Elegant Connections: Yola on the Science and Art of Songwriting

Yola performs with Orville Peck at Red Rocks on Thursday, July 22.
Yola performs with Orville Peck at Red Rocks on Thursday, July 22. Joseph Ross Smith
In 2019, Grammy-nominated British singer-songwriter Yola, who plays Red Rocks on July 22, made waves with her country-steeped debut, Walk Through Fire. But the seeds of her upcoming soulful, symphonic, classic-pop album, Stand for Myself, had already been germinating; the pandemic shutdown just helped them blossom.

Prior to spending her quarantine in Nashville, Yola had written four songs that would end up on Stand for Myself, which drops on July 30. One of those, “Break the Bough,” was started in 2013: She came up with the bass line for the upbeat soul tune while riding her motorcycle home after her mother’s funeral, and wrote the first verse as she pulled up to her house. The song opens with her imagining her mother — who was from Barbados and moved to England in the ’70s — in the afterlife, dreaming of mangoes on the tree, sugar cane and shoeless feet. The track continues with “Forget every distant memory / Every foe you dreamed to kill / Every emotion you never let spill.”

“It was like something that was always there,” Yola says of the song. “I played it in its various guises. I was happy and comfortable with it as an idea.”

But something was missing.

Too close to her mother’s death to finish the lyrics, she needed time to grieve and process the difficulties of their relationship, so she set the song aside for years. When she returned to it, she realized that the words were about her need to change her paradigm of life. “It’s still about that,” she says, ”but I didn’t necessarily realize that.”

Yola knew that she had other songs that “had fire,” some of which she’d started a few years ago while learning to play guitar. But by 2018, the real reason for Stand for Myself still hadn’t emerged. “I was just waiting for the narrative to emerge,” she says. “And the narrative emerged in lockdown.”

Stand for Myself explores her journey from a time in her life when she was downplaying herself in order to assimilate into society. “The way that we’re normally encouraged to minimize ourselves is to not speak on what our lives are like,” she explains. “If you are an other — a minority or just not the same as everyone else in said group — it’s a state of mind and a state of society and a state of life where you’re encouraged to minimize yourself, and your efforts to minimize are very much celebrated.”

She found herself hiding her own life experiences and allowing herself to be co-opted into serving others rather than developing a sense of agency. “You serve with joy, and you don’t highlight anything that makes you different and consequently requiring different service or different help or different ways to connect,” she says. “You just assimilate, and you shut up.”

Over time, Yola has managed to free herself from that tendency to hold herself back in order to please others, a struggle she likens to escaping from a burning house in the title song on Walk Through Fire. In turn, Stand for Myself follows her journey toward freedom from such assimilation.

“It’s almost as though the first record is the instant of being on fire, and all of the things and all of the yearnings that I had, and that fire burned away,” she explains. “And this record is all about where I started, and then these are the boundaries I had to observe. These are the things I had to realize. This is the way I had to reach out to people once I’d realized who to reach out to in the first place. These are the connections I made. This is the love I absorbed and managed to find, and this is the self-actualization that I benefit [from].”

Stand for Myself chronicles Yola’s process of growing up and building her own sense of self-worth and personal power. “If you’re trying to take up space and be the best of yourself, being the least of yourself isn’t being the best of yourself,” she says. “And even though that seems obvious when you say it, everything in society encourages women — especially women of color — to serve when it’s time for you to serve, then disappear or shut up and assimilate.”

The narrative of Stand for Myself became clear during lockdown, when Yola experienced stillness, something she had been missing for a few years.
“I feel like just the stillness of lockdown really unraveled what a lot of the songs were about,” she notes. “And then I would go back to my back catalogue and be like, ‘Oh, that’s about that, too, and that’s about that, too. I should have a look at this again. I could take this to the studio and see if anyone could find a bridge for me for this, because then it’s finished.’”

Yola was slated to play arenas and stadiums last year, opening for Chris Stapleton. But when that tour got scrapped by the pandemic, along with some headlining shows and festival gigs, she used her time off to explore creativity and push herself to tap into her subconscious.

Passionate about science, she has studied the neuropsychology of creativity. She points to a video that examined how physicists have shifted their cognitive processes away from the prefrontal cortex to the midbrain and near the colliculus. Those are "the parts of the brain that absorb the entirety of your environment that you’ve ever been in in your life,” she notes, “but not the things that you’ve necessarily processed or focused on.”

Yola used the physicists’ technique to tap into information, experiences, music and sensations she might have zipped past but not necessarily processed consciously. She started staying up until dawn, “trying to get myself into this borderline trance-like state when I’m not really conscious. Loads of ideas come to the fore,” she says.

“I know that I’ve absorbed more than my fair share of lyrics in my time and written so many songs and thought so many things,” she continues. “Being in this state of mind seems like a no-brainer when it comes to trying to find an elegant connection as opposed to muscling one consciously that may or may not want to exist. That was the reasoning behind writing at that time. It was to make the elegant connections, to make the ones that feel like they belong together, because I have found not only a salient point that needs to be made, but I’ve made a connection to a number of things so I can say something maybe where each word I’m using can have more power.”
That’s more than evident on Stand for Myself, where Yola croons about mortality on “Break the Bough.” She takes on politics in “Diamond Studded Shoes,” a nod to the pricey footwear that then-English Prime Minister Theresa May wore while announcing service cutbacks. In “Starlight,” Yola sings “about looking for positive physical, sexual and human connections at every level of your journey toward love.” And she recognizes the value of allyship in “Be My Friend,” which includes guest vocals from Brandi Carlile. On all of them, she sings with an omnipotent voice, pushing low and high registers, and effortlessly acclimating to genres ranging from country and soul to pop and R&B.

Yola took her songs to another level when collaborating with her producer and co-writer, Black Keys frontman Dan Auerbach, and a number of other Nashville-based musicians, including Jay Oladokun, Ruby Amanfu, Natalie Hemby, Bobby Wood and Pat McLaughlin. Through close relationships with her team, she felt comfortable digging into her own experiences.

“There are loads of things that I couldn’t have done just going in cold with someone I’d never met before,” Yola says. “This maybe makes it a little bit more personal, more specific and, bizarrely, by being more specific, somehow more universal. I’ve always been fascinated by how, when you can dig down on exactly how you feel about a situation that’s occurred in your life, or something that you’ve had to come to terms with, how actually that can really speak to more people than being general.”

Yola and Orville Peck co-headline Red Rocks Amphitheatre at 7 p.m. Thursday, July 22, with opener Charley Crockett and guest host John Waters. Tickets, $40-$65, are available through Ticketmaster.
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Jon Solomon writes about music and nightlife for Westword, where he's been the Clubs Editor since 2006.
Contact: Jon Solomon