Back in 2020, the Bristol, UK-born, Nashville-based, multi-Grammy nominated singer/songwriter, guitarist and JOVM mainstay Yola had hopes of building upon the momentum of 2019’s breakthrough debut Walk Through Fire with a series of enviable opportunities that came her way.
Early that year, it was announced that she was casted as gospel, 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. Much like everyone else across the globe, the pandemic threw a massive monkey wrench into her planes — and her hopes: Hanks wound up contracting COVID-19 while in Australia for filming and pandemic-related lockdowns and restrictions added further delays.
During breaks in the Elvis film ing schedule, the JOVM mainstay was supposed to play a series of dates opening for Chris Stapleton and Grammy Award-winning acts The Black Keys and Brandi Carlile. All of those tour dates were either cancelled or postponed indefinitely. (Her tour with Chris Stapleton was rescheduled and took place late last year and included a stop at Madison Square Garden, which is a helluva long way from Rockwood Music Hall.)
Luckily, she was able to finish her first Stateside headlining tour, which included a stop at Music Hall of Williamsburg, about a month or so before our collective and seemingly unending nightmare. In lieu of live, in-person touring, Yola made the rounds of the domestic, late night TV show circuit: She performed Walk Through Fire bonus track “I Don’t Want to Lie” on The Late Late Show with James Corden, and a gospel-leaning 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.
Besides the virtual performances, much like the rest of us Yola wound up with a lot of time on her hands. She 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 critically applauded 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, #MeToo 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 was written to specifically connect with those who have experienced the feeling of being an “other” or a token, while simultaneously urging the listener to challenge the basis and assumptions that fuel bigotry, inequality and tokenism — all of which have had impacts on 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 notes. “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.”
Stand For Myself continues Yola’s ongoing collaboration with acclaimed producer, singer/songwriter, musician and label head Dan Auerbach. Recorded late last year at Easy Eye Sound, the album sonically is inspired by the seminal albums in her mother’s record collection and the eclectic mixtapes she recorded while listening to British radio as a teenager. Those mixtapes featured neo-soul, R&B, Brit Pop and other styles.
Featuring a backing band that included 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 a noticeable shift from her debut, with the album’s aesthetic meshing symphonic soul, disco and classic pop while occasionally hinting at the country soul of her critically applauded debut.
In the buildup to the album’s release, I wrote about three of the album’s released singles:
- “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.”
- “Stand For Myself,” a bold and proudly feminist anthem written from the perspective of a survivor, who wants to do more than just survive; she wants to thrive and be wholly herself — at all costs. While featuring a rousing, shout-along worthy hook. a clean pop-leaning take on the famous Nashville sound and a the JOVM mainstay’s powerhouse vocals, the song, much like its immediate predecessor is undermined by incisive social commentary: Essentially, the track reflects on Yola’s 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. “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.”
- “Starlight,” a sultry and lush, Quiet Storm-inspired song featuring twinkling keys, a sinuous bass line, a soaring hook, strummed guitar, shuffling rhythms paired with Yola’s vocals expressing vulnerability and longing for human connection and touch. “‘Starlight’ is a song about looking for positive physical, sexual and human connections at every level of your journey towards love,” Yola explains. She adds: “The world seems to attach a negative trope of cold heartlessness to the concept of any sexual connection that isn’t marriage, this song looks through a lens of warmth specifically when it comes to sex positivity. Understanding the necessity of every stage of connection and that it is possible for every stage of your journey in love, sex and connection to be nurturing. Temporary or transitory doesn’t have to be meaningless or miserable. In the right situations every connection can teach us something valuable about who we are, what we want and what is healthy.”
Last night, the Bristol-born, Nashville-based JOVM mainstay was on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon to perform Stand For Myself‘s fourth and latest single, the glittery, disco meets country soul ballad “Dancing Away in Tears.” While subtly hinting at Donna Summer‘s “Last Dance,” the song thematically focuses on having that sadly profound last romantic moment with a soon-to-be ex lover before you part forever. From the perspective of the song’s narrator, while the breakup is heartbreaking, they have an adult acceptance of it: while they’re glad to have met this particular lover, but they both know that the relationship has come to the end of its road — and that it’s time to say “farewell” and “good luck.”