Summer Mixtape: Yola on being an outsider, discovering American music, and learning to ‘Stand for Myself’

Written by Andrea Domanick, produced by Bennett Purser

Yola’s new album “Stand for Myself” is out on July 30. Photo by Joseph Ross.

All week, Press Play has been bringing you DJ and artist interviews, along with custom DJ sets. This fifth and final installment of “Summer Mixtape” features a conversation and guest DJ set with singer-songwriter Yola, whose new album “Stand for Myself” is out on July 30.

Follow all of the music from this week’s Summer Mixtape series on our Spotify playlist. Listen to our Summer Mixtapes with Jackson BrowneDJ Travis HolcombeMBE DJs Anthony Valadez and Novena Carmel, and Yola.

Born outside of Bristol, England to immigrant parents from Barbados and Ghana, Yola learned about American music through her mother’s record collection. The Southern inspiration from artists like Dolly Parton and Tina Turner stuck with her. Yola, who is now based in Nashville, has been celebrated for her soulful Americana sound that mixes blues, country, funk, and soul. Her first album, “Walk Through Fire,” was nominated for four Grammys in 2019. 

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

KCRW: What was it like growing up in a small English town and loving American country music?

Yola: “I grew up in a little seaside town outside of the city of Bristol called Portishead. I was one of very few Black people in the area, and so was very isolated in that regard. I was fiercely into music. And I think I used that as not only as a form of escapism, but as a form of connecting to role models, to the diaspora, if you will. 

I felt as though there were a lot of people that didn't really look like me or have my life experience. And more importantly, there were a lot of people that weren't necessarily as welcoming as they could have been to people that look like me. When you're in an isolated environment like that, it's very tough when you're a young child. I'd been in fights, you name it, just defending myself for being dark-skinned. And so that was like a really big part of my life.”

When you say fights, you mean physical fistfights, people attacking you because of the color of your skin?

“Yeah, that was a really big part. You know the Elton John song ‘Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting?’ We think of British people as being straight up with the fisticuffs. But fighting is almost a Saturday night tradition in the middle of cities and towns in the U.K. And that trickled down to the kids. You get into fights. And so that was a really big part of that need for escapism. I credit my love of sci-fi to that as well. 

It was not straightforward or easy. And so I would reach out to people that were speaking to my life experience or were speaking to just maybe better things, maybe things that were exciting, and things that I felt that I had a greater connection to. And that was through music. That was through my mother's records [and] the music that was coming over from the States to the U.K. in the ‘90s. Hip-hop was massive. Grunge was massive. 

So we got everything, but we got it all at once. We didn't get it on a rock radio station or a country or soul radio station. It all came together through one medium. So when you think of me as a writer, remember, I'm British. And that's the way that we got music, was all smushed together. Nirvana and A Tribe Called Quest were right next to each other.”

“I felt as though there were a lot of people that didn't really look like me or have my life experience,” Yola says of her upbringing in Bristol, England. Photo by Joseph Ross. 

Which is great, right? You can sample and mix and match and figure out what you like, and how genres influence each other.

“Yeah, in a really big way. Because the ‘90s were a very big throwback era, I would discover ‘70s music through ‘90s music. So D'Angelo would cover ‘Cruisin’ by Smokey Robinson. I was like, ‘Oh, it's a cover, is it? Oh, okay.’ And I listened to the original and I’m like, ‘That's beautiful.’ And so that's how I got into Smokey Robinson. Or discovering Roy Ayers through Mary J. Blige sampling ‘Everybody Loves the Sunshine’ for her song ‘Be Happy.’ … All of these things were just happening because of the sampling that was happening in hip-hop and R&B, and they were the people of color, they were the diaspora in America. They were the people that had the diaspora experience that I had.”

Morning Becomes Eclectic: Yola

You began your early career working in a different genre with a Bristol band named Massive Attack , who has become big in electronic music. When did you decide that wasn't the sound that you wanted to explore further, that you wanted to pivot yourself to this more rootsy Americana sound?

“First and foremost, the first gigs I ever did were jazz gigs. And for about five years, I was just doing shows live. And then I moved from that somewhat seamlessly into working with DJ-producers. And there were loads of DJ-producers in Bristol. They weren't always from Bristol, but there were so many club nights in Bristol. 

And so [there was] word a bit on the street of my skills. Massive Attack’s singer was unwell, and they needed someone to fill in. And so that was me. I was like, ‘I'll take the job. I need some money right now. There's nothing that I'm doing that is making any money.’ We're all trying to floss and look fabulous, but me and a lot of my peers were like, drawing the curtains and pretending we're not in so the bills can't be collected. It was really tough times. 

But I really needed a job. And they were really needing someone to sing Shara Nelson songs. And so I was here for it. And then they were like, ‘Actually come to the studio and write some things.’ So I went to the studio and I wrote some things. Sometimes I've been referred to as a backing singer for Massive Attack, which I found hilarious because there are no harmonies in Massive Attack songs.”

You were actually the lead singer, right? 

“Exactly. … The ‘front-person for hire’ is how I called it. ‘Do you need someone to sing the gazillion songs? Yeah, that's gonna be me.’ And so I sing a collection of different artists’ songs. Instead of getting three people to do all these things, just get them all in one person.

So weirdly enough, my cross-genre voice was really useful. So that's why I got the job. I was a local Bristol girl, that was a great thing. And I could sing across a number of genres. And so they knew that I could hold the Shara Nelson songs. They did some new songs with Hope Sandoval, they knew I could hold those as well with the softer side of my voice. I wrote some, they knew I could hold those. 

