Yola: “A Bitch Is Back”

Photo by Joseph Ross Smith

“One of the most mind-blowing things was going from being relatively hard off to sitting in front of Shania Twain in the first few rows of the Grammys,” Yola tells American Songwriter. “It was quite a journey in quite a short space of time… it’s been a whirlwind.” 

Launched onto the international stage after the release of her debut—the roots-rock masterpiece, Walk Through Fire, which led to four Grammy nominations, including one for Best New Artist—Yola’s come a long way. Born in Bristol, U.K., and raised in a low-income environment by a single mother, who is also an immigrant, she became well-acquainted with two things pretty early on: hardship and music. 

“My mother was a disco DJ of sorts,” Yola said. “She was a registered nurse at a mental institution, and it was a very calming influence to play Earth, Wind & Fire and stuff for the ward. It was chill and it chilled everyone out, but it was a tough job. Her best friend was an immigrant from the Philippines, and she was an immigrant from Barbados. It was just the two of them staffing a ward of 60. It was hardcore, but she got really good at mellowing things out. So, even when I was in the womb, I was getting disco jams.” 

After she left that womb, music quickly became an invaluable tool for her to understand and cope with the world. At first, she stepped into this dynamic as a fan, listening to everything from Nirvana to Bjork to A Tribe Called Quest on the local radio as a kid. Later on, she stepped into it as a performer, singing everything from jazz to rock to country and getting gigs whenever she could.   

But times were tough, and for a period in her early 20s, Yola found herself homeless on the streets of London. While a friend eventually came to her rescue and she got herself back into a stable living situation, the experience was something that the singer, now 37, will never forget. To this day, she carries with her the memory of being in an unimaginable crisis without a single helping hand extended to her.  

But even through this, Yola kept pursuing her dreams. Eventually, she built her way up to securing a few high-profile features on tracks by electronic acts such as Sub Focus, Duke Dumont, Massive Attack, and others. This gave her enough momentum to make a big break a reality: her aforementioned 2019 debut, which became an instant hit for fans of blues, roots, Americana, soul, and country alike.  

See, Yola is an exciting artist, thanks in part to her ability to jump from style to style with ease, bringing to each a new and dynamic energy. Even though she was born and raised on the other side of the Atlantic, her interpretations of American roots music are some of the best in living memory—all the while, her intuition for everything from electronic music to rock to disco is similarly world-class.  

Yet, while you might expect Yola to be some musical juggernaut who navigates the industry effortlessly, turning her ideas into reality left and right, that hasn’t always been the reality. Even though she’s nearly perfected the art of performance—and is endowed with a commanding spirit that fills the room with a bright and alluring presence—she wasn’t actually doing what she wanted to do. 

“I always knew I could sing, but I was always seen as a tool,” she explained. “Everyone had a plan for me, but I never had space to have a plan for myself.” 

Constrained by genre limitations, sexism, racism, and more, she became another victim of a money-motivated music industry that, behind closed doors, still has a habit of propping up shameful archaic beliefs. “I was told by an unnamed executive that ‘no one ever wants to hear a Black woman sing rock’n’roll,’” Yola said. “There are all of these verbal and non-verbal things—they’re perceived as ‘microaggressions,’ but really, they’re just actual aggressions.’  

But now, in 2021, that dynamic is finally changing. In July, Yola is set to drop her second studio album, Stand For Myself, a triumphant and soul-baring record in which she finally gets to chase her dreams with nothing in her way. Working alongside a small team who understood her vision—including Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys, who produced the record—she was able to craft an intricate mixture of Americana, disco, soul, blues, folk-rock and… Well, actually, perhaps it’s more apt to forgo genre comparisons at all. With driving grooves, subtle synth lines, blazing slide guitars, Yola’s powerhouse voice, and more, the end result truly seems to defy categorization—almost as if it was just a pure and profound extension of Yola’s spirit itself.  

