Yola Takes The Whole Wheel With 'Stand For Myself'

Jul 29, 2021
Originally published on July 29, 2021 6:57 pm

When the artist Yolanda Quarterly, now better known as Yola, was just a bump in her mother's belly, she was already bopping to music. Yola's mother was a registered nurse, who used to DJ at a hospital's mental health unit. Disco and soul, sounds Yola would hear before entering the world, would go on to influence her later in life.

Yola burst onto the American music scene in 2019 with her debut album, Walk Through Fire, which received four Grammy nominations. At that point, she had already spent 20 years in the music industry in her native England, writing songs for other bands and singing with groups like Massive Attack.

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Now, she lives in Nashville, and she's fully ready to claim her spotlight — that's what the title track on her new album, Stand for Myself, is all about. Yola joined NPR's Ari Shapiro to talk about the disco-infused project and her process of reclaiming creative independence after years in the music industry. Listen in the audio player above, and read on for highlights of the interview.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

On creative freedom in the music industry

"All I've been trying to do in my life, in my musical journey, is to have the right to have control over my own life, and that seems like it's become — and it always seems to become — a controversial concept. Like, what if I have autonomy, then someone doesn't have the ability to control my skill set and to milk money from my skill set? And so, because of my skill set, I — all of a sudden — don't have the right to have control over my own life. I don't want control over anyone else's life. I'm not remotely interested in anyone else's bloody life.

"Even in situations where I didn't want the credit, because I was like, 'This isn't my path.' It's the idea of actually being able to chart your own path at all. So, when you're in collaboration with somebody, for that person to not try and co-opt the story to be all about them and to be nothing to do with you. And as is very common in Black lady life, you can get nudged into servitude, into being made to be thankful that you're [being] given the opportunity to slay for the betterment of somebody else."

On identity, genre and privilege

"Because of what my voice does and what a lot of Black women's voices will do, we'll be very blendable with about a gazillion genres. ... Think about soul music and how blendable it is with disparate genres. You could have it with techno or metal, and it blends as well as it does with country or hip-hop. And there aren't other genres that will blend as uniformly. And so, it's one of these things that, if you have a soul voice, for example, and you don't have the benefit of male privilege, you can find yourself being co-opted."

On solo artistry, autonomy and collaboration

"On this record, I got to choose who [the collaborators were]. So, it's the idea of having choice, having consent, all of these things are what autonomy is. It's not about being alone, it's about having choice and about writing your own story, and also just being in a space where you've actually met people, you know people, you have personal connections that you can then work with and create beautiful works. Because that's all I've ever really wanted to do is write songs and sing songs, be it on my own or with people. Just to be able to commune in that way, and express what I have to express. And it's taken quite a long time for people to be willing to hear a woman of color, of my particular hue, do that. It's taken longer than it has maybe some of my paler peers."

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

When the artist Yola was a bump in her mother's belly, she was already bopping to disco.

YOLA: My mother used to DJ disco music.

SHAPIRO: Your mother was a disco DJ.

YOLA: Yeah, but in a mental institution.

SHAPIRO: Oh, my goodness. That sounds like a story.

YOLA: Yeah, it is. She was a SEN registered nurse, and, like, they had, like, hospital radio. And they played records. And she goes, I've got loads of records. I'll play. And so then she starts, like, deejaying. And it just - it chills everyone out.

SHAPIRO: Yola burst onto the American music scene in 2019 with a debut album that got her four Grammy nominations. At that point, she had already spent 20 years in the music industry in her native England. She wrote songs for other bands and sang with groups like Massive Attack. Now she lives in Nashville, and she is fully claiming her place in the spotlight. Yola told me that's what the title track on her new album is all about. It's called "Stand For Myself."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STAND FOR MYSELF")

YOLA: (Singing) It was easier to sing than stand for myself. It was easier to give in than stand for myself.

To boil it down, all I've been trying to do in my life, in my musical journey, is to have the right to have control over my own life. And that seems to become a controversial concept. Like, what if I have autonomy? Then someone doesn't have the ability to control and to milk money from my skillset. And as is very common in Black lady life, you can get nudged into servitude, into being made to be thankful that you are given the opportunity to slay.

SHAPIRO: I was going to ask how much of this you feel is about being a Black woman.

YOLA: Like, loads (laughter).

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

YOLA: Like, loads because, like, what my voice does and what a lot of Black women's voices will do will be very blendable with about a gazillion genres. It's one of these things that - if you have a soul voice, for example, and you don't have the benefit of male privilege, you can find yourself - like, you're just being co-opted.

SHAPIRO: And do you now feel like you've left that behind? Do you feel like that chapter is now in your past, even though this is a very collaborative album? A lot of other people worked on it with you.

