The Story Behind Every Song On Yola’s New Album Stand For Myself

The Story Behind Every Song On Yola’s New Album Stand For Myself

Stand For Myself is a classic-sounding album about deeply modern concerns. Its appeal is immediate and direct, but its contents are densely layered with musical and philosophical ideas. You can go into Yola’s second album without knowing a thing about its backstory and quickly become convinced you’re hearing one of the year’s finest releases — and then you can read her thoughtful breakdown of the album’s arc and recognize it’s as complex as a graduate thesis or an auteurist feature film.

Born Yolanda Quartey in Bristol to Barbadian parents, Yola aspired to be a singer from a young age. That dream seemed on track by 2008, when she was singing for Massive Attack on a tour that included the UK’s gargantuan Glastonbury festival. But within a few years, her life and career were at an impasse as she crossed over from her twenties to her thirties. Just after her band Phantom Limb petered out in 2012, a series of traumatic events — the death of her mother in 2013, a house fire in 2014 — launched her on a self-actualization quest that led to Nashville.

There, she’s become one of the Music City’s most exciting forces: a singer with a versatile powerhouse voice and a personality to match, lending 21st century perspective to a range of 20th century sounds. The industry has noticed. The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach signed Yola to his Easy Eye Sound label and produced her 2019 debut album Walk Through Fire, which spawned a number of Grammy nominations including Best New Artist. Along with Sheryl Crow, she’s an unofficial member of the country supergroup the Highwomen, and Dolly Parton herself invited her to perform “9 To 5” at Newport Folk Festival two years ago. She’s even branched out into Hollywood acting, with a role as Sister Rosetta Tharpe in Baz Luhrmann’s upcoming Elvis Presley biopic.

In a sense, all that feels like warmup for her second LP. Again produced by Auerbach, Stand For Myself builds on the country soul foundation of her debut, venturing out into exultant disco, wispy ’90s R&B, and a lush panorama of styles. The record has an Adele-like ability to make decidedly retro sounds feel current and vital. Partially that’s because Yola spends these songs fleshing out a narrative distinctly grounded in this era, a nuanced look at empowerment from a Black immigrant woman’s perspective. And partially it’s because Yola’s voice is so vibrant, at turns both vulnerable and fiercely commanding, that you can’t help but to tune in and be present in the moment.

Over Zoom last month, Yola spoke with depth and enthusiasm about her new songs and the experiences that informed them. Press play on Stand For Myself and read our track-by-track interview below.

1. “Barely Alive”

Why is this the opening song?

YOLA: This song is the opener because it’s the only opener, because every song in this album plays a part. It’s a part of my narrative, and a part of a lot of our narratives. We may have, in our youth, spent some life force being drained in this state of, I suppose, minimizing yourself. That’s what the song’s about. It’s about the minimizing of yourself, and what that does to you, what that feels like. That’s why it had to be the opener, because that’s how I started. I started being a token Black lady in a very, very white space. But in that scenario, not choosing to take up space, or being able or feeling empowered enough to do so. And just desperately trying to fit in, and I think everyone can identify with desperately trying to fit in. But the sad thing about this is that it comes at the expense of my sense of self and my ability to lead.

That’s kind of where we get to with the opening part of this song. I’m always asking a question. I like to not just be preaching, like, “Oh, this is what it is. This is how it was.” The last line of the song is in the ad lib. And I say, “They didn’t take your life, I guess this is living.” That’s a reference to what it’s like, out in the streets and not just in social situations — or in the classroom or at university, where you feel like you might be in a space where you’re a minority. It’s like when you’re just out in the streets, and someone decides to stop and search you, which is a thing in the UK. Or they pull you over if you’re in the US, or whatever it is, and you somehow survived.

So I’m giving a very slow clap, like, “Well done, you survived! That’s really impressive. Um, like, now what?” So you’ve been minimizing yourself like, “Oh, please, thank you, sorry,” and everything, and they still pulled you over, even though you take all of those evasive actions to be the most inoffensive Black person, or brown person, or whatever person. And you’re not dead. That’s a thing. Now that you’ve managed that, what can we do more than just not being killed? Can we actually thrive? That’s very much the sentiment of the opening song, and it was only going to be possible to open the record with that question.

