“All I want is for you to hear the sound of my voice,” Yola croons on “Like a Photograph,” a crackling plea to a lover who is slipping through her fingers. “Once you hear me,” she continues, with almost unbearable sweetness, “I fear you’ll be left with no choice.” Yola certainly knows her strengths: in the last three years, that voice—as rich as it is twangy— has proven irresistible to crowds across the globe. “Like A Photograph” is one of 12 tracks on Stand for Myself, the 37-year-old singer’s sophomore album out Friday.
For an artist whose childhood interaction with country music consisted mainly of playing her mother’s well-worn Dolly Parton record on a constant loop in her Bristol apartment, Stand for Myself is a potent study in the art of Americana—a dopamine-inducing blend of gravelly country patina and pop polish that showcases Yola’s vocal prowess without sacrificing her message for commercial salience. But ask Yola if she is a country music artist, and she will offer an impassioned and thorough explanation of the flaws inherent in your question. “The best thing about country music is its proximity to other genres—it’s a musical melting pot,” she asserts, scrolling through her music library and listing off a few of her influences—The Band, Aretha Franklin, The Beatles, Emmylou Harris—to illustrate her point. “So, country is one of my influences, sure, but people overemphasize it. I hear gospel, blues, and jazz components in my music. For me, all of these sounds emerge from the African diaspora.”
Yola is a member of that diaspora herself. Growing up in a mostly white community on the outskirts of Bristol, the singer—born Yolanda Quartey—was as enthralled by musicians like the Buena Vista Social Club and Salt N’ Pepa as she was by the likes of Harris. The daughter of a Bahamian mother who worked several jobs and resisted the prospect of her daughter entering the music industry, Quartey was forbidden from performing for much of her childhood. “A lot of my adolescence was spent hiding the fact that I was trying to be a musician,” she recalls, describing early mornings spent in the office of a sympathetic school teacher writing music and booking appearances at local club nights. Later, 21 years old and relentless, she made her way to London to try her luck in a more vibrant music scene. When she fell behind on her rent and every lead she had in the city fizzled out, Quartey found herself sleeping under a bush in Hoxton Square. “There’s a tendency to over-focus on that part of my life,” she says of media coverage of her early hardships. “People are so often sucked into this narrative of the Black superwoman—this idea that I have some super power that enabled me to overcome all of this without any help. But that distracts from how exploitative this industry is— so much of the art that working class people create is then regurgitated in mainstream culture by upper class people, and that contribution goes completely unacknowledged.”
This question—of who creates and who prospers—has dogged the music industry in recent years, and is top of mind for the artist, who spent her early career toplining (recording full-throttle vocals) for other musicians. “I was a frontman for hire, but nobody was saying, ‘We want to hear what you have to say,’” she recalls. That changed with Walk Through Fire, a soaring 2019 debut album that earned the artist four Grammy nominations. It also caught the attention of country icons like John Prine and Brandi Carlile— not to mention the director Baz Luhrmann, who wasted no time in casting Quartey as the Arkansas-born gospel singer Sister Rosetta Tharpe in his upcoming Elvis Presley biopic, Elvis. Such ringing industry endorsements signal a widely shared sense that, though it hails from across the pond, there’s something profound in Quartey’s rendering of the Americana sound, and it has cemented her status as an artist with the power to evolve it.
Quartey has spent the two years since Walk Through Fire’s release hard at work on her latest record. Produced by Black Keys frontman Dan Auerbach, Stand for Myself signals a spiritual shift for the artist, who pared her sound down to its purest elements and dispensed with some of the more jukebox-tinged material that first put her on the map. “I wanted to showcase that nuance—all those colors in my voice that can’t shine through as much when I’m just belting,” she says. The result is an album marked by stirring contrasts: vocals by turns tender and rasping, lyrics rooted in palpable heartache and soaring joy. Era-specific soul pop and fiddle-heavy country numbers have given way to tracks that deftly blend the best elements of these genres: the titular track “Stand For Myself” layers velvety soul vocals over raw, percussive rock instrumentation, and “Starlight” shimmers with organ riffs and spare gospel backup.
But Stand for Myself is as much a study in the art of restraint as it is a product of a heavily pandemic-altered creative process. “Since I couldn’t go to the studio, I returned to songs that I wrote in the past, and that I still had a very strong response to,” Quartey says by phone from East Nashville. She’s in her “guitar room,” where she keeps her gear and did the bulk of her writing during the pandemic. That solitary revision process, which took place during what would have otherwise been a year of intimate collaboration with fellow musicians and producers, was crucial. “The biggest issue I have with the music industry machine is this pressure to create on a deadline,” she says. “So much music gets sacrificed to the cutting room floor because it’s just not all the way there in time.”
In both form and function, Stand for Myself is a meditation on the road that brought Quartey from obscurity to centerstage. But more importantly, it’s the work of an artist who might finally allow herself to savor, even briefly, the sensation of lasting creative acclaim. “For so long, I was a doormat. But, you know, I wasn’t even me at that point,” she says, pausing before releasing a bright laugh. “Well, I’m certainly me now.”
Yola photographed by Andy Jackson at BORN Artists and styled by Jenna Wojciechowski for W Magazine. Hair by Ro Morgan at The Wall Group. Makeup by Laila Hayani at Forward Artists Photo Assistant: Glenn Lim. Stylist Assistant: Tori López.