Yola plays songs from 'Stand For Myself', talks about upcoming role as Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Yola - Virtual Session (MPR)

Yola plays songs from her upcoming record, 'Stand For Myself' coming out July 30 on Easy Eye Sound. Plus, she catches up with The Current's Jill Riley about playing Sister Rosetta Tharpe in the upcoming Baz Luhrmann film 'Elvis,' and how her childhood musical influences came through on the new record.

Interview Transcription

Edited for clarity and length.

JILL RILEY: Hey, I'm Jill Riley from The Current's Morning Show. Here we are again with another virtual session and our special guest today, well, we're looking forward to another record from her which is due out on July 30, Walk Through Fire, her debut full-length solo album was our introduction to her and I'm talking about Yola. Hey Yola how you doing?

YOLA: Hey, I'm really good. Thanks for having me.

That song "Diamond Studded Shoes," it's the song that we've been playing here on The Current from the new record Stand For Myself. And like I said, due out July 30. So it's great to be talking with you, and I'm sure it's great for you to kind of prepare for this album cycle.

Yeah, it's really exciting. Having "Diamond Studded Shoes" out there in the world as the first offering from this album is really exciting because it's wonderfully misleading and I enjoy the moments where people have that, "Oh! So that's what it's about." After they're done kind of jamming to it really hard for like a good few times round. Then the lyrics start chiming in and they're like, "Oh, wow, okay, this isn't quite what I was thinking." I do enjoy that. It makes me laugh.

Well, since we just watched the video--which, thank you for making those for The Current audience, because those videos just look great. For "Diamond Studded Shoes," now, when you say it's wonderfully misleading. Can you expand on that just a little bit more and some of the inspiration for that song?

Well, the inspiration was very specific. It was the ex Prime Minister of the UK, Theresa May. And some diamond studded shoes she was wearing that we bought her, as people, at the same time, as her telling us, there's no money left. And there seems to be like a causation or correlation and causation situation--so this whole outfit cost this much, you're saying we don't have this much everyone is in the cabinets dressed like this. They also used to ridicule one of the politicians from the opposition for not spending money on clothing or not claiming many expenses. And I was like, there seems to be a whole flow of narrative going on here, where you're spending our money, and you're trying to convince us that the one that isn't spending our money is the bad guy. But we're being told we're all in it together, and it's all okay, so that's where we know it came from. Because I was like, okay, we're feeling that they're going to spend a lot of our money, and they're going to really just try to convince us that it's someone else's fault, other than them, because they're not gonna want to change their spending habits. If you've managed to ride people for years, it's gonna be a hard habit to break, I suppose.

Well, Yola, we got to know you through your debut album, Walk Through Fire, and I want to talk more about the new record here. To give people a little background for anybody that's coming to your music for the first time, maybe through this new record--so Walk Through Fire, by the way, "Far Away Look," thank you so much for that, every time that song comes on the radio, and we play it I still love, love, love it. That record was the beginning of the producer/collaborator kind of relationship with Dan Auerbach and Nashville. So I wonder if you could just give us a little background on how you came to know Dan, and how you made your way to Nashville, because you're from England--eventually you've started making records in Nashville. So can you just give a little background on that?

Well, I suppose the most kind of notable thing to note was that I didn't know Dan until we started writing. I didn't meet Dan until we started writing. Until we wrote "Shady Grove," I hadn't met him. We'd met over the writing table and I was in Nashville showcasing and a video of me singing wound its way to him. We spoke on the phone once, and it was like, "Hey, do you want to come in and do this? This is kind of where I'm at. This is kind of thing. We're doing Easy Eye," blah, blah, blah. And I was like, "Yeah, sure." So next trip in we go to write and then we have some more writing sessions. And we're like, "Okay, this is good." It kind of took off over the writing table. So I call Walk Through Fire are getting to know you record.

Okay, and he's back as a producer on your new album. Speaking of Nashville, what was your expectation of Nashville, going to the city for the first time? What was your impression once you got there?

