Yola is all about taking a stand — hence the title of her just-released second album, “Stand for Myself” — but she also delivers quite a wallop even from a seated position. The formidable singer-songwriter is joined by her band for a slightly stripped-back, sit-down performance of four songs from the new Dan Auerbach-produced release on an essential new episode of “Live From My Den,” presented exclusively on Variety.com.
True to the series’ title, Yola also takes viewers on a tour of what she considers her own musical den: Auerbach’s Easy Eye Sound studio in Nashville. It’s there that most of her co-writes come to completion, in the living room/kitchen area of the studio; she also leads viewers through the vocal and band tracking rooms where the magic happens that led to her being nominated for four Grammys for her previous album, “Walk Through Fire.” No one will mistake the Black Keys frontman’s studio space for any other, and that’s why it’s her home away from home. “Dan likes weird things,” she explains of the very un-sterile studio environment. “He’s a collector of oddities. He comes from a lineage of collectors of oddities. There’s definitely a weirdness and a homeyness about it at the same time.”
In the episode’s Q&A portion, with Variety moderator Chris Willman, the Bristol-born Yola discusses how she grew up being influenced by everyone from Elton John to Dolly Parton to Aretha Franklin via a record collection that existed before she was born. “I think the genesis of a lot of my musicality came from my mother’s record collection,” she says. “She didn’t buy a load of records when we were kids because we were expensive. So all of these records she collected were before we were born, and then all of a sudden, we get to kind of explore this whole breadth and wealth of music. We both were into groove, so we were both really hard into disco. We were both really hard into soul music. And we were both really hard into country music … that’s kind of where maybe some of my tastes were routed to start with.
“But also, it was the ’90s. And so I got all the hip-hop and R&B of the era: the D’Angelos, the Erykah Badus, the Jill Scotts of the era, the Tribe Called Quests and the KRS-1s. And of course, most importantly to me, the Mary J. Bliges of the era. And then Blur. I adored Blur. … So that’s how I grew up, between her record collection and the top 40 on Radio 1 in the U.K.”
And then a name perhaps less often invoked these days: “I was apparently gestated on Barry White, said my mother. It was quite funny. She was like, ‘Oh yeah, you’d respond to it’ — making hand shapes on her tummy. I was really here for it, raving to Barry White. I loved it! And exterior to the situation, I still love it, and Barry White still speaks to me, and Earth Wind & Fire still speak to me as much as they did the first time I heard them. And so, yeah, I think what’s come out in a song or two on the record is the connection that I hear between soul music and early disco. There’s so much connective tissue in that era of early 70s music.” Yola also makes a case for her desert island disc: “I have really obsessively been listening to ‘Come to My Garden’ by Minnie Riperton. If you haven’t listened to the album, you need to listen to it top to bottom. It is a masterpiece. It is almost intimidating in the level of intricacy and layers and beauty and how it’s rooted in almost the pastoral … but it’s still soulful music.”
She discusses how getting those four Grammy nominations for “Walk Through Fire” bolstered her bravado when it came time to come back in and do the second with Auerbach. “With the first record and getting four nominations, including best new artist, I was like, oh my goodness, are you kidding me?…. For the first record, we met for the first time in this very room. … It was like, ‘Hi! Cool! Nice to meet you. Let’s write a song.’ You can hear a deepening of the aesthetic in this next record. And it was inevitable that was going to happen because we’d actually then met. It seems logical. It’s like, ‘Oh! You know the person that you’re working with. That’s probably going to come in handy.’ So the nominations were a big win because of the environment that we had written in. I was like, ‘Dude, we didn’t know each other from Adam. If we get four nominations with this, the sky’s the limit.’ And so it instilled me with all of this confidence.”
Among the songs Yola sings on this “Live From My Den” episode, besides the album’s title track and the latest single “Starlight,” is “Now You’e Here” — which, as she explains in the interview portion, has a lot of resonance for her in marking her transition from a loner uncertain about her career prospects to feeling settled and loved.
“It’s probably me at my most sentimental, to be honest,” she says of “Now You’re Here.” And there’s a lot of sentimental songs on this record, because I wanted the heart of the record to be sentimental AF, because I am sentimental AF…
“Everything has been this kind of this singular journey to finding my people, my tribe, the people that see me that I don’t need to explain myself 56 ways to, to be seen and to be taken care of and to take care of them. … For some bizarre reason of just my black lady-dom and my lack of willingness to stick entirely into a trope that allows people to feel maybe more comfortable with who I am, I’d just not been blessed with people that I don’t need to explain myself to. And so that’s really the song that is the finally song: ‘Now you’re here there’s sunlight in the midnight.’ Finally. I’m understood. Finally. I’m seen. Finally, I’m loved. Finally, I’m self-actualized. Finally, someone isn’t desperately trying to limit my growth because they are threatened by it or they want to keep hold of me… ‘Now You’re Here’ is this ‘Oh, thank goodness. I can just let the guard down.’ I don’t have to be in the uncomfortable place anymore. I’m in the comfortable place, and I’m loved and it’s glorious.”