CMT INTERVIEW: Yola On Creative Freedom, Modern Country's 70s Roots, And "Standing For Herself"

"I'm rolling out songs that finally reflect my confidence...and where I can genuinely be myself," says the Grammy-nominated singer

When Grammy and Americana Music Award-nominated artist Yola is asked to summarize the most potent notion surrounding the connective power of her July-released second studio album Stand For Myself, her artistic reality as a rare performer able to breathe soul-filled life into a diverse set of musical spaces that include country, folk, and Americana becomes apparent. "I don't have enough time in my life to be that deep into that many genres," she says. But I still write the way I do because even if I'm not in too many genres deeply, I'm still active in many of them," says the performer who often counts singing with countrified supergroup The Highwomen in her booked and busy schedule. Then, she offers a peek -- as often occurs in this conversation with CMT -- into the magic that allows her art to resonate with so many people, so proudly. As she continues, her next point perhaps offers a sense of why her music -- though profound -- does not, can not, and now, with her latest genre-fluid album, will never wholly couch itself in one specific home. "Ultimately, my creative lens allows me to find how these genres link together to create connections between myself and others." In this conversation, do expect that your expectations of country music's inspirations, country music's progression, and how creators access their best selves as artists will be both challenged and expanded.

Marcus K. Dowling, CMT: Stand For Myself could be the only album in musical history that fans of Americana and country music will adore that also contains disco, Northern Soul stompers, British glam rock, soul, and pop elements. How, exactly does this happen, and what about it is unique to how you hear and experience music?

Yola: Musically, as an African/Bajan Brit, my exposure to music -- because of the genre-free nature of radio in the UK -- was always a broad church. So, for instance, in the 90s, on UK radio, you could have an R & B group like Brownstone followed by an alt-pop artist like Beck, followed by rappers A Tribe Called Quest, followed by a female alt-pop artist like Bjork, followed by Soundgarden's grunge, and then Shania Twain's country. [Significantly], the DJs and programmers never created any "through route" to help a listener understand why these songs were being played in that manner. So what I -- and other -- listeners had to create our paths to understanding that, instead. Mix that in with our lack of direct proximity to America for any help on understanding the context of these songs, and [something fascinating] happens as far as how my career develops. The depth and story that defines exactly who I am as an artist happens because of where I was born and how I [uniquely] understood the music I was hearing.

CMT: So, I have to ask about "Dancing Away In Tears." It's this song where people listening to the album and expecting one thing hear it, and it's a jolt. Then, it comes off like this George McCrae [1974 disco hit] "Rock Your Baby" type thing, mixed with the most bittersweet of ballads. It's heavy, and I think it accomplishes it for the album as far as a tone-setter. How did it come together, and how would you contextualize it for a less disco-aware ear?

Yola: Funnily enough, I was raised on disco. So yes like, George McCrae, but my mother and I were obsessed with early Barry White. So, in general, there's an "early 70s" musical philosophy that guides a lot of how I made this album. Interestingly enough, it's one of the only times in musical history where you could say that disco and country sounded roughly the same. Or there were funk/rock/country songs like "Rock and Roll Doctor" by Little Feat that I was listening to, as well. The musical conversation between genres back then -- gospel or soul and country, too, -- created a situation that who was singing the song mattered more than the chords because everyone was playing the same chords! Though the people in America were segregated, the music certainly wasn't. Ultimately, people love music more than anything else, and though you may try to separate people from each other, you can't separate people from music.

CMT: Same thing with "Starlight," which to me has all of the earmarkings of the O'Jays' funk hit "Backstabbers," which wouldn't make this even a record from 2021 or 2001, but the hottest soul album of 1975 (laughs). But I feel like you're trying to do something much more intentional and challenging for listeners here. Is that the case?

Yola: Ok, you've TOTALLY got me. I'm obsessed with The O'Jays' "Backstabbers." The key to this album is that my inspirations are all mating with each other. And the most challenging thing about doing that is to have influences as well-known as mine appear present but not completely obvious. More than anything, I wanted the spirit that songs like "Backstabbers" conjure moreso than those songs themselves. I know that's worked when what my influences bumping into each other created to give people completely different themes and styles that maybe I don't hear often, but for them to be there, well, they have or are probably speaking to me subconsciously, too.

CMT: So I want to ask you about the intersection of being empowered, and Black empowerment, which I feel are twin and dominant themes on the recording, in general. Is this the case, and how dynamic was that impact for you?

Yola: I've never had the opportunity to make an empowered, personal, and tender album. My other album, Walk Through Fire, was about surviving a house fire in many ways, so it was personal but not empowered or really tender, honestly. Also, on [Stand For Myself], the songs finally came from me, first. On my other album, my co-writers were white American men. So given that Black women deserve to be heard in greater numbers in every genre -- we're probably the demographic of music's saviors [of sorts] -- to emotionally be in a creative space where I was able to choose co-writers who are Black women like Joy Oladokun and others, was vital for me. However, I soon realized that as much as Black women are likely saviors of many things, the monolithic idea of what it means to be a "strong black woman" is a falsehood. "Strong black womanhood" is a coping mechanism with the state of the world than something aspirational. Yes, we make survival look good, but it certainly doesn't feel good.

CMT: So, correct me if I'm wrong, but I feel like your producer, Dan Auerbach -- who is great -- takes a backseat to your voice, vision, and desires on the album. How does that choice impact the final product from a creative standpoint and appease your level of comfort -- as opposed to chasing the marketplace's desires -- with the final product, and how do your fans connect with it?

Yola: Yes, you're 100 percent right! Dan and I have now reached a point where he knows me better than he ever has now. And now I'm rolling out songs on this record that finally reflect my confidence in our relationship where I can genuinely be myself. "Break The Bough" is a song I've been sitting on since 2013. I wrote "Diamond Studded Shoes" in 2017. The album's title track, "Stand For Myself," plus "Whatever You Want," came from 2018. "Break The Bough" is about my mother's death, though, so I couldn't reveal that song to Dan -- or anyone -- without trusting them first. Overall, I was at a place in my career and in my professional relationships where I had to be the one in control in order to dig into myself to make this kind of album. There's no other way to do it. Art and intention met necessity at the release of these songs on this album. For example, with "Break The Bough," you don't get to just [potentially mistreat] me discussing the death of my mother. It's serious business. Me being in charge is not just a good idea. This album doesn't get made unless I'm met where I am and where I want to take my art is respected.

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