Some album openers come racing out of the gate at high speed, with high intensity. This one kind of eases you into the album. That’s one of the things I like about the album, that it’s willing to be patient. There are parts that are upbeat, but part of the classic sound of it is that you have these slower straight-up ballads. And so beyond the themes that it lays down, it kind of sets a tone that it’s not your average 2021 album.

YOLA: No. And, the lack of urgency is purposeful. Because I didn’t, like, arrive until somewhat recently, and I haven’t just popped out of the womb. I had to employ some level of patience. Sometimes people, when they’re aware of exactly how much I’ve done, they’re like, “God, you had to be really patient!” And I’m like, “Yep.” I knew I was going to be doing this from age four. So my level of patience has been untold. And so yeah, I’m not gonna necessarily smack you upside the face, out of the gate. I’m gonna ease you into it. I feel like the second song gets you up into the tempo, and lets you know some good things are coming.

2. “Dancing Away In Tears”

YOLA: The first thing that was defining from that part of my life, where I’m minimizing myself to fit in, I’m trying to then somehow grow — you get to a point in your life where you realize you’ve outgrown your environment. It may be because it’s not going to allow you to grow to the level that you need to grow to, because that growth might be threatening. It can also be just that you’re starting to move into spaces where these people won’t be able to keep up. And needing to talk about things that people might not understand how to talk about. You can find yourself just growing out of whole environments, whole social groups, whole scenes, just because you need to keep growing. And if there’s anything that we need to be doing throughout life, it’s to keep growing.

I thought this song really is so foundationally about boundaries, and that it’s OK to have been in that state, the prior state — that it was part of the process — but you’ve now outgrown that. And that can be everything. It could be romantically, of course, but that parallels with everything. Maybe the most pivotal part of changing my life was realizing when I’d outgrown something. I need to be in that state of searching for something else.

And so we have the chorus — “Breaking up is always hard to do!” — and then we’re into that the concept of that one: “One less step is all I want with you!” I love that about this stage of my life. It doesn’t all have to be negative! This was great. I want to say goodbye — just in a good and healthy way. “Thank you. You probably won’t see me again. You may, you probably won’t, I’ve got a real good knack of disappearing when I wanna.”

So that’s how we get into this song. It’s a really gentle way of exerting boundaries. I think I was terrified to exert boundaries for a long time. I started maybe too late in life. People in my life were horrified and fought at every turn. Like, goodness, I remember telling somebody that I wasn’t literally just going to jump when they asked me to jump or ask how high, and they were like, “What? You always normally do.” It was like this sense of horror that I’d somehow figured out that I don’t have to obey everyone’s commands all times. That’s kind of the undercurrent to this song.

The reason it’s so disco and joyful is because that’s how it felt when I realized that I could actually say no, or move, or grow. The energy you feel in that song is possibility. And when I’m delivering it, it’s like when you sing your head voice, it’s almost like japanning. You know? It’s very much like you’re escaping out of the top of your head. Technically, that’s what you envisage when you’re singing out of the top of your head to keep the tension out of your voice. So it felt like that rising level, that upper echelon of existence. The delivery speaks on it, the production choice speaks on it, and the lyrics speak on this idea of elevating. That’s where we come into this stage of the story. It’s almost like we’ve decided to compact the whole doormat part of my life — which, granted, was probably the first 29-30 years of my life — into one song, and we’re just like, “Ugh, but we don’t need to dwell on that. Let’s talk about every permutation of the state of change.” And so state one is outgrowing shit.

When was this epiphany? Around your 30th birthday?

