”Hiiiiiiiiiiii, it’s me!” cackles Yola, her boisterous greeting practically exploding through the phone when I reach her at her home in Nashville earlier this summer. “Now, how are you?” (Not bad, thanks for asking!) Chatting with Yola feels like catching up with an old friend, even if we’ve just met. She has a disarmingly positive demeanor, a bawdy sense of humor, and an infectious laugh that slices through cynicism like a chef speed-chopping onions. That personality—along with a gorgeous and booming singing voice—endeared her to fans and critics upon the release of her 2019 debut, Walk through Fire, which garnered the U.K.-born singer four Grammy nominations and helped her become the toast of her adopted hometown of Nashville, opening for Kacey Musgraves and Sheryl Crow. The day after our conversation, Yola, who turns thirty-eight this summer, is moving to a new house in Music City, leaving two roommates for a place of her own. “I need a nest for myself,” she coos.
Finding her own groove is a thread that runs through Yola’s life. After years of singing with bands in her native city of Bristol, England—where she had to hide her musical endeavors from a disapproving mother—she caught the eye of Nashville producer and Black Keys front man Dan Auerbach, who had seen a video of her performing at the 2016 Americana Music Festival. The two barely knew each other when they started recording Walk through Fire. “It was very much a get-to-know-you record,” she says. “I didn’t know how everything works—the industry, the songwriting process. It was all new.” In March 2020 she began a tour with Chris Stapleton. They played one date and then watched the world shut down. So like countless other artists, all she had on her hands was time.
She began tinkering with lyrics and melodies she had written or sung into her iPhone over the past several years, and working again with Auerbach, and with a little help from songwriting friends such as Natalie Hemby and Aaron Lee Tasjan, eventually recorded Stand for Myself, a jaw-dropping collection of songs from an artist who has reached a new peak of creative confidence. Yola has always been genre fluid, mixing soul and country on Walk through Fire, but Stand for Myself is like going from beautiful but muted tones to getting swallowed up in a rainbow. She has traded much of the twang on her debut for full immersion in breezy pop (the Bee Gees–esque “Starlight”), 1950s doo-wop (the luxurious “Great Divide”), smoldering R&B (“Like a Photograph”), and dusty California-inspired rock (“Be My Friend”). It’s an extraordinary leap for an artist whose sound was already singular from the start.
Yola says she has always been writing the songs on Stand for Myself; she just didn’t know it. The riff on “Break the Bough,” for example, came to her as she was riding on a motorcycle after leaving her mother’s funeral in 2013. “I was rounding onto my street, and this bass line came to me in my head,” she recalls. “It was kind of a party bass line, kind of this dah-do-do-do-do. Then the lyrics started coming, and I realized everyone wants a party song for their funeral, but no one ever writes one.” The isolation of the pandemic allowed her to flex her lyrical chops, resulting in songs that are more intimate and topical. “Diamond Studded Shoes” is a toe-tapping juggernaut that also speaks to inequality and the experiences of being a Black woman in a time of racial reckoning. And throughout, she’s driven by fostering empathy in listeners. “I call it the spoonful of sugar technique,” she says. “For people to see your humanity, you can’t yell at them.”
“She can pull her stories out and make them relatable to just about anybody,” says Tasjan, a close friend. “I think she’s a once-in-a-generation type of artist.”
Later this year, Yola will rejoin the Stapleton tour, and in 2022, she’ll headline her own show at the Ryman Auditorium (“You must come!”) as well as appear in a Baz Luhrmann–directed biopic of Elvis Presley, in which she plays rock-and-roll pioneer Sister Rosetta Tharpe (she says she spent more than a year practicing how to play the guitar like Tharpe). And after years of being unsettled, she seems to have found her calling in Nashville. She’s motivated by what she calls the South’s “hell yeah” culture, which to her means that anything can be achieved when people come together. “You Americans are so amazing at it,” she says. “No matter how insurmountable something is, it gets done. It gives me life, it gives me hope, and it gives me joy, and that’s why I moved here!”