“All I want is for you to hear the sound of my voice,” Yola croons on “Like a Photograph,” a crackling call for a lover slipping through her fingers. “Once you hear me,” she continues with almost unbearable sweetness, “I’m afraid you have no choice. Yola certainly knows her strengths: over the past three years this voice, as rich as it is nasal, has proven to be irresistible to crowds around the world. “Like A Photograph” is one of 12 titles on Stand for myself, the 37-year-old singer’s second album is released on Friday.
For an artist whose childhood interaction with country music consisted mainly of playing her mother’s well-worn Dolly Parton record on constant loop in her Bristol apartment, Stand for myself is a powerful study of the art of Americana – a dopamine-inducing blend of gritty country patina and pop polish that showcases Yola’s vocal prowess without sacrificing her message for commercial significance. But ask Yola if she’s a country music artist, and she’ll offer a passionate and in-depth 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 says, scrolling through her music library and listing some of its influences – The Band, Aretha Franklin, The Beatles, Emmylou Harris – to illustrate her point. “So country is one of my influences, of course, but people exaggerate it. I hear gospel, blues and jazz in my music. For me, all of these sounds emerge from the African diaspora.
Yola is herself a member of this diaspora. Growing up in a predominantly white community on the outskirts of Bristol, the singer, née Yolanda Quartey, was as captivated by musicians like the Buena Vista Social Club and Salt N ‘Pepa as she was by Harris. The daughter of a Bahamian mother who held multiple jobs and resisted the prospect of her daughter entering the music industry, Quartey was banned from performing for much of her childhood. “Much of my teenage years was spent hiding the fact that I was trying to be a musician,” she recalls, describing the first mornings spent in a friendly school teacher’s office writing music. and book appearances at parties at local clubs. Later, aged 21 and relentless, she traveled to London to try her luck in a more vibrant music scene. When she fell behind on her rent and all the leads she had in town fizzled out, Quartey found herself sleeping under a bush in Hoxton Square. “There is a tendency to focus too much on this part of my life,” she says of the media coverage of her early difficulties. “People are so often drawn into this tale of the black superwoman – this idea that I have a super power that has allowed me to overcome all of this without any help. But that distracts attention from the exploitation of this industry – much of the art that working class people create is then regurgitated into mainstream culture by upper class people, and that contribution is not. absolutely not recognized.
This question – who creates and who thrives – has haunted the music industry in recent years and is a priority for the artist, who spent his early career in mind (recording vocals at full speed) for others. musicians. “I was a leader to hire, but no one was saying, ‘We want to hear what you have to say,’” she recalls. It changed with Walk through the fire, a booming debut album in 2019 which earned the artist four Grammy nominations. He also caught the attention of country icons like John Prine and Brandi Carlile, not to mention director Baz Luhrmann, who wasted no time choosing Quartey as Arkansas-born gospel singer Sister Rosetta Tharpe. , in his upcoming biopic on Elvis Presley, Elvis. Such industry approvals signal a widely shared feeling that while he comes from across the pond, there is something deep about Quartey’s rendering of the Americana sound, and it cemented his sound. artist status with the power to make it evolve.
Quartey has spent the two years since Walk through the fire release to work on his last disk. Produced by Black Keys singer Dan Auerbach, Stand for myself signals a spiritual shift for the artist, who has reduced her sound to its purest elements and given up some of the more jukebox-tinted materials that first put her on the map. “I wanted to highlight that shade – all of those colors in my voice that can’t shine so bright when I’m just girdling,” she says. The result is an album marked by moving contrasts: voices alternately tender and hoarse, lyrics rooted in palpable sorrow and rising joy. Era-specific violin-heavy soul pop and country tracks have given way to tracks that skillfully blend the best elements of these genres: with organ riffs and a spare gospel backing.
Corn Stand for myself is as much a study of the art of restraint as it is a product of a creative process heavily altered by the pandemic. “Since I couldn’t go to the studio, I went back to songs that I had written in the past and that I still had a really strong reaction to,” Quartey said by phone from East Nashville. She’s in her “guitar room,” where she keeps her gear and wrote most of her writing during the pandemic. This lonely review process, which took place during what would otherwise have been a year of intimate collaboration with other musicians and producers, was crucial. “The biggest problem I have with the music industry machine is this pressure to create on time,” she says. “So much music is sacrificed on the editing room floor because it’s just not there all the time.”
In its form as in its function, Stand for myself is a meditation on the road that brought Quartey from obscurity to center stage. But more importantly, it is the work of an artist who could finally afford to savor, even briefly, the feel of lasting creative praise. “For so long I was a doormat. But, you know, I wasn’t even me then, ”she said, stopping before laughing out loud. “Well, I’m definitely me now. “
Yola photographed by Andy Jackson for BORN Artists and styled by Jenna Wojciechowski for W Magazine. Hair by Ro Morgan at The Wall Group. Make-up by Laila Hayani at Forward Artists Photo assistant: Glenn Lim. Stylist assistant: Tori López.