YOLA: Not quite birthday. I think when it was when I was in the past incarnation of myself — Doormat Yola, as I like to refer to her. I think I was, over a period of time, realizing that it wasn’t sustainable in the recesses of my mind. I had little plans and little ideas, just burrowed away for if I needed to just change everything — what I might do. The fact that that existed was proof that it was gonna happen at some point. Because if you’re making a plan to escape or a plan to change everything that you’re doing — like everyone you’re working with and just everything in your life — then yeah, you probably need that.

I got to that stage in my life exactly at my mother’s funeral in October 2013. I was watching her casket be carried down the central aisle of the church to be loaded into the hearse to be taken to the burial plot, which was up the road. I had to follow the hearse on my motorcycle because I’ve never driven a car, I’ve always been a biker, or a cyclist. When I was watching it being carried out of the church, it was disappointingly small, almost like comedically small. It was a moment like an episode in South Park.

All of this drama had been happening. My mother was nothing if not drama. We didn’t have the easiest of relationships. She had all of the tenets of a clinical psychopath, which made her function very well in society. Because society, oddly, seems to reward psychopathic traits — from your ability to just be entirely functional and essentially not being over-empathetic, or just being driven and able to just keep going, come what may. Society loves that in a person. But obviously, in the role of a mother, it’s not the most welcome trait to have.

I had to always be translating emotional concepts to her. Everything for her was very extreme, like, “This person’s an enemy, this person is on my kill list, this is how I’m going to deal with a situation that you could actually deal with in a very different way.” It’s not that these people weren’t causing you pain, it’s just that the way that you deal with it can get you a greater sense or a lesser sense of success and can give you a greater sense or a lesser sense of stress.

Anyway, the drama was massive, her personality was massive. Fast forward to this casket. She’s five foot at the time of death, or maybe about maybe 5’2″, and it’s never going to manifest — the energy, the drama, the Cartman-type comedy of her massively inappropriate humor. None of it was going to be big enough for this box. The epiphany came looking at this tiny thing go into the ground and thinking, “Now what exactly is it that matters that much?” Because after all of that, you get this almost duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh style ending to life — which is like flipping the bird, just going, “Yeah, none of that really matters. Did you figure it out yet? That’s the trick.” And then it’s over. Woohoo!

I had an epiphany that I should put aside whatever it was that was holding me back because this is definitely not a dress rehearsal. I started going through the process of grief. Then processing the idea of maybe changing my paradigm of thinking entirely. And that process got sped up somewhat when I was in a house fire, about a year later. As I was burning alive, I was like, “I’m ready. I would take my life right now.” So the year that I spent building my life in a way that I would choose to have it was glorious. I was like, “This is great.” At that moment when I was burning, I realized that I’d nailed it. I’m like, “Everything I’m doing, I’m on the path. Finally, this is the way. I just need to just do it now, speed up, it’s time.” The epiphany was at the funeral, but the activation point was during my burning flesh.

Actually, I can show you: Here’s one of the burns from 2014. I got this one fighting the fire, because I went back in and put it out. As I got a lick, I was like, “Lick away, sunshine! I’m ready for this.” I just carried on fighting it. Having beat burning was a real joy. I started laughing my ass off. If I hadn’t had that moment of just realizing that I’d take my life now plus fire any day of the week, and therefore laughing, I’d be dead now. Because it’s the laughter that brought me out shock. I was completely in overload of cortisol and stress and consequent shock. The laughing broke me out of it, then I immediately stopped, dropped, and rolled. So it was just that epiphany that saved my life.

So that was the framing for the last album.

YOLA: Yes. Exactly. Exactly that. So that’s kind of the context of — it’s like a slowed-down version of all the processing that I did in the split seconds I was still burning. And that’s kind of the first record: “So, you’re burning? What are the things that are going through your head whilst you’re burning? These things. Enjoy the next 12 songs.” So I’ve done that. I’ve burned, I’ve had the epiphany that’s encapsulated somewhat in the look back of the first song. “Dancing Away In Tears,” I’ve started the process. It’s boundaries. Let’s do this. And after this, we get into one of the singles.

3. “Diamond Studded Shoes”

This is the lead single, and you can see why. It really sweeps you away.

YOLA: It’s kind of inspired by Theresa May, UK Prime Minister, predecessor to Boris Johnson — who is not an improvement, FYI. By far, not an improvement. But she’s delivering one of her party conferences in some lovely diamond studded shoes. The subject on the docket is “We don’t have any money. I’m so sorry. I know, you pay me and I’m wearing diamonds all over my body. I’m literally walking on diamonds. But we still don’t have money to feed tiny children and mothers and nurses. You name it. We can’t do it for you. So look, don’t look at my entire wardrobe. Don’t look at my lifestyle. Please don’t look at my expenses that I claim. Don’t look at any of these things. We all are absolutely getting coked out of our minds on your budget. That’s what’s happening.” And so, that whole narrative of, like, “Oh, no. Oh, we’re all in this together.” Like… yeah, bullshit. I call bullshit on the whole thing.

I was in my mate’s living room, Aaron Lee Tasjan. He was like, “Well, you think you got it bad, with those people literally just like yucking it up on your frickin’ pounds. We just elected frickin’ 45.” I won’t even say his name. It’s like Voldemort. He shall not be named. And so I’m like, “Mate, I don’t know what’s happening there. Everything’s going insane. Like, what is this whole populism vibe?”

Needless to say, we’re there hanging out with a guitar. The idea was to be writing a song, but we just started talking, because that’s how I write — I talk to people, and I get to the core of how I’m feeling, and then something comes out of that. He starts playing, and I’m like, “Yeah, that’s something.” He played a few things at this point, and none of them were the one. But this one’s it. “We know it isn’t, We know it isn’t, we know it isn’t.” And then he’s like, “Oh, that’s good.” I’m like, “Keep playing.” “It ain’t gonna turn out right. We know it isn’t.” And then the first verse just comes down the old, psychic freaking mental synapse, like kablammo. “Everybody’s saying that it’s going to be all right.” And it’s just one of those times when your hand is writing almost gibberish because your hand can’t move as quick as your brain is moving. I was like, “Wow, this feels of the time.” I always felt it needed another section, and another section wasn’t coming that day. I was like, “I’m not gonna force this, this has got fire.”

I left it for a bit then I took it to my band in the UK — what I like to call the ROW band, the “rest of the world” band. We played through it. We had a power quartet with me, my buddy who was on drums at the time, Harry Harding, and Kit Hawes is basically my brother — and also the person who made me way less afraid to play guitar, and shepherded me to my own self actualization — and Nick Movshon on bass. We were playing the song. I thought, “Let’s just play it out, even without the section I think it needs.” People went insane for it. I played it at Glasgow ABC, which has since burned down. But it was a gorgeous venue and everyone loved playing it. Glaswegians do really like a protest song. I don’t know if you’ve met a lot of Scottish people, but they’re ready to sock it to the man yesterday. That was exactly the place to play this song. Anyone that’s in Glasgow that’s reading this will be like, “Yeah, I remember that.” It was like, “Oh, I’m putting this back in this box, I’m gonna wait until it’s finished, because it’s gonna slap someone upside the face when it is.”

And at some point, like late 2018 or something, the chorus chords came. I was like, “This is really simple! How the hell did this not come before?” Well, you know, it is what it is. It takes more time. So by then we’ve already written the first record, and I’m like, “It’s fine, it wasn’t supposed to be on that one.” We already understand the function of the first record and what it was supposed to do. I’m just sitting on this thing, knowing it’s there, knowing that there still may be some lyrical tweaks that I want to deliver to it to make it just say everything and bring it up to date. So we do that. That’s kind of how it is born. By the time it comes to releasing it as a single, and maybe even before when we’re actually tracking it, I realized it gets truer every day. I was like, “God, it’s literally about a point in history, and it’s truer today than even the moment that it was about.”

That’s the thing that gets me about that song. Until we deal with the supremacist paradigm that is masquerading as the white supremacist paradigm — which is actually the class divide paradigm and the white supremacist paradigm combined to divide all of humanity to then extract wealth from it — until we get on top of that as a concept, as a human race, and we understand that the term race has been co-opted to not mean species, but to program within us the concept that we’re fundamentally different — until we get over all of that, we won’t have a hope of being.

That’s the function of this song, that’s the message of the song. It’s not all just gonna figure itself out. We’re gonna have to fight for every moment of advancing the agenda of equity. We’re going to have to get over the programming within ourselves. We’re gonna have to really do the hard work. That’s what it is. Every song that tells you, “It’s gonna be all right,” it’s just being an opiate. And it’s a lie. It’s not. You know it’s not, I know it’s not. Bitches are dead. We all know that’s what it is. That’s what’s happening. It’s not surprising that the pandemic isn’t sorting itself out. Nothing that’s arduous is just sorting itself out. That’s the theme of that song.

But of course, in true style, if I’m going to deliver you a hard message, I subscribe wholly to Mary Poppins’ theorem of “A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down.” So it’s groovy as heck. That’s where I get into that part of my life, where I realize it isn’t just me and the things I have to put boundaries up in my social life, that the grand construct is programming us to not make the most of ourselves and who we are and what we want. All of these things play on the personal. And that’s how it ties into the next song.

4. “Be My Friend”

YOLA: This whole song is fiercely about allyship. We’ve got to this idea of boundaries, this idea of the grand construct that is trying to divide us. So logically, I want to make connections. And I have, and I am letting you know what it’s like when you make those connections. In all of the pre-choruses you’ve got, “Hope someone remember, somebody knows your name.” The idea that you’re just hoping someone recognizes that you need an ally at this point, because you’re the token “dot dot dot” in this space. Society has made you feel that way and has created the narrative for you to be that way. So you need people to be reaching out and to be making that effort and recognize what the grand construct has created and to try and dismantle that through connecting.

That’s a theme that goes through into “Great Divide” as well, but in a different way, because I’m talking romantically. There’s a theme that goes across “Great Divide” and “Starlight” and maybe through to “Now You’re Here” that speaks from this point of sentimentality. “Great Divide” is very doo-wop-y and very sentimental in its approach. The function of that is that that reaching out and that moment when you realize you have found an ally in “Be My Friend” is the catalyst to that softening of yourself. You don’t need to be in this trope of strong Black women anymore. You don’t need to be like, “Oh, I’m going to be one dimensional.” You don’t need to adhere to the media that tell you this is how it’s supposed to be.

You have background vocals from Brandi Carlile on “Be My Friend.” Did you choose to have her on that because you view her as an ally as you’re describing or because of her being queer and identifying as other?

YOLA: Both. Nailed it. Exactly both. She’s been an ally, she is an ally, she goes above and beyond to make sure that I’m seen and heard in spaces that I’m not in yet. And she cares about my wellbeing as a human, as well as my experience professionally. And she’s queer, and the result of that queerdom is that she has been the token gay person in environments. And so I thought from an ethnic minority and a sexual orientation minority, to be speaking to everyone going, “Be our ally!” is really what it is. Her vocal is a little pumped up, so it’s almost an Everly Brothers-esque duet more than necessarily a background vocal, purposefully. So that it’s us talking to you. United, if you will.

5. “Great Divide”

YOLA: So you get to “Great Divide” and I’m fully in my softer self, and it’s all very flowing and melodic. It’s very yielding in it sentiments. I think there’s a massive rebellious nature of not being the trope, when all that society has for you — in media, in any representation of yourself — is trope. That’s the functioning of “Be My Friend” in the record, and how it connects to that moment, that opening up. This is when that happens, or will happen in your life, if you do choose to go on this journey of self-actualizing in a way that is more about your nuance and about the spirit of yourself. We get into this whole, “I want to connect” — like we can’t because of situations, or because I haven’t figured out how yet, but I want it to happen.

