Having over 20 years of experience in the music industry, Yola is no stranger to working on the narratives of others. Now, she is the one with a story to tell. Just two years after her first studio album, Walk Through Fire, the English musician is bravely stepping away from the country sounds that earned her four Grammy Award nominations in order to keep up with the growth that comes beside authentic expression. On Stand For Myself, released July 30, Yola ventures into an evolutionary pop-soul sound to tell her own story — free of co-optation.
Understanding firsthand the struggles of being a Black woman in the music industry, Yola stresses the importance of collaborating with people she can trust. Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys has proven himself to be one of these people. He produced Stand For Myself (as well as Walk Through Fire) under his record label, Easy Eye Sound. Whether it be a slide guitar solo or a touch of disco, the instruments in Stand For Myself refuse to compete. They’re collectively feeding off each other in order to express the personal narrative that Yola has chosen to share.
The sound of chimes — like sparkles raining from the sky — begins this narrative on the intro track, “Barely Alive.” As soft sounds enter in, a gentle mood is set, but the lyrics are anything but light. In the chorus, Yola sings, “And we try to get by/ And we strive, but we’re barely alive,” falling deeper into her head voice with every lyric. It isn’t until the sound of sparkles wash back over her that she is released into the second verse.
Because of the song’s tranquil groove, “Barely Alive” comes as an unexpected intro. However, it acts as a conduit for where Yola started, making it the perfect jumping off point for her story. Having felt the need to shrink herself in order to fit into a white-dominated space, she expresses that surviving isn’t the same as thriving. Just after the second chorus, she asks the life-altering question, “When will you start living/ Now that you’ve survived?” Dreamy background vocals echo back the question as if Yola is trapped in a facade of smiles. With that, Yola’s path from surviving to standing for herself has just begun.
Mini-narratives are told through each song that follows, bridging together to build the larger story. From getting political in “Diamond Studded Shoes” to owning her sexuality in “Starlight,” there is a narrative for each listener to latch onto.
Yola returns to her take on country in “Whatever You Want,” opening with a deep-toned guitar riff stacked atop a clean acoustic and a slide guitar. Her full voice glides smoothly across the first verse; by the chorus, it amplifies into a throaty belt as Yola sets her boundaries: “No, I can’t give you anything more, baby/ Those days are gone forever.” Although the song is reminiscent of her first album, it demonstrates a mature shift with the ability to say “no.”
Piano sneaks in by the first chorus but isn’t made apparent until the second verse, acting as just one example of the many instruments that gracefully find their place in the album. Despite having taken elements from various genres, each song blends harmoniously into the next, forming an experience to be taken in as a whole.
The titular track ends this experience on a strong note. Yola’s smooth rasp throughout may signal that she has been through it all, but it doesn’t mean she has been weakened. No, she powerfully breathes out her truth as she sings, “Now I’m alive” — a strong statement that actively answers the burning question posed in the intro track.
At 38 years old, Yola acknowledges her pitfalls as much as her celebrations. She’s in control and at this rate, there’s no telling where her next evolution will take her. One thing for sure, she’ll be telling the story herself — the person she has learned to stand for.