A few years ago, the British-born singer-songwriter Yola was watching her country’s then–prime minister, Theresa May, announce service cutbacks while wearing some of her trademark swanky footwear. “She was talking about austerity and that they didn’t have enough money to feed starving children, so they were going to make cuts from all the services essential to keeping people alive and well and healthy and fed and sheltered,” Yola recalls. “And she did that all while wearing diamonds on the heels of her shoes. It’s people who hold the purses dictating to people who are already scrimping and saving whilst they, you know, try to steal our money.”
May is gone, replaced by Boris Johnson, but that memory — and the feelings stirred up by it — live on in “Diamond Studded Shoes,” a newly unveiled preview of Yola’s upcoming album, Stand for Myself, due July 30th. As with its predecessor, 2019’s Walk Through Fire, the album was produced by Dan Auerbach for his Easy Eye Sound label. But “Diamond Studded Shoes” marks yet another musical twist in Yola’s saga. An ebullient mix of hard truths and vintage soul, it marks her first collaboration with songwriter Natalie Hemby (known for hits like Little Big Town’s “Pontoon” and Miranda Lambert’s “White Liar,” and her role in the supergroup the Highwomen) and singer, songwriter, and guitarist Aaron Lee Tasjan.
In the early days of the song’s creation, Yola found herself far from home. In the U.K., she had made a name for herself singing with Massive Attack and working with the band Phantom Limb. But she only truly came into her own, as an Americana-leaning artist, with her 2016 EP Orphan Offering, continuing with Walk Through Fire.
In 2017, before she’d even met Auerbach, she was in the midst of “one of my visits to Nashville where I kept on convincing people that I lived here, although I didn’t,” she recalls with a laugh. Yola was hanging out with Tasjan, whom she describes as “my brother from another mother.” One night, she recalls, “We’d been drinking. We were talking about life. You know how it is over a bottle of wine: ‘Oh, God. This is happening in the U.K. It’s a frickin’ hot mess. What’s it like over here?’ ‘It’s also a hot mess.’”
At some point Tasjan began playing a buoyant riff on his guitar, and Yola started singing along, riffing on her feelings about May’s speech: “Everybody’s saying/That it’s gonna be all right/But I can’t help but wonder/If it’s gonna be on my dime.” As she recalls, “The lyrics started just coming down like a torrent. The first verse is unchanged.”
Yola didn’t include the song on Walk Through Fire, but when the time came to work up new material for its follow-up, she returned to the nascent tune. The second verse needed, she says, “some real tweaking,” and she wasn’t convinced the chorus was any good. So she turned to Hemby, who had reached out to Yola after the release of Walk Through Fire and also introduced her to Brandi Carlile (resulting in Yola guest-starring on their Highwomen album). “In the second verse, I was trying to make a point but couldn’t quite get there,” Yola says. “The line I already had was, ‘When the man comes for our paychecks/Don’t you tell me it’ll be all right.’ And I said, ‘Well, what do we say after that?’ And Natalie said, ‘We aren’t the rich ones/Some of us’ll barely get by.’ She brought all these good ideas to the table. She was like the Swiss Army knife of songwriting.”
When it came to the music, Yola also had a vision in mind. She locked into Tasjan’s “groovy-feel style of playing,” since she didn’t want her own protest song to sound dour. “I wanted it to feel like a bunch of people who were just marching down the street very victoriously,” she says, “and felt like a successful demonstration in its energy — a good energy, a high energy, upbeat, like we’re really unified and really believing in what we’re doing. And when I heard that riff, I was like, ‘That’s what it feels like to me.’ So it’s that whole idea of how we can not succumb to the things that divide us or the things seen to divide us.”
Along with the accompanying album, “Diamond Studded Shoes” was recorded last fall at Auerbach’s Easy Eye Sound studio in Nashville. The process, she says, involved regular Covid testing, masks, social distancing, ventilation, and “fans blowing air out of one door and out the other.” The band included Auerbach on electric guitar (he also received a co-writing credit as well for his suggestions) and legendary Nashville keyboards Bobby Wood on electric piano.
Yola says “Diamond Studded Shoes” is also indicative of the overall feel of Stand for Myself. “Awful dance-y kind of stuff,” she says. “That was something that was really important for me to achieve. The first record was more of a collaboration. This record is more of my baby.”