6. “Starlight”

YOLA: Then we get to “Starlight,” and it finally bloody does. And it doesn’t matter, really, it’s not really like contextually about the idea of finally. It’s more that it doesn’t matter, the nature of this connection — it doesn’t matter if it’s forever, or for a minute. It doesn’t mean it can’t be nurturing. I think one of the things that we tell ourselves in the media that we consume, in everything that we post on social media, is that this fairytale story of everything I experienced up until marriage or something like that was utter misery. That all of my problems were solved. “I never had a positive sexual experience outside of marriage in all of my life.” And we all know, we’re all not virgins. We all know that that’s a lie. We have had many experiences that were perfectly positive, and also weren’t marriage. This idea of everything from the connections that didn’t happen or didn’t exist or were negative, and plaguing your life, all the way through to the forever, there is a big chasm between those existences.

“Starlight” is telling the story that we all lived, and that we don’t talk about, which is our positive connections that aren’t marriage, our positive connections that are sexual that aren’t marriage, and to not be a trope of the overly sexualized Black lady, to be able to be deserving of tenderness before you legally belong to somebody, because that’s problematic if that’s the only situation in which you’re allowed to experience joy. That feels way too patriarchal for my sense of comfort. In the narrative of that, it’s the idea that I can be a sexual Black lady and not an overly sexualized Black lady. And that’s fine. Claiming that narrative is a massive rebellion, because you don’t see that in places enough.

In the chorus you sing, “Don’t let me be misunderstood.” Is that a reference to Nina Simone?

YOLA: Yes. Exactly. And countless other soul and rock songs that have quoted that exact line. Yes. But in this case, obviously, like I’ve said before, one more time for my imagination. I’m playing through some pretty dirty thoughts is what’s happening, but I’m like, “Don’t let me be misunderstood.” I’m not high. I’m not tripping balls here. This is just me in my mind, imagining what’s about to happen in my sexual self. That’s what it is.

7. “If I Had To Do It All Again”

YOLA: That’s how we get on to “If I Had To Do It All Again” and that idea that you found people that will allow you to do all of this. You’ve reached out for your allies, and you’ve wanted to make the connections. You don’t quite know how, but you’re gonna figure it out. You make some early connections, they’re not forever connections, but they’re feeding you and they’re helping you discover yourself. You never wanna marry someone… Well, you know some people do marry people that have never had sex before, but I wouldn’t! That’s all I’m saying. In the same way, you might want to try all your connections to find the people who are most suited to you, both sexually and socially. So I have found such people in this song and I’m really grateful for them being in my life, be it socially, professionally, by and large. I’ve built these connections that are really just allowing me to grow and I’m grateful for that.

The arrangement here is really interesting — the open space in it, the sounds popping into it. How much of that was planned out during the writing and how much of it was something that just kind of came about in the studio?

YOLA: I think in the writing of the process, it was quite sparse in its way. There was always going to be space in it. But I think the melody was influenced by the Aaliyah, Mary J era of melody, and maybe even to a degree, a little earlier, the Annie Lennoxes might have had a little bit of an influence in that. Natalie Hemby was co-writer on that, and she really brought the seed of that song. We were talking about that era of music, and so she was exploring that in herself. When we were creating that song, it was already leaning towards that, and the production was an entire work of Dan’s imagination and understanding of that space and time as well. When we were putting that together, he had a very strong idea of what it needed to be, and that really brought it together. I don’t think I would have seen that one coming as precise as the work is, like the quiet definitely required Dan’s vision even though we were leaning into that in the writing.

I think, even though it seems like a really simple concept of a song, there’s a reason why it’s got a bit of a ’90s-leaning energy to it in the production style and in its feel, and then certainly in my delivery. That was the era where I was growing the most, musically. I knew I wanted to be a singer and a songwriter from age four. I really felt like the ’90s helped shape me, so it’s really fitting that that song has that aesthetic and is about the environment that is allowing me to grow. It’s as much about my social environment as it is my professional environment. It leads very cleanly on to “Now You’re Here.”

8. “Now You’re Here”

YOLA: And that is romantic sentimentality in the forever sense. It’s very much like the finally. OK, so I’ve made all these connections, I figured out what I need to do and finally, you’re here. Thanks for turning up. It was an age, where the heck were you?

