Yola Walked Through Fire to Stand for Herself
The Grammy-nominated artist goes on a journey of self exploration for her second album
There’s a staggering sentence in the bio that accompanied the sample of singer-songwriter Yola’s sophomore album, Stand For Myself. In discussing a perspective shift since the release of her 2019 Grammy-nominated debut, Walk Through Fire, she says she was persuaded from being her true self, sharing, “There was a little hiatus where I got brainwashed out of my own majesty, but a bitch is back.”
With her bright voice, ear-to-ear smile, and face framed with big violet hair, it’s hard to imagine the 38-year-old British songstress as anything other than self-assured, even as she describes what it took for her to get to that place.
“A big part of the brainwashing was just white supremacy. We all get the same brainwashing. So if you’re a white person, you’re totally valid in every space, regardless of whether you are or not,” she shares over a video call. “But if you’re a person of color, you can feel as though you’re just wrong — that your hair is wrong, your nose is wrong, your life experience is wrong — that everything you saw, you imagined. When someone said something that made you feel subhuman, you were being over-sensitive and they didn’t have any cognitive bias whatsoever because no one does. Because no one’s racist. No one’s ever claimed to be racist in their lives. So it can’t be real.”
As a Black artist whose sound doesn’t fit neatly into genre boxes — landing in a no man’s land between country, roots, rock and pop — bias, bigotry, and inequality are experiences Yola understands all too well. It’s something she challenges throughout the album with tracks like the title track “Stand For Myself” which celebrates free-thinking, and “Be My Friend” where she’s joined fellow singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile, as they commiserate on the importance of allyship on the song (Carlile, who was asked to add harmony to the song, shared with Rolling Stone that attempting to match Yola’s vocal prowess took her “all damn day” landing her with “a headache and a sore throat.”) But it’s not just protest songs like the dazzling call-to-action, “Diamond Studded Shoes.” From start to finish, Stand For Myself is a hero’s odyssey, allowing listeners to ride shotgun on Yola’s path to self-realization.
“It was all different journeys on the way to feeling as though I’m self-actualizing,” she shares. “That’s what the song ‘Stand For Myself’ is. I’m finally there. I’m finally doing what I planned to do out the gate.”
One of those journeys began in 2013 on the eve of her mother’s funeral as she wrote “Break The Bough” as a means to grapple with mortality. She kept the song to herself for eight years, waiting until after the release of her first album, waiting to see if people could actually hear and see her before she was willing to show them that vulnerable part of herself. “I’m not going to give you the thing I’ve been really working on for such a long time,” she explains. “A song that’s written on the evening of my mother’s funeral — that’s going to be really hurtful to me, you know?”
The loss of her mother, a reluctant source of external support, led her to stop searching for external saviors altogether, pushing her to deepen her reliance on herself. “It definitely gave me a springboard to go, ‘I don’t know what you’ve been waiting for or who you think is going to save you, but, you might have to save yourself,’” she shares before joking, “Even if society thinks you’re a superhero because you’re a Black lady and all Black ladies are superheroes.”
When I bring up the absurdly false notion that all Black women are resilient, powerful and strong, Yola laughs as she finishes my sentence: “Yeah, and consequently neglected and all the other horrible things you don’t want ever.”
She highlights that fraught existence in her song, “Barely Alive.” “You’re looking through the lens of a Black woman,” she explains before singing the lyrics: “I’ve been there and I know how it is. I’ve been living it alone for all these years. Isolated, we hold in our fears, and we try to get by and we strive, but we’re barely alive.” The song, much like the experience it describes, lingers somewhere between heartbreaking and beautiful.
Much of Stand For Myself came together during lockdown. Yola, who grew up in Bristol, England, found herself isolated in her transient home of Nashville, Tennessee, sitting on her couch until 5 a.m., leaning into a dream-like state to cultivate her creativity. “I’m just trying to get out of my prefrontal cortex, desperately trying to get the heck out of my conscious brain so I have a hope in hell of building something elegant instead of muscling it,” she remembers. “I think you can feel the organic connections and the way I form lyrics when I’ve written them that way.”
In describing her second album, Yola calls it “danceable” with “really groovy songs,” something she hopes pulls listeners in before they’re aware of the record’s true purpose: to seep empathy into the collective subconscious by way of symphonic soul, distracting listeners with pop melodies and disco grooves as she programs them with the simple, yet much-underrated message, “love yourself, it’s fine!”
It’s a message Yola has spent a lifetime learning. “Every permutation of your Blackness is valid. And you’re you, and it’s glorious,” she shares while recalling her self revelation. Adding: “That took a really long time and that’s what it took to make this record.”
Though critiques of her sound may lead you to believe otherwise, Yola isn’t an outlier in a genre made by musicians that don’t look like her. That deep soulful resonance in her voice, one aligned with both roots and rock, mirrors the same auditory authenticity of the Black women whose voices were integral and fundamental in the creation of those genres. Women like Sister Rosetta Tharpe (who Yola will be portraying in Baz Luhrmann’s upcoming Elvis Presley biopic) made those spaces possible. So, she’s not starting a new trend by diversifying a space that wasn’t made for her. What’s closer to the truth, and what can be heard throughout Stand For Yourself, is that through introspection and self-actualization Yola’s returning home to who she was all along.
“You learn about yourself in a historical, familial way. You learn about yourself through the millions of mistakes you make,” she confirms. “It’s absolutely everything, but it all starts with the perception of yourself.”