NASHVILLE, Tenn. – British-born singer Yola broke through in 2019 with her critically acclaimed solo record “Walk Through Fire” that earned her four Grammy nominations after decades working as a singer and songwriter.
But the album that earned her praise from the likes of Elton John and Brandi Carlile was just a first glimpse into what the mononymous and multi-genre singer could do. On her new record “Stand For Myself,” the powerful and versatile singer tells the journey of reclaiming herself after being burdened by tokenism and inequities.
Yola was born in Bristol to immigrant parents from Ghana and Barbados, and the album’s imagery is awash in royal purple, a reflection of her African lineage. But for much of her early life and career, she felt like her Blackness had to be tamped down and she was unable to fully represent her style.
“That was a lot of my life: ‘Put up, or shut up, and assimilate,’” said Yola.
Now living in Nashville, Tennessee, Yola’s musical branches are spread wide through classic pop and ‘70s era R&B and soul, with sprinkles of disco, funk and rock. Working again with producer Dan Auerbach, Yola co-wrote some of the songs with Nashville hitmakers Natalie Hemby, Liz Rose and Ruby Amanfu, as well as new artist Joy Oladokun.
Considering her own expertise in merging genres, Yola seems a perfect fit to portray the rock pioneer Sister Rosetta Tharpe in a new film about Elvis Presley directed by Baz Luhrmann, which has been rescheduled for release in 2022. Yola spent much of the pandemic learning how to play like Tharpe, who is credited with being among the first artists to distort the electric guitar and influenced Elvis, Little Richard and Johnny Cash.
Yola spoke with The Associated Press about how a motorcycle ride gave her an idea for a song, how she learned to stand for herself and the challenges of her first-time acting gig. Answers have been edited for length and clarity.
AP: Your last album was hailed as a refreshing mix of country and soul, but did you want to avoid getting labeled with certain genre types?
Yola: I was concerned about being pigeonholed because even the single, the first song on the album was something that people just didn’t seem to be discussing. And I’m like, “Why is it so hard? Because it’s right in front of you.” It’s not country or soul. So you’re going to have to think of me outside of soul because I’m Black and country because I forced it on you as a conversation to have. And they’re like, "Oh, but it’s so weird because you’re English."
AP: The new album starts with a song, “Barely Alive,” co-written with Oladokun, that is the beginning of a journey that ends with the title track “Stand For Myself.” Why did you want to bookend the album with those tracks?
Yola: The plan was to start with “Barely Alive” because it speaks on the minimizing of my Blackness and of Black people broadly, but frankly anyone who is “an other” or is considered “an other” broadly. That’s what it feels like to be the only one of a type… That’s really where we are in "Barely Alive." It’s that whole, “Well, I just want to be safe. I don’t want to be stopped and frisked by the bloody cops.” And so I am going to try and smile. Like I’m really going to try and make things as easy for myself as humanly possible. And actually you make it as hard as possible because you can’t self-actualize if you don’t have any self. If you diminish all the things that are self, you can’t actualize the self.
AP: One of the standout tracks is a very danceable bop called “Break the Bough,” which was inspired by your late mother. How did you write that?
Yola: I’m driving back from my mother’s funeral. And you should never drive a motorcycle to a funeral. This is what I realized because you can’t cry and ride a motorcycle. You will crash. So I’m trying not to crash and the bassline jumps into my head. And I’m like this is actually quite fortuitous because I think I’m going to die if I don’t think about this bassline… And then it speaks on the imagined idyll of what would be my mother’s heaven, which would be like an old school Barbados, before they did the bait and switch by the power of the Windrush.
AP: For the new Baz Luhrmann film, you’re stepping into the shoes of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who hasn’t really gotten the recognition she deserves for her contribution to rock. What did you take away from that experience?
Yola: I’ve never done a solo in my bloody life. And so now I’m sweating bullets, as we say in the UK, sweating bullets trying to learn how to play like Sister Rosetta, which is really bloody hard. And I’m grateful that the pandemic gives me an extra year to learn how to do that because I needed every single day…I’ve got to do her mannerisms. I’ve got to physically act. I’ve got to interact with Elvis and the other characters in my scene. I have to hit my marks. I’ve got to be able to see Baz Luhrmann because he’s gonna be giving me directions. And I’ve got to do all of this just all at the same time. And the only one of these things I’ve done before is sing…. Honestly, I bloody nailed it and I have no idea how. I nailed it to the floor and I had to do it for 15 hours straight.