I wanted to write something with a sense of that brand of sentimentality, because there are lots of different permutations of how I’m sentimental. I think it’s a really common trait to talk about. And I have recently talked about how you can be 50% hoeing in it and 50% are a complete, sentimental person who is looking for that forever connection. They don’t have to be mutually exclusive or a juxtaposition in terms. They very commonly inhabit the same space. There are too many friends I talked to who talk about this exact state of mind. It’s the most common state of mind I’ve talked about with other women — it’s that 50%, “You know what, my libido is actually quite high. What time is it?” And 50% “I’m really sentimental and I really want to just find the person I’m supposed to be with.” They both exist, and that’s fine.

That was a real moment of relief. And I think I wanted to talk about this moment because Black women deserve tenderness. And a part of the trope, the reason why I dissed this trope of the strong Black woman so hard, is because the result of it is negligence, and the result of it is one where you assume that someone, because of this strength, is heartless, or is unfeeling or will perpetually survive. You throwing her into a pit of crocodiles or whatever it may be, the idea is that you will both survive and thrive and lift everyone else up out of their nightmare, simultaneously, and no one’s got you. No one, you’re alone. No one cares about you. When you die, everyone will think about what they’re not going to get from you anymore. And that perpetual sense of service is destroying that sense of hope within a person. It’s probably one of the foundational reasons why I didn’t want to lead, because I didn’t want anyone to ride me all the way to the bloody bank. People don’t know how to look after Black women in that they don’t bother, not that they don’t know how. They just don’t.

So this song is soft. It is about being well tended, because that’s what we deserve, as much as anyone else. But there’s such a central element of neglect in the Black lady narrative. It’s too much to bear. That’s why that song is so important on the record. Without that, you can’t get to those moments of self actualization when you’re at the end of the record and you feel all grounded and you’ve arrived. You can’t get there if no one’s got you. You can’t do it alone. So if I had to do it all again, I wouldn’t want to do it without you. You wouldn’t want to do it without me, that reciprocated connection, that nurturing, that “thank you for seeing me” that was asked for and “Be My Friend” and has arrived here. In the social sense, the work sense, the romantic sense, in all the senses it is essential.

9. “Whatever You Want”

YOLA: By the time we get to “Whatever You Want,” we’re starting to throw out some real, “OK, that’s a hell no for you and a hell no, I’ve got all the things I need! So you want to come in some patriarchal construct, good luck with that! You’re already too late for that! I’m a different bitch.” That’s what it was like for me, people going, “Hey, cool. This is how it is.” And I’m like, “Your days are numbered, sunshine.”

That’s exactly what it was. That’s why that comes at that part of the story. That was very much my professional life. But as opposed to earlier, I think I was always asking for less, but once I’ve got that foundation of support, it gave me the self confidence to say no in situations, to not just realize I’m outgrowing things, but to then be offered things and bat them away when they’re wrong at great speed. We get to that, and the bros are descending, and I’m like, “No, mate, not this time, sorry. I’m not gonna live in your bro world.” You can get opportunities that are apparently amazing for someone that’s not me.

10. “Break The Bough”

YOLA: That’s when we get to the reaffirming, why these boundaries are important. We get to “Break The Bough,” which is the song from 2013 from my mother’s funeral, and it’s the goodbye to that stage of my life, where neglect was central because my mother didn’t know how to do any other way. My family left me on the street to die. The idea of going, “I need this,” and people going, “Sorry, no, you’ll be fine, though.” I could have died, again. The myriad ways in which I could have died. But at least I would have died in fire by that point, that would have been earlier in my life. But like, I shouldn’t have almost died in lots of different ways. That’s not normal. That’s not acceptable. And so I’m saying goodbye to a difficult relationship with as much love as I can muster and a tiny bit of sending up. That’s me identifying one of the foundations — outside of the grand construct of white supremacy — that has programmed me to think that I would put up with anything less than being nurtured. And so I deal with the grand of the macro and then here I am with the microcosm.