I didn't really have much of an expectation. The upside of being a foreigner is that you have less information. I didn't really have an idea. I'm also, you know, just being a black lady used to any kind of minimized or reduced trope of a place or a person or an idea can rarely show you the depth of what's going on. Given that the entirety of the landscape of contemporary music was contributed--was brought up and invented by African Americans, I was very sure that there was going to be like a number of scenes in Nashville, that I would have to unveil somehow. Especially coming from Bristol, which is a similar kind of thing where people think there's like a couple bands that come from there, but there's a whole scene to uncover and so I came from that kind of place where it has a specific narrative, so I didn't really come with an expectation.

But the writing scene was very different to how it is in the UK. Because the regimented nature of it, and that was probably the biggest surprise was that, and the learning of how that works and the way that writers have certain roles. Those roles can be like being a songsmith, we're just different. Some of those people don't play a guitar or sing or play piano or anything like that. They are the person that will just create, form, and maybe come up with a section, and they'll sing it to you, then you have to figure out the chords. There's loads of really specific roles that aren't really a thing in the UK. So that was a big learning curve coming to Nashville. That was the thing that I suppose I was most surprised by.

Well, you went back to Nashville to make the new record Stand For Myself, which is a great title. It's a strong title. Do you want to talk about that title and what it means to you?

It speaks on the entirety of the narrative. The narrative is, across the record, about this journey towards actually not minimizing myself. I think it's very easy for people to be fascinated and drawn to the narratives of everyone around like, women of color outside of her herself. It's also very common that we play supportive roles or even in our fronting roles, and I used to be a front woman for hire a lot like how that can be even in that state a role of service. So standing for myself is as much about standing in my power as much as it is deciding that minimizing myself is not going to win me anything and any kind of attempt to acquire I don't know, like a model minority status or any kind of trying to homogenize is doing myself out of the opportunity to self actualize and that's really what that's that title is, for anyone who's listening to it, is to be fully yourself and to satisfy your spirit's will to manifest and be in this world before you know it's too late and we will shuffle off this mortal coil.

Well, let's take a listen and take a take a watch of the video here "Stand For Myself". This is Yola on The Current.

[music: "Stand For Myself" by Yola]

That song is called "Stand For Myself," new one from Yola. In fact, it's the title track for the new album. It's due out July 30. I'm so happy to have Yola joining me here on The Current, both on the radio and in the virtual world as well. It's been kind of the way the world to keep connected to artists, through zoom through the virtue of space, but you know what? I have been upset at the technology and grateful for the technology all at the same time this year.

But I see that you have a bunch of tour dates coming up, and that has just given people a lot of hope for the future, is just the fact that artists are going to be back on the road. That live music is on its way back. I wonder what it's been like for you in this past year waiting on this opportunity again, to get out there live and in person.

It's been heavenly. I'd love to say it's been dreadful. It's been an utter joy. I discovered how much introvert I have to my introverted extrovert, my extrovert being the mainstay of my existence. But the introvert being maybe a stronger component of my personality than I was aware. Also having the opportunity to write this gosh darn album. So that's really great. It was great to be able to luxuriate in it. AI think the strength of the writing was shown by my ability to use that isolation to create seeds of ideas that are really strong. And that I feel are going to become truer and truer. As some of the songs that on the record became truer and truer, because they were started in 2013 or 2014, or 2017, or 2018. For those moments, I'm really grateful. And obviously, the opportunity to play a lot of guitar because I had a movie to film. So being representing Sister Rosetta Tharpe, in the Elvis movie is no mean feat, given that she's one of the greatest guitar players of all time. The way she trains with herself is to sing at the same time as soloing as opposed to doing one then the other. And when they're different rhythms it's hellish, and you need to make a physical divide in your brain to actually be able to do it, you've got to be biologically different. That took a long time to start the process. That was life changing in my understanding of guitar.

Yeah, it's almost comparable to--I've always been blown away by how drummers can be lead singers while playing the drums. It's almost the same wiring of the brain. I'm so glad that you brought that up, because I wanted to talk about you playing Sister Rosetta Tharpe because I remember reading about a year ago that you had announced that you were going to play this role. It's one thing to play a character in a movie, but it's quite another to play a real person, and to step into that role. I wonder, when you started preparing for the roll, what was the first thing that you did did to really kind of dig in? Or how much research did you have to do? Were you familiar with her before this opportunity came up?

Yeah, I was familiar with Sister Rosetta Tharpe from quite a young age. So probably the environment of my mid teens, I was aware of her, and I was aware that she created rock and roll at that, so many things that we now take for granted because she influenced and discovered artists, and showcased them her night and gave us Little Richard, because she discovered him and gave him a showcase. Then you realize such a flamboyant camp made up guy, even in his hetero-ness was very, very made up and glamorous in the way that he presented himself. I'm like, a straight white guy from the 50s doesn't discover this guy. A queer woman from the 50s who's of color does, it makes so much more sense when you think, how does that guy even exist in that era? It's so Prince, you know?

It's always very--like opening his shirt. So you can really see that, "Oh, that makes sense." Why rock and roll is the way that it is or was certainly in, you know, the 50s and 60s and 70s. We owe so much to her. So the first thing I did was learn guitar because I knew that was going to be the longest arc. I was familiar with her, but I had never soloed in my life. I was only a rhythm player, so I knew I was gonna have to get a real early start on that.

I bet, and artists like Sister Rosetta Tharpe--for me, I didn't even hear her name until there was discussion around her getting this early influencer award for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It wasn't that many years ago, but it was a handful of years ago, and I found myself thinking, you know, if she's the godmother of rock and roll, and the story you're telling of, you know, she's the one discovering the so-called founders of rock and roll music. I found it very frustrating that her story wasn't told in the way, that even in the movie that Elvis' story is told or Jerry Lee Lewis or even Little Richard or Fats Domino. I mean, you name them. I find this frustration that her history was almost lost with time or forgotten. But then at the same time, just glad that finally somebody was telling that story.

Yeah, and it was a real mission of Baz to shine a light on the origins of Elvis's life, and inspiration, and where the music came from so there to be a clear narrative of this is where it started. This is who birthed this theme and the sound and everyone looked to her, you know? Everyone was like, "Wow, this is the way to go. We're gonna start playing like this." Now we've had someone do the distorted guitar for the first time. We've heard someone shred for the first time. People were noodling, but that shred vibe wasn't a thing. The distorted guitar shred was not a thing until Sister Rosetta. Which is a central element to the rock and roll sound. Everything that we then attribute to everyone else was learned from her. It is really important to be part of this movie to redress this balance.

The movie is filmed, it's done, but I'm assuming because of pandemic delays, is it gonna come out sometime next year? I think maybe I saw that. Or maybe it's kind of up in the air.

I don't have a release date yet. I'm sure that's the hope. But we don't know. Everything's up in the air at the moment, isn't it? We managed to get things filmed and luckily, over there, they did a great job of actually doing that thing called flatten the curve, which seemed hilarious at the time, but they did it. So that's quite impressive. So we went over there and we were able to kind of live comparatively normally, and get things done. Still taking precautions, but a lot freer in our ability to do this movie. I'm hoping that that freedom will carry on, allow them to get everything edited.

I'm talking with Yola. New album called Stand For Myself, it's due out on July 30, and Yola, I know that you are probably lumped into this very, very large genre called Americana. So I wonder, especially with this new record, because you're you really go all over the place with your sounds and your influences, and that's kind of the nature of Americana music anyway. I mean, it's not just one sound. It's very different from country music. But you know, it has its roots in folk and blues and country. I wonder, what does that category of Americana mean to you as a black woman from England? What does that word sort of mean to you?

Well, I suppose one of the most kind of contentious concepts to me is genre, because it'll end up being minimized or, frankly, racist. To the point where, let's say, you're in antiques, and you sell Americana, what do you sell? You sell early American artifacts, or pieces of ornaments or whatever. But it's early American, and the denomination--the origin of that is more era based. And where it was made more than any kind of lineage of what its influence might be. Or if it's kind of harking back to something European or African. Similarly with Americana, and as a musical concept, it should in theory encompass all those same things, early American musical artifacts. And so all things that are earlier American, in my mind, qualify, but oddly, jazz doesn't. That's early American, and so there's lots of things that--this is why the commoner conversation, the "what is" conversation is always up in the air. Because the actual, like, if you were to look at dictionary definition of it, and then what it ends up being boiled down to, they can be very different things. And so yes, in my mind, Americana is early American music. And that's it.