Photo by Joseph Ross Smith

“Really, if you want good music, you don’t put barriers up against it,” she said. “People expect musicians to not be fans of all types of music, which is, like, the craziest thing I’ve heard. You don’t put barriers up for someone who has the potential to be really good at something. Instead, you should try to facilitate it and help them realize their potential. But now, we’re not focusing on the potential of art. Instead, we’re compartmentalizing it because of an assumption—and it’s a dangerous assumption. It’s one that happens all of the time, when someone starts a sentence with: ‘People are so stupid…’” 

This is a pretty big offense to Yola for a few reasons. To begin with, she has an altruistic heart that sees the best in folks. At the same time, however, she’s not too much of an idealist—in fact, part of what frustrates her about the ill-intentions of the industry are the material realities they conveniently ignore.  

“It’s like, ‘No, you create stupid people by pandering to them and assuming that they’re incapable of things,’” she said “That’s what you’re going to get if you keep creating that culture. It’s so patronizing, but it’s a created environment. It’s a self-perpetuating philosophy.” 

This frustration ultimately proved to light a flame under Yola, pushing her to explore the deepest depths of her artistry… which led to the genesis of Stand For Myself. Even though the oldest songs on the record hail from all the way back to 2013, its overarching theme came into fruition at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic last spring. Inspired to live up to her fullest potential and to stand against the morally corrupt contradictions of Western culture, she came up with a goal for the project: trick people into empathy and self-actualization. 

“I wanted this album to be like a social tool,” she explained. “I don’t think we get enough lenses of women of color in music, especially not in a way that speaks to their right to feel certain things—to have a sense of acceptance, to love, to be sex-positive, to feel allyship and a sense of connection. There’s a right to quality friendship, to actually receiving real support when you need it, as opposed to that meme where it’s the Black lady drowning with her hands sticking out of the water and someone comes along, gives her a high-five and says ‘You go girl!’ while she carries on drowning. Especially when you are a perceived ‘other’ growing up in the West, you have a great need to tell your story in a way that is appropriate and focused on your lens.” 

But that’s not where the “trick” part of the equation comes in… that part grew out of something Yola is quite a fan of, something that’s actually no “trick” at all: neuroscience. 

“I experimented with my songwriting process on a biological level,” she said. “I basically wanted to use the part of your brain that stores all the information. The superior colliculus, specifically, collects everything that you’ve ever seen, every environment that’s ever been in your peripheral vision. But it’s not the stuff that you focus on, that you might remember—it’s just everything, just all of your environments since birth. The way you shape your idea of the world is through all of these environments you’ve been in and all of the memories you maybe don’t recall. So, it’s a direct line to your brain, more so than your analytical mind, even. It’s also the thing that marketers depend on when you’re speeding past a billboard because you’re not focusing on it.” 

But marketers aren’t the only ones with the ability to shape perceptions. Yola set out to apply the concept of turning knowledge into power to her songwriting. To begin with, she tried this out on herself during the early days of the pandemic. Staying up very late in order to try to reach a looser state of consciousness, she tried out tapping into her own peripheral memories.  

“I wanted to replicate those times when you’re a kid and you first start writing songs,” she said. “You have all of these ideas coming in, but it’s because you’re not really focusing, you’re not trying to do or be anything, you’re just channeling everything that you are, you know? I wanted to get to that mentality. I think anyone who’s ever been a songwriter—whether they’ve done it professionally or they’ve just been doing it as a hobby—will know that as they get older, it feels like they lose access to that.” 

After a few trial runs, Yola found this method to be a success. “It seemed to really work out for me,” she said with a smile. “You can write with your analytical brain too, but for me, the elegant connections come from when I kind of dissociate from that part of my brain.” 

But soon, Yola realized that there was another application for this theory. 

“When someone is really focusing on something, they can make a decision to think this way or to feel a certain way or to do whatever,” she began. “But there are a lot of things that marketers use to get into that peripheral vision of yours. So, I thought I’d distract you with the dancey-ness and jamming on this record—meanwhile, all the words coming at you are basically saying ‘You have to feel things for other people that don’t look like you.’ If I could get you—or trick you—into actually caring about people that aren’t like you, that would be real cool, because this isn’t a dress rehearsal. We all die in the end, none of us are getting out of this thing alive. We might as well just try to not be complete douchebags. And if you’re not going to do it, I’m going to try to trick you into doing it. Be nice, okay? It’s real. Just be nice to people. I don’t care if you believe in the way they live or not. Just be nice! Life’s hard enough.” 

But to paint Stand For Myself as merely a science experiment trying to win over folks with marketing strategies would be a gross mischaracterization and underestimation of the brilliance in the record. Beyond being catchy, heartfelt, and infectiously groovy, it does truly offer a glimpse into Yola’s experience in the world, and the ramifications of that extend far beyond just one individual.  

“I opened this record with a song called ‘Barely Alive,’ and you can tell I’m speaking to another ‘other,’” she explained. “It’s like ‘Yeah, I’ve been there and know how it is.’ You’re living, but you’re barely alive—you’re just surviving. People go, ‘It looks like you’re doing fine,’ but ‘fine’ is not good enough. I deserve to feel good, not just ‘fine.’ I got my friend Brandi Carlile to sing harmonies on that song—she can attest to the same need for allyship within the LGBTQ+ community. Neglect is a really big part of life for ‘others.’ It’s no fun being a fabulous Black lady, just fixing all the stuff and then getting zero help through a lot of life. It’s really encouraged for Black women—specifically dark-skinned Black women—to be totally strong. But there’s a level of nuance that isn’t experienced when you’re expected to not be intimidated by your environment or to not doubt whether anyone wants to hear your voice… I doubted whether anyone wanted to hear my voice. It’s because dark-skinned women are erased from what we see. We really only see them pop up when there’s some activism to be done—then, all of a sudden, you see nothing but dark-skinned women. You’re like, ‘Wow. Yes, thanks, Stacey. Thanks.’ But then, they’re erased again, which is a big problem.” 

To that end, Stand For Myself walks two lines: it makes an appeal for folks to have love and understanding in their hearts, but it also offers a sense of strength and validation for those who need it. 

“I wanted it to make you feel like you could do anything—especially the last song, ‘Stand For Myself,’” Yola said, stressing the crucial role of self-care in that equation. “When people’s standards for themselves are low, their standards for you are low too. If someone’s like, ‘Yeah, I’m absolutely fine being punched in the face 50 times,’ then if they see you get punched in the face, they’re like, ‘Yeah, cool. That’s good for me.’ So, I want you to live your best life—is that too much to ask? Not at the expense of everyone else on Earth, but live the best life for you. The majority of us, feasibly, can do that… and if Bezos would give up a little bit…” 

While her voice trailed off at the end there, the allusion comes across loud and clear, pointing towards the struggles faced by marginalized communities without equal and equitable access to wealth or opportunity. Nonetheless, Yola asserts that her album isn’t political. “This is just humanity,” she said. “You know, basic human stuff. I think part of the situation that we struggle with is that we always look at the macro, but we don’t talk about people’s humanity anymore.”  

But with the release of Stand For Myself, there’s about to be a big dose of “humanity” hitting the music world. Bold, compelling, expressive, and rich with powerful ideas, the album is a testament to the long trail Yola hiked in order to reach this summit, encapsulating her beliefs as an artist and as a human. And even though there have been countless obstacles along the way—from racist executives to economic limitations to genre restraints and more—the view from the top is pretty spectacular, especially considering the fact that this is still just the beginning for Yola.  

“People were like, ‘Are you sure you can do this? Are you really sure?’” she said. “They get into your head, and then it’s like, ‘Yeah, maybe you’re right, maybe I can’t do this.’ It goes around and around until you’re convinced you can’t. But then, you start to get your powers back. You’re like, ‘No, I was right the first time—I can do this.’ For me, it feels as if I knew I could do this as far back as when I was 4 years old—I got talked out of my own majesty for a bit, but a bitch is back.” 

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