One minute, Yola is talking about the barriers she’s encountered as a black British woman in the music business. The next minute, she’s demonstrating how she’s knocking them down. On a Zoom call from her temporary digs in Madison, Tennessee, wearing a brightly striped turtleneck that matches her effervescent mood, Yola is explaining the meaning of “Barely Alive,” on her new album, Stand for Myself. She sings a bit of its chorus a cappella: “And we try/To get by/And we strive,” she begins, before her voice, earthy but tender, soars up for the last phrase, “But we’re barely alive!”
That voice, one of the mightiest in current pop, has left a trail of open jaws in its wake. When Yola asked Brandi Carlile to add a harmony to another song on Stand for Myself, Carlile says it took her “all damn day” to rise to Yola’s level, and jokes that she wound up with “a headache and a sore throat.” Natalie Hemby once had to follow Yola at a festival: “I had to give myself a pep talk, like, ‘Natalie, you can’t sing like Yola, just sing like Natalie.’ ” Ruby Amanfu remembers walking along a beach in Mexico at a festival where Yola was appearing, and hearing her voice carried on the wind: “You hear her singing and you just start walking fast to where she’s performing.”
Reactions like that have fueled Yola’s swift rise over the past two years. Her first solo album, 2019’s Americana-soul showcase Walk Through Fire, earned four Grammy nominations. She walked away empty-handed, but at the prepandemic ceremony last year, she found herself sitting several seats away from Billie Eilish and being congratulated by John Prine. As he was working on his upcoming Elvis Presley biopic, director Baz Luhrmann watched as Yola sang some of Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s songs for the soundtrack — then decided to cast Yola in that role. (The film, delayed by the coronavirus, will be out next year.)
At 37, Yola has been prepping for this moment for most of her life, but even she’s been taken aback to see the pieces come together. “It was like, ‘Are you ready? You better be!’ ” she says, punching her palm to reinforce the point, but also laughing at the wildness of it all. “It’s like a juggernaut. You can only imagine how intense that is for someone who, for all intents and purposes, has spent all this time waiting to get the guts to be herself — and being terrified, frankly.” Along the way, she lost her voice, her band, and her self-confidence. But that’s all in the past.
As she says with a smile after she finishes that snippet of her song: “I just talked you through the first 30 years of my life in one verse.”
A conversation with Yola involves plenty of laughter, and also some soul-searching. Born Yolanda Quartey in Bristol, England, she was raised by her Barbadian mother, a registered nurse. Yola has almost no memories of her father, who was from Ghana and split when she was young. As one of the few black kids in her schools, she was bullied regularly. “I got my ass handed to me for being dark more times than I care to mention, from age five to 10,” she says. “We were isolated. We were sticking out like a sore thumb.”
She knew by her preschool days that she had a powerful voice, but her mother — who she says “displayed all of the traits, bar none, of a clinical psychopath” — didn’t approve of her pursuing music. “She wasn’t 100 percent wrong that it was risky,” Yola admits now. “I don’t think my mother thought it was a good idea for a long time, [until] when I was 23 or something.” She sang in a rock band in high school, then continued trying to sing during her college days in London. “Her story is fascinating,” says Hemby. “Can you imagine trying to silence a songbird like that?”
Yola’s talent, her years listening to everything from Elton John to Ella Fitzgerald, were what rescued her, or so it seemed at first. Starting in the early 2000s, both in London and back home in Bristol, Yola was hired to topline — blast at the top of her lungs — on numerous dance singles with collectives like Bugz in the Attic and 30Hz. The gigs helped her support herself when her student loan ran out, but she felt little control over her destiny. “I was a useful vocal in a world that was looking for dance music vocals that did the big Jocelyn Brown scream-y thing,” she says. “But nothing said, ‘We’re here for you.’ Only, ‘We’re here for you if you will serve our narrative as house diva.’ I remember bumping into some producers in London and being told no one wants to hear a black woman sing rock & roll. Everyone was telling me to stay in my lane.”
She and some guys she knew from Bristol formed a band, Phantom Limb, whose music, laced with guitars and country touches, could almost be called Brit Americana — but stress and overwork took their toll. Developing vocal-cord nodules in 2007, Yola couldn’t sing for a year and a half. She recovered enough to join Massive Attack for a 2008 U.K. tour as one of their featured singers. Phantom Limb released two indie albums, but she grew disillusioned with the band’s lack of “international presence,” money issues, and a sense that no one was listening to her. To this day, she can barely bring herself to say the band’s name. “I’m giving a lot of airtime to people who didn’t give a shit,” she adds, referring to all of her prior collaborators. “We shouldn’t.”
