Yolanda Quartey, known as just Yola, is a Bristolian living in Tennessee who served her time in the shadows supplementing a number of artists with her inimitable vocal presence, making them sound far mightier in the process, including a stint with Massive Attack. Come 2013 at her mother’s funeral, a light switched on; life’s short, this ain’t no dress rehearsal, you need to get on with it. So she did.
The Black Keys’ frontman Dan Auerbach is no stranger to the role of producer, having married his own career as one half of the excellent blues rock duo with Patrick Carney alongside that of an increasing production portfolio. When he heard Yola was unsigned, he jumped in. A debut album – Walk Through Fire – followed in 2019 and pulled in a staggering four Grammy nominations. Now, just two years later, the follow-up Stand For Myself, once again with Auerbach at the controls, is with us.
Stand For Myself says it all in its title, but for any strugglers the album is a self-affirmed announcement, and one that sees a story unfold with Yola picking the track order in order to convey the process of, in effect, how she got here. And at the heart of it all is her incredible voice.
Opening with Barely Alive, a soulful awakening takes place; it’s the start of the journey with the message of “start living, now that you’ve survived” being a nod to her upbringing and difficult childhood with a mother she describes as a “clinical psychopath”. The vocals here are telling; it’s effortlessly stunning, grabbing attention with how easily she achieves something countless others spend years chasing.
Next up, the path takes us into catchy territory, with the brass touches of Dancing Away The Tears leading to a chorus that excels as a number that could be a lost classic of the 1970s disco era unfolds – how can it not be an original from this time, you may well ask, as your mind feels tricked. An unlikely source – ex-Prime Minister Theresa May – provides the inspiration for another catchy cut, Diamond Studded Shoes, where the message is to stop the political hypocrisy and pretence where “promises are never gonna be enough” and to stop with the bullshit “if it ain’t gonna turn out right”.
Elsewhere, there are shades of both Tina Turner on the slower Be My Friend that sounds like a slower, soul-based cousin of The Great Pretender, and then another Turner – Ruby Turner, this time – on Great Divide, where we get treated to something akin to a soul classic. Now You’re Here showcases the vocals, and here is where her incredible voice shines, as the music falls away, leaving it firmly in the spotlight. Where she has more space, as on Like A Photograph – and that is the heart of the record right there – it takes her to another level entirely. Occasionally, her vocals can battle with all hell breaking loose around them, but when the outer noise dies down, you can see something very special is going on.
An exception to this, though, is the excellent title track that closes the collection. Auerbach’s production lends a significant hand this time but, coupled with his genius, Yola rises to the challenge to churn out an epic finale. With such a weapon at her disposal, her time in the spotlight may have taken a while to arrive but here she’s grabbed it with both hands. In the past, she may have been at others’ beck and call but now – no doubt about it – it’s Yola time.