'This record’s mission was to mess with the formula': Yola on Grammy-nominated second album
When soulful singer-songwriter Yola began gaining widespread attention three years ago, it seemed like one of those years-in-the-making “overnight success” stories.
Born Yolanda Quartey in 1983 in Bristol, England, she first drew attention with the band Phantom Limb, then as a singer for hire with trip-hop collective Massive Attack and other British acts. When the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach signed her to his Easy Eye Sound record label and released her album “Walk Through Fire” in 2019, she was off to the races, racking up four Grammy nominations including best new artist.
Still, she knew some things needed to change. “Stand for Myself,” released last summer, extends her working relationship with Auerbach, who returned as a songwriting collaborator and producer. But this time, she brought in several new songwriting collaborators who could speak more to the issues Yola wanted to address.
“The title kind of gives you a bit of a hint,” she says of “Stand for Myself.” While she appreciated the classic studio/production/house-band arrangement Auerbach has assembled in the vein of classic 20th-century labels such as Stax and Sun, she wanted to put more of herself into her second album.
“When you get involved in that machine, all those resources become things you have access to,” says Yola, who’ll perform Sunday in Austin at Stubb’s (7 p.m. doors, $30-$35). Some musicians returned, including guitarist Russ Pahl and pianist Bobby Wood, but drummer Aaron Frazer and bassist Nick Movshon were new to the proceedings.
“We built this record around the rhythm section, and I think you can feel that energy,” she says. “I feel like this record’s mission was to mess with the formula.”
Perhaps more vital was a broader scope of songwriting partners. The half-dozen men who helped write her first record’s material gave way this time to a cast that includes five women — including acclaimed Black singer-songwriter Joy Oladokun, who helped write the album-opening cut “Barely Alive.”
“The song’s about being an isolated ethnic minority and a woman. The lines are, ‘Now that you’ve survived, how are you going to start living?’ Now that you've assimilated and you've homogenized and you've minimized yourself, how's that working out for you? Is that the most anyone expects of you? Or is that in fact the least? Do they take that for granted, and then expect you to do myriad things on top of that already gargantuan denial of self?”
‘I step in when she needs me’
Auerbach remains credited as a co-writer on all 12 of the album’s tracks, but he found ways to contribute that left the material’s overarching themes in Yola’s hands. “He’s said before, in an interview, ‘I step in when she needs me, and I step away when she doesn’t,’” Yola says. “And I think that was something we learned about each other after we made the first record. Because we didn't have a map until we made the first record.
“By the time we get to the second record, so much had happened that we could modify how we interacted,” she continues. “That really changed how the record sounds, because we were able to dovetail our skills more accurately. And I think as a result of me being able to bring in more women, and more women of color, I was able to speak on things that there's no way I could have spoken on the first record.
“Dan obviously has a really great aesthetic, and his vision really helps. … But I needed this full spectrum of humanity to be able to realize this record, because I was talking about things that affected me in a way that there was no one on the first record who could remotely identify.”
A key addition on “Stand for Myself” is Nashville singer-songwriter Natalie Hemby, who won a Grammy in 2020 for a song written with Lady Gaga for the film “A Star Is Born.” The following year, she won another songwriting Grammy for a tune she recorded with the Highwomen, the country supergroup in which she performs alongside Brandi Carlile, Amanda Shires and Maren Morris.
Hemby’s Midas touch paid off for Yola as well. Their co-write “Diamond Studded Shoes” is nominated for best American roots song at this year’s Grammys, as is “Stand for Myself” in the best Americana album category.
“She's kind of a common denominator of goodness. Every time I felt like I needed something else, we were going, ‘We’re calling Hemby, right?’” Yola says with a laugh. “She writes in so many different ways. She's like a Swiss Army knife of songwriting.”
The role of a lifetime
Sunday’s show at Stubb’s is part of an extensive spring tour that concludes May 1 at the Stagecoach Festival in California. It includes a stop in Las Vegas on April 3 to attend the Grammy Awards. She’ll be back on the road this fall after a few scattered summer dates — but the real action for Yola this summer will be on the silver screen.
June 24 is the release date for “Elvis,” Australian filmmaker Baz Luhrmann’s biopic about Elvis Presley starring Austin Butler in the title role and Tom Hanks as Col. Tom Parker, Presley’s manager. A handful of musicians also appear in the film, including Austin’s Gary Clark Jr. as Delta blues master Arthur Crudup.
Yola scored a small but significant role as pioneering gospel singer and guitarist Sister Rosetta Tharpe, renowned for her influence on the early rock & roll era.
“It’s very much going to redress the prism through which we see him,” Yola says. “Which is, yes, the king of rock & roll, and all the kind of glory that comes with that — but very much in the background of segregated America, and the idea of how the environment is what gives birth to what we're aware of.
“The thing that is exciting about this movie is that you're seeing the origin of these things. It’s not being glazed over. And a really important part of the narrative is the heritage. Like, who invented this whole thing called rock & roll? Sister Rosetta Tharpe. How do we define this rock & roll aesthetic? How do we even define it? You know, distorted guitar, the shredding, the bending of the strings — who was the first person to do that? Sister Rosetta Tharpe. She was the elder. And then she discovered all these people. We don't get Little Richard unless she discovers him.”
Prime time in the Live Music Capital
Since an attention-getting set at Willie Nelson’s Luck Reunion during South by Southwest in 2019, Austin has become an important market for Yola. She returned later that year to play the Austin City Limits Music Festival, and in early 2020 she did a taping of the “Austin City Limits” TV show that earned a full-hour episode.
A scheduled appearance at the Erwin Center opening for Chris Stapleton in March 2020 ended up getting postponed because of the pandemic, but she finally played the gig last fall. In the meantime, she also was part of the Outlaw Music Festival lineup last August at the Germania Insurance Amphitheater, joining a bill that included Nelson, Stapleton and Ryan Bingham.
She has fond memories of the Outlaw Fest show, especially when she and Stapleton joined Nelson and his band onstage for the traditional “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”/“I’ll Fly Away” finale.
“It was glorious. The Nelson family are just utterly glorious angel babies of the highest order, and wonderful company,” she says. “Everyone connects and talks, and it's just a wonderfully flowing experience.
“I was very honored to be invited on stage with Willie, next to Chris. We’d never sang that close to each other before. We both had a bit of a moment of just like, ‘Go on man, do the thing!’” she says, laughing at the memory of her interaction with Stapleton.
And then she waxes rhapsodic about watching Nelson perform. “When you him see him singing ‘You Were Always on My Mind,’ you know you've landed,” she says. “That’s not bullshit; that’s not part-time. That’s, ‘I know how to deliver this in a way that's going to make your heart bleed.'
“That's what drew me to America, across all the genres that I play in. That's the common denominator with the Willies and the Krises and the Tinas and the Arethas and the Minnie Ripertons of the world. Everything that I hold dear from this fair continent is that ability to make the heart bleed.”
[This story was updated to correct the title of Yola's first album.]