And so I went out on the road. But they're minimalists by their aesthetic. And if I'm anything, it's a maximalist. I was like, ‘We're heading in completely different directions, aesthetically.’ My records speak to how much I love layering. That’s one of the main reasons why I was really drawn to Dan Auerbach as a producer. ... It's like he gets this chance to explore. And so I really enjoy that side of his brain. “

The lyrics to your song “ Stand for Myself ” from your new album say, “​​ It was easier to sit than stand for myself / It was easy to give in than stand for myself.” What are you saying there? 

“I was talking about how when you're young, you so want to fit in. And sometimes we grow out of that because we find our tribe of people, we find our friendship group. But if you are an other, or a token Black or Brown person, or token person of LGBTQIA+ persuasion or of said gender in the group, there's always that presence of the feeling to assimilate or to fit in. And as we get older, [and] hopefully, as we grow wiser, we learn how fruitless it is, to purely seek to fit in. 

And that's me speaking to not only my past self, but people who are in that space going, ‘I get it.’ Everyone talks about the ‘strong Black woman,’ but I wasn't a strong Black woman. I just was a Black woman. And that's it. I wasn’t strong, I was being a doormat. And the trope of the ‘strong Black woman’ gets attributed to you, regardless of whether you're strong or not. And then that's license for being neglected, for not having any support, for all of those things. It's a license to go, ‘You don't need it.’ And so you then end up just caving in. Because most people have a support structure. I didn't.”

That's a lot of pressure because not everyone can be strong. And even strong people need to have the space to be weak, or at least ask for help. And that's too much to have that label.

“It's too much to have the label, especially when you're young and you're figuring yourself out. To be perceived as some kind of Terminator just because you're a lady that's Black is too much for a child. It's not until you get later into your adulthood that people give you any sense of authority. But the problem with the ‘strong Black woman’ trope is that you are given the idea that you have this authority of strength, but you're not given the actual authority of decision making, or the authority of being the master of your own path. So it's like, you can be strong enough to withstand all the horrible stuff that's going to happen to you, but not strong enough to be the leader. 

And so that was something that I was like, ‘If I'm going to have one, I am going to have the other.’ And that's why in the video for this song, I'm dressed in this borderline superhero-type look. It's very purposeful because I'm having to go into this guise to survive, but I'm not invincible. Crucially. So that's where that is and where the song is going from. When I'm standing for myself, I'm not just standing up for myself. It's, more importantly, that I'm standing for my right to nuance. My right to be a whole human.”

Nashville is known for a lot of white male country artists, and some women too. How do you feel living there? 

“Nashville is a many-faced human, in that it's known for white male country artists, for sure. But it would be remiss of me [not] to note that every major company in the music industry has an office in Nashville on Music Row. I first came here in 2010 as a writer, and I noticed how much of the music industry was here. And I knew that it sold itself as a country town. But there was so much pop and soul music coming out of here. And I'm like, ‘Well, of course we're only three hours from Memphis. It makes sense that there's a lot coming out of this city. 

It's very similar to Bristol. … There's so many artists that come out of Bristol. It's got the highest percentage of people that claim publishing royalties in the country. And the thing that was crazy about that is that no one knew anything about other people. It was like, we just know about Massive Attack and [the band] Portishead. And it feels like the same thing in Nashville, where people only know about the white male country artists. When you live here, you get to see everything that's going on. And it is many, many fold more interesting than just one demographic.”

You’re also slated to play the godmother of rock and roll, Sister Rosetta Tharpe , in an upcoming movie by Baz Luhrman

“Yes, I’m playing her in his as-yet-untitled Elvis movie. And she created rock and roll, let's make no bones about it. Let's not tiptoe around it. That's exactly what she did. When it comes to the distorted guitar sound, the shredding, the things like the tempo, the feel, energy, all of those things that we credited as the aesthetic to rock and roll, were her.”

Why don’t we know that in general pop culture knowledge? Because she’s a Black woman? 

“Yeah, of course that’s why. Black women create things all the time. There's loads of things where people are doing them very early in history and not being credited [or] publicized as being the creators of things. And that's one of the founding reasons why we haven't heard about her in the context of being responsible for so much that we now take for granted. Including discovering Little Richard. 

You think about Black man in the ‘50s, wearing makeup and doing rock and roll and drag. And do we think a queer Black woman discovers him, or a buttoned-up white guy? … What do you think? Given the ‘50s and the way that it was, how do we explain his existence? Of course a scene in Memphis curated by a queer Black woman would be far more likely to be the source of these overtly sexy things than any other place. She was the matriarch of the scene. And the scene is where everyone came up from where, the BB [Kings] and the Elvises and the Little Richards. Everyone, they go down to Beale Street, you know?”

Do you think America is now your permanent home?

“Yeah, it is. I moved and I love it. Hey, America. Well done. You're gorgeous. I'm not coming back. Don’t get me wrong, it’s flawed as hell. But I’m having a good time. Things that are flawed can also be delightful.” 

Yola's Playlist: Songs from the collaborators on her new album "Stand for Myself"

Joy Oladokun - “Sorry Isn’t Good Enough”
Ruby Amanfu - “I’m the One”
The McCrary Sisters - “Go Tell It on the Mountain”
JP Cooper - “Holy Water” 
Dan Auerbach - “Stand By My Girl”
Brandi Carlile - “Right On Time”
Aaron Lee Tasjan - “Up All Night”
Natalie Hemby - “Heroes”
Liz Rose - “Swimming Alone” 
Aaron Frazer - “Bad News”