With the release of her critically applauded, Dan Auerbach-produced full-length debut, 2019’s Walk Through Fire, the Bristol, UK-born, Nashville-based singer/songwriter, guitarist and JOVM mainstay Yola had a breakthrough year with a series of career-defining highlights including:
making her New York debut at Rockwood Music Hall
playing a buzz-worthy, breakout performance at that year’s SXSW
opening for a list of acclaimed artists including Kacey Musgraves, Lake Street Dive and Andrew Bird on a select series of US tour dates that featured stops at Newport Folk Festival, Hollywood Bowl, Austin City Limits Festival, and Lincoln Center Out of Doors
playing a YouTube session at YouTube Space New York
making her nationally televised debut on CBS This Morning: Saturday Sessions
receiving a Grammy nomination for Best Artist, along with fellow JOVM mainstays The Black Pumas
making her late night national television debut on Jimmy Kimmel Live!
releasing a soulful cover of Elton John‘s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,”that not only quickly became a staple of her live sets — but caught the attention of Sir Elton John, who praised her and her cover
Last year, the JOVM mainstay had hopes to build upon the momentum of the previous year with a handful of opportunities that came her way that many artists across the world would kill for: Early in the year, it was announced that she was going to play blues and rock ‘n’ roll pioneer Sister Rosetta Tharpe in Baz Luhrmann’s musical drama Elvis alongside Austin Butler in the title role, Tom Hanks as Colonel Tom Parker and Maggie Gyllenhaal as Presley’s mother. Unfortunately, much like with everyone else,the COVID-19 pandemic threw a series of monkey wrenches into her hopes and plans: Tom Hanks wound up contracting COVID-19 while filming in Australia and because of pandemic-related lockdowns and restrictions, filming was delayed. During breaks in the filming schedule, she was supposed to open for a handful of dates for country superstar Chris Stapleton and Grammy Award-winning acts The Black Keys and Brandi Carlile — with one of those shows being at Madison Square Garden, which also got postponed until later on this year. (More on that below.)
However, Yola was able to finish her first Stateside headlining tour, a tour that included a stop at Music Hall of Williamsburg, a few weeks before the world went into lockdown. In lieu of touring, the Bristol-born, Nashville-based artist wound up making virtual stops across the domestic, late night television show circuit: She played album bonus track “I Don’t Want to Lie” on The Late Late Show with James Corden — and she played a gospel-tinged cover of Nina Simone‘s classic and beloved “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” filmed at The Ryman Auditorium for Late Night with Seth Meyers.
The Bristol-born, Nashville-based JOVM mainstay used the unexpected gift of time and space to ground herself physically and mentally as she began to write the material that would eventually become her highly-anticipated sophomore album Stand For Myself. Some of the album’s material was written several years previously and inspired by deeply personal moments, like her mother’s funeral. Other songs were written during pandemic isolation, and as a result they reflect on her personal and collective moments of longing and awakening — inspired and informed by Black Lives Matter and other movements.
Tracks were also cowritten with Ruby Amanfu, John Bettis, Pat McLaughlin, Natalie Hemby, Joy Oladokun, Paul Overstreet, Liz Rose, Aaron Lee Tasjan, Hannah Vasanth and Bobby Wood. But importantly, the album’s material will most likely make a connection with anyone who has experienced feeling as though they were an “other” while urging the listener to challenge the biases and assumptions that fuel bigotry, inequality and tokenism — all of which have impacted her personal life and career.
“It’s a collection of stories of allyship, black feminine strength through vulnerability, and loving connection from the sexual to the social. All celebrating a change in thinking and paradigm shift at their core.” Yola says in press note, adding, “It is an album not blindly positive and it does not simply plead for everyone to come together. It instead explores ways that we need to stand for ourselves throughout our lives, what limits our connection as humans and declares that real change will come when we challenge our thinking and acknowledge our true complexity.” Ultimately, the JOVM mainstay’s hope is that the album will encourage both empathy and self actualization, all while returning to where she started, to the real Yola. “I kind of got talked out of being me, and now I’m here. This is who I’ve always been in music and in life. There was a little hiatus where I got brainwashed out of my own majesty, but a bitch is back.”
Continuing her ongoing collaboration with acclaimed producer, singer/songwriter, musician and label head Dan Auerbach, the album which was recorded late last year at Easy Eye Sound is inspired by the seminal albums she initially discovered through her mother’s record collection, as well as the eclectic mixtapes she created while listening to British radio that featured neo soul, R&B, Brit Pop and others. Featuring a backing band that includes Nick Movshon (bass), best known for his work with Amy Winehouse and Bruno Mars alongside Aaron Frazier (drums), a rising solo artist in his own right, the album is sonically is a noticeable shift from her debut, with the album’s aesthetic meshing symphonic soul and classic pop while occasionally hinting at the country soul of her critically applauded debut.
Earlier this year, I wrote about Stand For Myself’s first single, “Diamond Studded Shoes,” a woozy yet seamless synthesis of densely layered Phil Spector-like Wall of Sound pop, country, 70s singer/songwriter pop and late 60s/early 70s Motown soul centered around the JOVM mainstay’s powerhouse vocals and some of the most incisive sociopolitical commentary of her growing catalog. “This song explores the false divides created to distract us from those few who are in charge of the majority of the world’s wealth and use the ‘divide and conquer’ tactic to keep it,” Yola explained in press notes. “This song calls on us to unite and turn our focus to those with a stranglehold on humanity.”
Interestingly, Stand For Myself’s second and latest single is the album title track “Stand For Myself.” Centered around a rousing, shout-along worthy hook, Yola’s powerhouse vocals and a clean, pop-leaning take on the Nashville sound, the song was cowritten by Yola, Dan Auerbach and Hannah Vasanth — and features The McCrary Sisters contributing backing vocals. The track manages to be a bold and proudly feminist anthem written from the perspective of a survivor, who wants to thrive and be wholly herself — at all costs. And yet much like its immediate predecessor, there’s incisive social commentary underpinning the whole affair: Essentially, the track reflects on the JOVM mainstays’ belief in the possibility of paradigm shift beyond the mental programming that creates both tokenism and bigotry. “The song’s protagonist ‘token,’ has been shrinking themselves to fit into the narrative of another’s making, but it becomes clear that shrinking is pointless,” Yola explains. She adds “This song is about a celebration of being awake from the nightmare supremacist paradigm. Truly alive, awake and eyes finally wide open and trained on your path to self actualisation. You are thinking freely and working on undoing the mental programming that has made you live in fear. It is about standing for ourselves throughout our lives and real change coming when we challenge our thinking. This is who I’ve always been in music and in life.”
Directed by Allister Ann, the recently released video visually is indebted to Missy Elliott’s classic videos of the ’90s and ’00s but with strobe lights and a motorcycle to symbolize, the JOVM mainstay’s escape — and freedom — from those forces that have been oppressing her. And most importantly, depicting a much more nuanced definition of Black female strength — a strength thats balanced with vulnerability. r”My school years were during the 90s and 00s, and Missy Elliott’s videos were always aesthetically superior to me,” Yola says of the video. “I feel that the video is set in the antechamber to freedom. The feeling of escaping something truly oppressive and heading towards an unknown with a sense of hope and choice you haven’t felt in a long time. We all have the capacity to go through this process in our own minds, I kinda look like a superhero at times, but I’m not. I’m just a person trying to be free.”