When the artist Yolanda Quarterly, now better known as Yola, was just a bump in her mother's belly, she was already bopping to music. Yola's mother was a registered nurse, who used to DJ at a hospital's mental health unit. Disco and soul, sounds Yola would hear before entering the world, would go on to influence her later in life.
Yola burst onto the American music scene in 2019 with her debut album, Walk Through Fire, which received four Grammy nominations. At that point, she had already spent 20 years in the music industry in her native England, writing songs for other bands and singing with groups like Massive Attack.
Now, she lives in Nashville, and she's fully ready to claim her spotlight — that's what the title track on her new album, Stand for Myself, is all about. Yola joined NPR's Ari Shapiro to talk about the disco-infused project and her process of reclaiming creative independence after years in the music industry. Listen in the audio player above, and read on for highlights of the interview.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
On creative freedom in the music industry
"All I've been trying to do in my life, in my musical journey, is to have the right to have control over my own life, and that seems like it's become — and it always seems to become — a controversial concept. Like, what if I have autonomy, then someone doesn't have the ability to control my skill set and to milk money from my skill set? And so, because of my skill set, I — all of a sudden — don't have the right to have control over my own life. I don't want control over anyone else's life. I'm not remotely interested in anyone else's bloody life.
"Even in situations where I didn't want the credit, because I was like, 'This isn't my path.' It's the idea of actually being able to chart your own path at all. So, when you're in collaboration with somebody, for that person to not try and co-opt the story to be all about them and to be nothing to do with you. And as is very common in Black lady life, you can get nudged into servitude, into being made to be thankful that you're [being] given the opportunity to slay for the betterment of somebody else."
On identity, genre and privilege
"Because of what my voice does and what a lot of Black women's voices will do, we'll be very blendable with about a gazillion genres. ... Think about soul music and how blendable it is with disparate genres. You could have it with techno or metal, and it blends as well as it does with country or hip-hop. And there aren't other genres that will blend as uniformly. And so, it's one of these things that, if you have a soul voice, for example, and you don't have the benefit of male privilege, you can find yourself being co-opted."
On solo artistry, autonomy and collaboration
"On this record, I got to choose who [the collaborators were]. So, it's the idea of having choice, having consent, all of these things are what autonomy is. It's not about being alone, it's about having choice and about writing your own story, and also just being in a space where you've actually met people, you know people, you have personal connections that you can then work with and create beautiful works. Because that's all I've ever really wanted to do is write songs and sing songs, be it on my own or with people. Just to be able to commune in that way, and express what I have to express. And it's taken quite a long time for people to be willing to hear a woman of color, of my particular hue, do that. It's taken longer than it has maybe some of my paler peers."