With her new album "Stand For Myself," British-raised Nashville artist Yola crisscrosses classic pop with a rock 'n' roll spirit, country twang and undeniable disco grooves.
She graduates from the self-described "queen of country-soul" to sonic shapeshifter, steering a time-traveling jukebox that delivers what standout songwriters do best – deeply personal stories with a universal hold.
Ask Yola and she'll tell you that was the plan all along.
"A big part of the process was having a strategy on the long arc of my career at all, and being really purposeful with everything that I'm doing " said Yola, a 38-year-old native of Portishead, England, born Yolanda Quartey. "So that when I get to doing these songs that I've been waiting on, I'm emotionally ready to speak on it.
"There are some songs that I couldn't have written, even if I wanted to, on the first record," she added. "I didn't know how to find them."
Last week, Yola released "Stand For Myself," a 12-song sophomore album detailing her experience as a Black woman – from struggles with tokenism to stories of allyship, finespun romance, and finding creative freedom.
She released the album via Nashville label Easy Eye Sound.
"I wanted the story of Black femininity to be nuanced," Yola said. "We don't get nuanced stories. When a Black woman (is) in television and film and even ads ... any media we absorb is part of a narrative."
She added: "We get so fewer incarnations of the dark-skinned Black woman who's just had a nice time. Or had a normal time – had some trial and tribulations – but they're entirely normal."
'A massive learning curve of how Nashville is different'
"Stand For Myself" makes Yola's 2019 debut album "Walk Through Fire" sound like an opening act to the headlining performance waiting to come. And that's no easy task.
"Walk Through Fire" earned widespread acclaim for channeling soulful, sharp country music. Behind the album, Yola caught praise from Elton John, earned ovations at Nashville's famed Ryman Auditorium and shared a stage with Dolly Parton. The album's blazing journey culminated in four nominations at the 2020 Grammy Awards, including one for all-genre Best New Artist.
But Yola said she made "Walk Through Fire" – recorded in Nashville at Easy Eye Sound with producer-Black Keys frontman Dan Auerbach – before gaining her sea legs in Music City, so to speak. New to town with few musician or songwriting colleagues to call on, she often met collaborators moments before they sat down to work.
Listen to the single: Yola confirms new album 'Stand For Myself' out this summer
All-star collaboration: Yola sings for the 'next generation of young Black girls' on new song 'Hold On'
"It's very easy to underestimate that, 'Did you know anyone? No,'" Yola said. "The first session was the first time I met Dan (Auerbach). It was unreal, weird and like a massive learning curve of how Nashville is different from the rest of America in that way that it works. I learned all of this on the job, if you will."
Now – two decades into a career that took her from homeless in London to touring with Chris Stapleton – "Stand For Myself" finds Yola firmly in the driver's seat. Her studio band included Auerbach on guitar, go-to Nashville keys player Bobby Wood, funk bassist Nick Movshon, Brooklyn artist Aaron Frazer on drums and more.
Brandi Carlile ("Be A Friend") and the McCrary Sisters ("Whatever You Want") sing background vocals; her co-writers include a who's who of burgeoning cross-genre Nashville talent, from major label upstart Joy Oladokun to eastside staple Aaron Lee Tasjan, pop songwriter Ruby Amanfu and country hitmaker Natalie Hemby, among others.
"This is the first time we've had an opportunity to make a record with me actually knowing how anything works in this country," Yola said.
The song leads
Yola and company cut the backbone of "Stand For Myself" in about a week, she said. Tracks move between rock 'n' roll ambition ("Break The Bough"), dark-pop excellence ("If I Had To Do It All Again") and dance-ready disco ("Dancing Away In Tears")
As for how each song finds a sonic home? She lets each decide for itself.
"It's like they were kids that were born and they were telling you which school they wanted to go to," Yola said. "Everyone got the message ... because the song led. That was part of the magic."
Some songs came together during quarantine sessions last year, others sat with Yola for years.
Music festivals are back: Here's your guide to the biggest within Nashville driving distance
Nashville music community: An oral history of how the music community rallied after last year's tornado
She began "Diamond Studded Shoes" – an upbeat protest song where she reminds listeners "it ain't gonna turn out right ... that's why we gots to fight" – in 2017 with help from Tasjan and a bottle of wine.
"There we are," she said. "It's 2017, we're having some kind of Brexit nightmare, you guys have just got 45 (former President Donald Trump) in. It's a harrowing time. So we're talking about how screwed up everything is."
The album weaves a story that begins with Yola's self-described "minimizing myself" through her experience with tokenism – "Barely Alive," co-written by Oladokun and Auerbach – and ends with "Stand For Myself," a booming crescendo of self-deceleration.
She sings, "Now I'm alive, it's hard to explain/ It took this much time, and took this much pain/ You can get here if you're willing/ Let go of yourself for a new beginning."
"'Stand For Myself' is: Do it now. Not yesterday, now," Yola said. "You might not have been ready yesterday. Not tomorrow – tomorrow might be too late. Right now."
Yola takes her new songs to arena stages this fall, where she opens for Stapleton on his rescheduled All-American Roadshow tour. Singing "Stand For Myself" live? It feels like kicking a door down, she said. Literally.
"There was a meme on Instagram, it was a quote: 'When Shania Twain says 'Let's go girls,' I feel like kicking a ... door down,'" she said, laughing. "It made me laugh because it felt ridiculous but it made me laugh because you don't often feel that empowered in our everyday life, but I actually, honestly feel like kicking a ... door down. Maybe even more than when Shania says 'Let's go girls.'"
This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Yola's 'Stand For Myself,' one of 2021's essential Nashville albums