," she says. Outfitted in a brilliantly colored dress adorned with rainbow stripes on the day of our interview, Yola proved a bubbly and expansive talker. Part of that, no doubt, comes from her joyous nature. Another likely comes from the experience she gained while explaining her intent to those who make assumptions about what a woman like her should sound and act like. "For years, I've been in lots of contexts and places where I've felt alone," she says.
It started when she was growing up as Yolanda Quartley in a small seaside town outside Bristol, England. "I was the token Black girl," she says. "The highest concentration of Black people in that environment lived in my house."
Her parents came separately to the U.K. — her father from Ghana, her mother from Barbados — among the many waves of Black immigrants who had arrived in the country. But her father abandoned the family, and Yola's mom struggled to raise children alone on a nurse's salary. Adding to the domestic tensions was her mother's character. "She had all the elements of a clinical psychopath," Yola says. "She has the glib and superficial charm but, unfortunately, the fundamental sensitivities for nurturing were bloody absent. She was like a Black, female answer to Cartman from South Park. She would say the most dreadful things in the most inappropriate moments. That's where I got my dark sense of humor from."
Yola's mother strongly discouraged her interest in music, believing it unsustainable as a career. At the same time, her record collection, which burst with the work of classic artists of the '60s and '70s, stoked her daughter's interest in just such a future. Later, in her early days as a singer, Yola tried to imitate the sounds of contemporary mainstream R&B stars, like Brandy and Aaliyah. "But my voice always sounded like Tina [Turner] or Minnie [Riperton]," she says. "My tone isn't imbued with the modern R&B sound."
While that made her a bad fit for many singing jobs, it thrilled producers eager to tap the sounds of yesteryear. "Those voices are dying out," she says, "so I became in demand."
At the same time, Yola found herself stereotyped in recording sessions. "They were looking for 'the house music screamer,'" she says, "the perennial 'Strong Black Woman' who will survive, regardless of the horrors she endures. May there be no tenderness or joy in your life. May you be perpetually screaming about surviving horror while you do a merry dance for our entertainment. Meanwhile, you loathe your existence."
It didn't help that, in those years, Yola didn't feel confident enough to carve out a more self-determined role for herself. "I was always trying to jump a train that someone else was driving," she says. "By and large, that was because my environment told me, 'we don't like bosses like you.'"
The start of her turnaround came after the 2013 death of her mother, at 69, from motor neurone disease. "One of the big epiphanies was looking at the size of my mother's casket," she says. "It looked so tiny. It felt like mockery. Really? That's it? I began to realize, 'if this is how we go out, I had better do something.'"
Still, it took something even more personal to give her the final push. In December of 2015, she accidentally set a kitchen appliance on fire, spreading flames through the room and nearly killing her. True to character, she maintained a certain humorous detachment even while it raged. "As the fire was licking me, I was laughing to myself," she says, giggling at the memory of it.
When recalling the moment, Yola paused to display a scar on her arm. "I never want to cover this up," she says. "That's the arm I fought the fire with. I got a hose and put the fire out myself. That was the moment I made a final decision."
She decided to pool the money she earned from singing sessions and whatever her mother left her to finance a project of her own. The resulting EP, Orphan Offering, released in 2016, found her performing in a style unbound by cliché or expectation. To promote it, she began to tour the U.K. as well as the U.S. The latter led to a crucial break. A video of her performance at the Americana Festival in Nashville earned the attention of Auerbach. "All I needed was to hear her voice for a second and I knew I wanted to talk to her," he says. "I never met anyone who had a better understanding of her voice. She knows how to use it to play with the dynamics of a song to make it come alive."
Her vocal control, as well as the range of her material, helped Yola's first album live up to the drama of its title, Walk Through Fire, which references the conflagration that nearly took her life. Her voice also led to an invitation to join the Highwomen, a country supergroup that includes Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby, Maren Morris, and Amanda Shires. But she elected to act as an auxiliary member instead — singing two songs on their debut— to concentrate on her own project. Despite the variety of style Yola's first album displayed, she found herself categorized as an Americana artist.
The broad range of material on Stand for Myself underscores the inadequacy of that description. If pressed for an alternative, she prefers to call what she does "classic pop." While Auerbach again produced the new album, Yola says "the dynamic flipped completely. When we did the first record, I didn't know Dan as a person. It was just a case of 'go into a room and see what comes out.' This time he got to know me so he gave me more responsibilities. My passion has always been for the feeling of the bass lines and the drums. We needed a certain feel."
"Yola was in a different frame of mind with this record," Auerbach says. "She had done a few years of touring so she naturally veered towards songs that were more upbeat, or songs that would be fun to play on stage."
Likewise, the new lyrics have a different tone, with a stronger political dimension. While Yola says that many of the words were written before the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, her words "only seem truer now. They address something important, which is asking: 'What are the steps beyond getting treated equally? What's next? Do we have nuance?'"
Yola aimed to answer that last question for herself through her vocal approach on the album. She made sure to finely calibrate her singing, the better to stress each song's narrative arc. The only time she sings full force is in "Break the Bough," a track which exorcises her complex feelings about her mother. To Yola, the nuances evident on the rest of the record have a broader purpose. "The overarching point of the album is to allow a woman such as myself to be seen as an individual rather than as a representative of a group," she said. "Isn't that what everyone wants?"