She was born in Barbados. So there are lots of references to mangos, picking sugarcane. She played cricket, so she’d scrump mangos — scrumping is the British verb for stealing apples, but I don’t know if there’s another word for scrumping mangos, so I use that verb scrumping. But she used to go and frickin’ neck mangos. It was a borderline obsession of hers, her favorite food was mangos. She’d play cricket with no shoes quite a lot, or walk back home. She had a pet pig called Nelly that would walk her home from school.

There are all these images that I draw on, which were the imagined ideal of Barbados before the Brits effectuated the bait-and-switch of the Windrush generation, where they coax you out of paradise to a certain hellish modern housing estate, and then talk your Memaw out of the beachfront real estate and build a load of hotels and make a gazillion off it. That’s essentially the shorthand for the Windrush generation. And then later once they have your Memaw’s land, deport you back to the land that isn’t your Memaw’s anymore. That whole uptempo, jolly sendup is what that is. It’s like a saying goodbye to all of that drama. I’m making an effort to move to a different play.

11. “Like A Photograph”

YOLA: That’s when we get into “Like A Photograph.” Talking of that different plane, that idea of “When are you going to do this?” Whoever said “Life is like a river that’s gonna go on forever” has to have been out of their mind. It’s going on. It’s a tie-on from that story I was talking about watching my mother’s casket go down into the ground — it’s not forever. If I waste another minute or am refusing to be in it, show me back in, rain or come shine. What if I just lose it? I’m not gonna be perfect. So just, like, please be an ally, in the real sense and not just going, “I’m with you.” But just go, “Hey, we’ll plan this.” I’m gonna do the best to do that for myself. I’ll do that for you, too. That’s how we get to the idea that when you’re making these changes, it’s not going to be easy. You will need people to kind of go, “Oh, didn’t you want this?” Like, “Yeah, I did.” Or, “No, I’ve actually changed my mind, honestly, let me explain to you how,” but to keep you on song.

You want to do that before it’s too late. So in a way, you can imagine this song being about speaking to someone on their deathbed, as much as it can be at someone going through a very big paradigm shift in their life. And when you finally do get to that point of breakthrough, and it’s starting to work for you, that’s how we get to “Stand For Myself.”

12. “Stand For Myself”

YOLA: So you’re like, “I’m really starting to get the benefits of this thing.” It’s like you feel juiced. You’re like, “I’m here. It has happened. Like, it’s great. Why didn’t I do this earlier!” You’ve got friends who haven’t done it yet, you’re like, “Buddy, I don’t know what you’re doing! Just move through this process, build a team around you of people that actually care whether you live or die, build a social situation of people around you that care whether you live or die, say no to everything that doesn’t serve you. Trust me on this one, it feels amazing.” I’m looking back at my past self, I’m looking back at friends who I’m like, “Come on, buddy!” and I’m exclaiming, I’m in this moment of absolute freedom. Arriving there and feeling creatively free is how I felt about this record. I’m fully realizing, in the moment of singing the song that was keeping me up at night and that I had to ask my friends to help me get out of my head in 2018.

That’s kind of the function of this. The whole lyric is talking you through every stage I’ve gone through, that I understand why you close your eyes and what your deaf ear is. You want to feel nothing, you don’t wanna have to do the work, I get it. But now, I’m alive. It’s kind of hard to explain that I had to do all that stuff. I had to go through all of that. It’s not that isn’t part of the process — it is — but it’s also time for the process to be over. You don’t have to just be learning from mistakes and pain, you can actually transcend that and start self actualizing and start living and start feeling and start loving deeper, forgiving yourself more. And all of that is kind of where the album winds up. Empowerment is a real basic term. I didn’t really want it to be because I think that’s the kind of narrative that can be co-opted. I think it’s so much more about if you are able to be most in yourself, you’re going to be most able to be loving and understanding and empathetic towards other people. I think a lot of the things that we suffer from in society is a crisis of empathy.

Joseph Ross Smith

Stand For Myself is out now on Easy Eye Sound.

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