Former Black Crowes guitarist Marc Ford produced the band’s 2012 album, The Pines, which proved a potent showcase for Yola’s voice, but he sensed some discomfort. “I’m sure she was having a tough time,” he says, “and she may not want to revisit it. I understand having bad experiences with people and not wanting to listen to that music or revisit that part of your life.” (Former members of the band declined comment for RS or did not respond to emails.)
In the mid-2010s, she reinvented herself again, this time as Yolanda Carter — taking her revamped surname in honor of both the Carter Family and Beyoncé’s married name. Using money inherited after her mother’s death in 2013, she recruited a new team of collaborators, began steering her own career, recorded a 2016 EP of stripped-down folk country, and then appeared at the first of several Nashville AmericanaFests. “I call that ‘Doormat Yola,’ ” she says. “Once I kind of grew an adult set of boobs, I was like, ‘I’m going to do this with my strategy.’ ”
Around this time, a mutual friend passed Dan Auerbach a video of her performing. “When I saw that video of her on the front porch in East Nashville,” the Black Keys frontman says, “I was like, ‘How is this person not signed already?’ I felt that pretty instantly.”
Bringing her onto his Easy Eye Sound label, Auerbach produced Walk Through Fire, and suddenly people in Nashville were taking notice — certainly more than they had around 2010, when she and a bandmate visited the city to write with local songwriters but got nowhere. In the studio during the making of the Highwomen’s 2019 debut, Hemby told Carlile about Yola, and the two began watching YouTube videos right then and there. Carlile ended up calling Yola directly and inviting her to join the band. (While commitments precluded Yola’s full involvement, she sang on parts of the album and performed live with them at least once.)
Carlile also saw the breadth of Yola’s appeal when she played a surprise opening set for Yola last year. “I could feel this was a different thing,” says Carlile of the differences between her crowd and Yola’s. “It was hipsters and people who are enthused by British folk music and all different people. I said, ‘Fuck, this is cool.’”
For Stand for Myself, Yola brought along songs that dated as far back as 2013 — the bass line for “Break the Bough” came to her when she was riding her motorcycle back from her mother’s funeral and trying to cry and ride at the same time.
She and Auerbach were determined to switch it up musically when recording began last fall. “We talked a lot about doing things a little more uptempo, a little more driving,” Auerbach says. “She didn’t want to miss the opportunity, and neither did I.” The result is an album that reflects her musical journey, with songs that nod to various styles of R&B and dance music. “You can hear my mother’s disco collection, our shared love of Earth, Wind, and Fire and Smokey Robinson, and my love of big, expansive songs that you’d get from Aretha [Franklin] and Ella [Fitzgerald],” Yola says. She and Auerbach both point to Mary J. Blige as a standard bearer for “If I Had to Do It All Again” and “Starlight.” Yola also co-wrote songs with Hemby, Amanfu, and Nashville singer-songwriter Joy Oladokun, who remembers bonding with Yola over Phil Collins.
Yola sees the new album as a proudly autobiographical statement. “I did the track listing, and it’s part of the narrative I’m trying to tell,” she says. “We go through the various ways in which you need to stand for yourself.” That thread works its way through “Barely Alive” as well as the single “Diamond Studded Shoes,” inspired by former British Prime Minister Theresa May’s insensitive comments about social-services cuts. “It’s that whole idea of how we cannot succumb to the things that divide us or the things seen to divide us,” she says. “I can’t accept that divide-and-conquer narrative in my life as a woman of color.”
Yola’s experiences as one of the few people of color in Americana inspired “Be My Friend,” co-written with Amanfu. “We have had a lot of private conversations about not wanting to be the token,” says Amanfu. “We’re happy when we get invited into the room, but sometimes the question is, ‘Are we invited to fill a quota or to be part of the story and the family?’ More often than not, we’re just a sprinkling in that room. It’s one thing to get an invite, and another to have your own key.”
Yola invited Carlile to participate on that song, too: “We both have an issue of being others in spaces,” Yola says. “We’ve had to work through that.” (Carlile heard the lyrics as “an acknowledgment of our friendship, which was really meaningful to me.”) As Auerbach observes about the messages in Yola’s new songs, “She has this platform now and she’s not afraid to use it. She wants to be a voice for her cause. And she’s not shy about what she believes in.”
Later in the conversation, Yola brings up another verse, this time from the title song of Stand for Myself. “You wanna feel nothing/Just like I was/A coward in the shadows,” she recites. “That whole approach is: Don’t do what I did!” she says heartily. “Don’t take all that time! I didn’t start living until I was thirty. That’s what I’m asking people to do: Please, live!”