If you were to find a happy medium between Bristol and Nashville, few artists could navigate that ocean-spanning space better than Yola. Born in Bristol, Yola (Yolanda Quartey) grew up listening to early rock as well as albums like Primal Scream‘s Screamadelica. In 2018, she moved to Nashville and recorded her debut album after spending nearly two decades as a songwriter and collaborator with other artists.
Yola’s 2019 debut album, Walk Through Fire, was a heartfelt blend of soul, folk, and country. In terms of opening tracks, “Faraway Look” was a near-perfect introduction to Yola for those who haven’t heard her collaborations with bands like Massive Attack and Bugz in the Attic. In 2019, Yola was nominated for four Grammy awards, including Best New Artist. That same year, she appeared on the Highwomen‘s self-titled debut album.
If Walk Through Fire served as a major arrival in the genre of Americana (Yola’s three other nominations in 2019 were in the Americana category), then her latest album, Stand For Myself, has Yola staking her claim to dance, R&B, soul, and rock. Released this past July, the album is a genre-spanning ode to declaring one’s autonomy.
Yola is currently supporting Stand For Myself as part of Chris Stapleton’s tour. In early 2022, she’ll headline her own dates. This past September, Yola had to take herself off the road because she tested positive for COVID. She had already received the vaccination and only experienced mild symptoms. “I could sing, I just couldn’t be near anybody,” Yola said with a laugh during a Zoom meeting from her Nashville home.
Yola’s return to Nashville brought the journey of Stand For Myself to full circle. Much like the recording process of her latest album, she used the time in solitude to farm new ideas. “I’m most creative when I’m in these moments of stillness and isolation,” Yola said.
While the recording of Stand For Myself primarily took place in 2020, several songs had been existing in some form for years. Yola started writing the song “Break the Bough” in 2013. “Diamond Studded Shoes” was written in response to the calamitous political events of 2016 in the United Kingdom as well as the election of Donald Trump in the United States.
“You guys had made a big, fat, hairy mistake in the voting situation. We made a big, fat, hairy mistake in the Brexit situation,” Yola said. “We were talking about the ensuing hot mess that was occurring.”
She began writing the song in 2017 while sharing a bottle of wine with friend and musician Aaron Lee Tasjan. The process of writing and completing “Diamond Studded Shoes” played out like a typical song for Yola. It begins with a first verse that gets the listener’s attention:
“Everybody’s saying that it’s gonna be alright
But I can’t help but wonder If it’s gonna be on my dime”– Yola
“I always get a first verse, guaranteed,” Yola says.
Yola jokes that she could pen half of the second verse, and she was “not that person” to write the third verse. To finish the song, she took it to Dan Auerbach (who also produced Stand for Myself) as well as singer/songwriter Natalie Hemby. Yola came up with the chorus in late 2019, nearly two years after the first verse came to fruition. The chorus ends with a rallying, “That’s why we gots to fight,” and Yola stretches out “fight” to a euphoric cry.
Yola says “Diamond Studded Shoes” was written as a response to how the “divide and conquer” style of political division affects the working class. In the song, Yola said she tried to find a place that was less bigoted than the rhetoric she was hearing.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do to reconcile the role that working-class people play in the state of this country,” says Yola.
In the summer of 2022, Yola will play Sister Rosetta Tharpe in Baz Luhrmann’s biopic of Elvis Presley. More than a decade before “Blue Suede Shoes” was recorded by Carl Perkins and popularized by Presley, Tharpe was blending electric guitar with blues and gospel. Widely considered The Godmother of Rock n’ Roll, Tharpe influenced nearly all the early figures of the genre, including Little Richard and Johnny Cash.
“She inspired this rock and roll aesthetic,” Yola says. “The wailing, the shredding, and distortion at that speed in this rocking way. It wasn’t a thing until she did it.”
Tharpe was not inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame until 2018. One reason routinely cited for the delayed recognition of artists like Tharpe has been the historical lack of media attention to the contributions of Black female musicians in the 1950s. Yola said Tharpe also brought queer energy into her performances that paved the way for Little Richard’s flamboyant, over-the-top persona.
“Sister Rosetta Tharpe discovered someone like that and she saw the magic in someone like that,” Yola tells us. “And that’s just a small part of her legacy and her story.”
Sister Rosetta Tharpe died in 1973 from a stroke at age 58. Yola reflected on the death of another influential musician nearly 50 years later, Denise Johnson. Best known for her work with New Order and Primal Scream, Johnson died in 2020 at the age of 56 from an undisclosed cause. After spending decades working with other bands and artists, Johnson’s debut album, Where Does It Go, was posthumously released in September 2020.
“For dark-skinned people, it can take such a time to reach self-actualization,” Yola says. “That made me feel like just … a sense of loss. A sense of loss of someone who had so much more time and so much more to give creatively.”
Similar to Johnson, Yola said she hid her identity as a collaborator for much of her recording career. Before Walk Through Fire, Yola said she was afraid of pop culture perceiving her as a “side act” instead of a frontwoman. With Stand For Myself, Yola feels she has arrived at a place she’s aimed for as a writer.
“It feels like everything’s right on time, as Brandi Carlile’s album would say,” Yola said.