YOLA: Oh, 100%. But on this record, I got to choose who. So it's the idea of having choice, having consent. Like, all of these things are the - what autonomy is. It's not about being alone. It's about having choice. It's taken quite a long time for people to be willing to hear a woman of color of my particular hue do that. It's been - it's taken longer than it has maybe some of my paler peers.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOLA SONG, "DIAMOND STUDDED SHOES")

SHAPIRO: I love when the tune and beat almost sound like they are contradicting the message of a song. Do you know what I'm talking about?

YOLA: I do. You're talking about "Diamond Studded Shoes," right?

SHAPIRO: I'm talking about "Diamond Studded Shoes."

YOLA: Yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOLA SONG, "DIAMOND STUDDED SHOES")

SHAPIRO: It's, like, such a bop.

YOLA: Right? And the message really isn't.

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: The message really isn't.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DIAMOND STUDDED SHOES")

YOLA: (Singing) Watching and waiting for answers, hoping we might see the light. You beat it into us like a hammer, so don't you tell me it'll be all right when we know it isn't, we know it isn't, we know it isn't.

SHAPIRO: It's so subversive. Like, you're just bopping along to this song when you suddenly realize what the lyrics are saying.

YOLA: (Laughter) That was the trick. So many songs on this record you can experience on a surface level if you don't want to go deep. But sometimes you need something that's got a little bit more depth than just some, you know, super-cool, exciting booty-shaking song. But also, it's a good trick. Like, if you're the kind of person that's resistant to messaging of, could you just be nice to other people that aren't like you - or are you resistant to, like, you know what; we might not want to Frisbee every single last dime we have towards trillionaires? I don't know - seems crazy, but it sounds like they already have enough.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

YOLA: Yeah. Like, you know, you might be resistant to that kind of message.

SHAPIRO: It'll sneak in.

YOLA: If you're bopping along...

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

YOLA: ...It'll sneak it into your brain whether you like your bloody well not, mate.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DIAMOND STUDDED SHOES")

YOLA: (Singing) Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah.

SHAPIRO: Let's listen to another song that's called "Break The Bough."

YOLA: Yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BREAK THE BOUGH")

YOLA: (Singing) Silently break the bough. Fall into the deepest sleep. Dream of mangoes on the tree, sugar cane and shoeless feet.

Now, I wrote this song or started writing this song in 2013.

SHAPIRO: Oh, wow, almost a decade ago.

YOLA: Yes, almost a decade ago. My mother died, and I was distraught.

SHAPIRO: Oh, I am so sorry.

YOLA: And I was crying and riding my motorcycle, which I might add - never ride a motorcycle to a funeral. It's not safe.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) That's right.

YOLA: Like, so I'm crying and riding, and this bass line comes into my head - (imitating bass guitar). And I'm like, this is a weird bass line to have in my head now. It's a bit party for the end of a funeral. I finally pulled up outside my house, and the first verse arrived, like, at once. (Singing) Silently break the bough. Fall into the deepest sleep.

And I'm like, wow.

SHAPIRO: This is a gift from your late disco-loving mother...

YOLA: Yes.

SHAPIRO: ...Who, upon her departure, just blessed you with this.

YOLA: Yeah, that's basically - there you go. But it was, like, kind of - we also had a really tough relationship.

SHAPIRO: OK.

YOLA: But, like, I was like, well, this is probably about right then - that this song starts coming down and I'm referencing a lot of, like, her childhood in Barbados where she was born.

SHAPIRO: Oh, I wondered because there are these lines about mangoes and sugarcane. Yeah.

YOLA: Yeah. So she used to scrub mangoes. She's like - go back home from school. She'd take a route by everyone that had a mango tree in their garden, and she'd be like, I'm having that. Thank you very much. And so she was a full-on, like, robber of mangoes and at the very kind of - the most idyllic part of her life. She was - had a backpack full of mangoes and sugar cane. And she'd taken her school shoes off, and she was about to go play cricket and then eat the spoils afterwards. That was the joy moment of my mother. So in her death, I imagined she was back in this idyll. And that's kind of what it is. It's a kind of a send-off of a song, you know?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BREAK THE BOUGH")

YOLA: (Singing) See with eyes unclouded. Feel with arms unbound. You're free to fly. You're free, my love, my heart. You're free, oh.

SHAPIRO: Well, Yola, it's been so wonderful talking with you, and I love this music. Thank you for the conversation.

YOLA: Oh, thank you so much for having me. It's been an utter joy.

SHAPIRO: Her new album is "Stand For Myself."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BREAK THE BOUGH")

YOLA: (Singing) Now, I don't know what I've lost, and I don't know what I miss. I've lived without your love for so long. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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