Yeah. I mean, anything can be defined, but there can be the definition, and then really the reality.

I think what ends up happening, a lot can be it being minimized down to something, and even to the point where things are considered Americana, all of a sudden aren't lumped into the group because a black person did it. They end up going, "Oh, that feels more like it's over here." More jazzy, or maybe it's more soul music and there's a kind of soul music that is in Americana. And a kind of soul music that isn't in Americana. So maybe that something that's Motown-y, might be less considered Americana than something that's Stax-y. So then, yes, the reality of something can be where people's cognitive bias comes in. That's something that I've always been wary of being in just one person's team. I'll always say I'm not in no one's club. I'm in everyone's club.

Yeah, and it would certainly seem that you're--I like the way you say that. Everyone's club, especially with this new album, Stand For Myself. I mean, there is not just one sound going on here, you're exploring all kinds of different things. Can you talk a little bit about the, the multiple directions that you wanted to go just like sonically with the album?

Yeah, I think it's an interesting point of view of a Brit, because I grew up in the 90s. And at that time, there was a lot of throwback music to the 70s. A lot of sampling from music in the 70s. I was just talking recently about Childish Gambino's record, Awaken My Love and how that was throwing back to Parliament funkadelic. But also speaking on, like, you couldn't avoid the prism of ear that he grew up in, and which would appear in his choices, like, choosing a song that someone in the 90s also sampled, and you can't avoid that prism. Similarly, my record, you can hear on songs, like, "If I Had To Do It All Again," you can hear that 90s influence of the era I grew up in on "Whatever You Want," you can hear how countrified it is, but you can also hear Britpop in the melodies, you know, think about Stone Roses, or Blur. Everything that's happening on this record is like a time capsule of my childhood. It's my mother's record collection. It's the era I grew up in, and the diaspora that I reached out for when I was isolated as a black girl. It's what was happening in pop in the UK, and how our playlisting was in radio in the UK, which was you could have Nirvana, and Brownstone, and Bjork all just concurrently without thinking, "Oh, these have to be different radio shows." That's how we experience music. So that's how this record is. It's British in its lens, and it's a black girl's British experience, and it's lens. It seems almost like it's going through a lot of different things, but it's an extremely focused lens, if you understand black British life.

The new record from Yola is called Stand For Myself, it's due out July 30. So far, we've checked out videos for "Diamond Studded Shoes," "Stand For Myself," and I know that there's another new song here that we're looking forward to sharing. These are great videos, by the way that you put together for The Current audience. Where were you? What studio were you in?

It was in Easy Eye!

Okay, so it was so when I was watching them, I was like, I was trying to find any sort of maybe evidence. You know, I just have these these great pianos in the background. And then you had a gentleman playing with the one Fender Rhodes and I thought, Gosh, I wonder where they are?

Yes, yes. The studios, it was Easy Eye. I would have been with Ray Jacildo who also played on the record, so you can thank him for the opening, lovely organ sound. That sounds really kind of trippy, that was all from the genius of his mind.

Well, the song sound great, and congratulations. It's a big deal, new record. Again, we're almost there, we're kind of over the hump of this pandemic. I think a lot of great music is going to come out of this time.

It really feels like it. Everyone, I've got a lot of friends bringing out records, Alison Russell, Joy Oladokun. And everyone seems to be coming out with fire. It's a really exciting time if you're a fan of music and you can't wait for it to come back, you're about to be blessed.

Can't wait. I want to thank engineer Eric Romani, Jesse Wiza producer today and Yola, thank you. Take care, hope to see you down the line, okay?

Thank you so much for having me.

Songs Played

00:01 Diamond Studded Shoes
13:01 Stand for Myself
35:38 Starlight
All songs appear on Yola's 2021 record, Stand For Myself.

External Link

Yola - official site

Credits

Host - Jill Riley
Producer - Anna Weggel
Digital Producer - Jesse Wiza
Technical Director - Eric Romani

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