Yola is getting candid.
Hot on the promotional trail for her new album ‘Stand For Myself,’ the GRAMMY nominee talked with That Grape Juice about the project, working with Brandi Carlile, her role in the upcoming Elvis Presley biopic, and more.
Join us below for her words on these topics and so much more…
That Grape Juice (Ryan): You have an incredible story. For those who are just discovering your magic, tell us a little about your journey to this point?
Yola: Essentially, it feels like my journey started with me trying to get back to my four-year-old self, who told my mother that I was going to sing and write songs. I did invariably end up just being an artist and doing my own thing. But for some reason, I was convinced that I wasn’t going to be satisfied until I tested every other possible permutation before that. And that’s exactly what happened. I, essentially, spent time in other acts as a front woman for hire, often misinterpreted as backing vocals. And then realized that all of those things were only like contributions to the grand tapestry of what I was trying to paint for myself. My mother passed, she left me a little something. I was able to use that to buy myself some time to like get in on the writing scene, a little bit in London, co-wrote some songs that did well in the UK and the States, and that bought me some opportunity to be more my own rich daddy and I then funded my career.
I bought myself the time to conceive of these ideas, to entrench some skill sets that had met that I didn’t have to be codependent in my writing if I didn’t want to be.
I was swiftly signed to the label. And yes, to make a couple albums, first of which was ‘Walk Through Fire,’ and now out with this one, ‘Stand For Myself,’ in which the reins have been thrown very firmly in my direction, so that I could do the most me thing possible. And so, every angle of this record from the artwork to the songs, and the narrative is imbued with my life story.
That Grape Juice: Your mother is Barbadian and you were born in England, yet you have influences from country, soul, and pop. Can you tell me how your heritage influences your music and what inspired you to blend multiple genres together?
Yola: So, my late mother was born in Saint Michael, Barbados. And she came to the UK on the Windrush. And she was a registered nurse, and she DJed, a lot of disco, over the hospital radio, when she wasn’t delivering meds. And so, she always had this record collection, and her musical experience living in the UK was an access to a whole load of different kinds of music.
She was big into Queen, into Elton. She was into Earth, Wind and Fire. She was into Aretha, into Minnie Riperton, into Dolly and Shania, and Otis and a massive, massive Tina Turner fan. And just being in the UK and the way that Brits receive American music. It’s not like they ship all the country music and then they put all the hip-hop on a different shipment. But in this particular case, on this record, about the most foundational era of my life, which is the 90s, where hip-hop and R&B. And I think maybe R&B didn’t get the credit for its sampling prowess as much as hip-hop does. But across music, sampling was a big deal in the 90s.
It’s the most British thing possible to be combining genres, because that was the environment. And so that’s why being a Brit was that way, but also the kind of increased level of proximity because of my mother’s heritage.
That Grape Juice: How did it feel to have more creative control with ‘Stand For Myself’?
Yola: I felt like that it was the most freeing sensation. There was no way for me to do any of those things up to this point, because I lived in England. So, the idea of picking my favorite co-writers was not an option, because I didn’t know anybody. So, I didn’t have anyone that I could call on. And so, I was to be able to spend some time in the States after the first record to have met people, and to be able to pick my own co-writers for the first time, because I’ve actually met some people who I was like we could really just like work together.
Like, that’s just the most satisfying thing in the job that I do is, to have agency and to have – to spend time in a space that allows you the agency. And for me, being in on this continent, and in Nashville was that place for me. Like, there were things that came from this continent, musically that I wanted to get closer to geographically and artistically.
That Grape Juice: How was it to work with Brandi Carlile?
Yola: I am always enamored by any Brandi Carlile vocal, let’s be real. It is otherworldly, that vibrato of hers shakes through your soul. And so, there was never a moment that I wasn’t going to call Brandi and go, hey girl, are you there? And she was like, I was gonna ask you. I’m like, well, too late. I’m already asking you. Hang on this Thunderclap Record. Like, just trace me. I want you to be in more than you’re out on this vocal. And so yeah, she came back. She did one and she’s like, cool. I feel like I’m gonna do like this stack up vocal. I’m like, whatever you bring, it is going in. Because it’s all fire. And so yeah, it was like pure joy. I listened to the stacks and I was like, get the hell out of here. It’s just luxury. She’s a boss.
That Grape Juice: ‘Stand For Myself’ has opened to acclaim from critics, what does this mean to you?
Yola: Well, it feels validating because of all the other things that I was involved in, where I had like a role of being like fronting someone else’s machine, to even in situations where I was part of building the machine itself, like this record, and this time I’m in feels like the richest vein for me as an artist. And for that to be reflected externally in everyone’s experience, and the way that it’s being received. That’s validating. And so, it’s like that means I can carry on doing my own life. And that’s really all I ever wanted. And it’s nice to just do something that really reflects what I love about music. I know it sounds so simple. But it’s been a long time coming. It’s so good.
That Grape Juice: You will be starring in an upcoming Elvis biopic, what can you tell us about that?
Yola: Increasingly more as we get closer. So, I’m playing Sister Rosetta Tharpe. And she is maybe not often enough credited, but still credited with being the main influence of Elvis Presley. There’s no way to overstate that and he was obsessed with her. And from when he was in school, and he would run home from school to listen to on the radio to then when he was older, and being able to go and see her play.
So, it’s not just that she was the first person to play rock’n’roll guitar. And in the way that we recognize it as shredding, she invented this style, and then showcased it. And so, she’s responsible for so much.
It’s all your Parliament Funkadelic things, it’s all of the things that like that rock’n’roll interacted with and then rock and then anything derived from rock. Like the most obvious thing, which is, Elvis coming into being. He doesn’t start if he doesn’t see Rosetta Tharpe. And so, like it’s a real honor to represent that because I feel like it’s an under told legacy.
That Grape Juice: You received four Grammy nominations in 2020 for ‘Walk Through Fire,’ how does it feel to be recognized by the Recording Academy and do you have bigger aspirations with this album going into award season?
Yola: Oh, goodness, gracious. Well, when I got the news, I was on tour in Germany. And I just cried constantly. I wasn’t expecting any of it. And so, like if I got one, I would have been absolutely flabbergasted. But to get four nominations, especially the Best New Artist, which was at that particular time, borderline impossible to get into, like, Lil Nas X, Billie Eilish, and Lizzo all in one year, like, not many spots left after that. That’s a hard year. I don’t think you normally have that many number ones in the same year as the Best New Artist nomination, but so it was a specifically hard year to kind of be nominated. That was just amazing.
And so, I have great aspirations for this record, but at the same time, the reward for me is the doing of it in the first place. Like if it doesn’t get four nominations, like the first one, I’m not gonna cry my eyeballs out, because honestly, like, I just need to be making music like I’m making now.
Yola will be going on tour to support ‘Stand For Myself,’ with dates shown below: