Yola on Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Her Album 'Stand for Myself'
07 July 2022
There’s no modern musician better equipped to play Sister Rosetta Tharpe than Yola, who transforms into the queer rock ‘n’ roll legend for Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis.
Tharpe pioneered rock music and, in turn, influenced the sound that Elvis Presley (and several other white male stars) became famous for, blazing a trail for decades of Black women to more easily innovate inside the genre and receive proper recognition for their work.
Yola is among the most profound to do so in recent years.
The UK artist’s Hollywood debut follows her 2021 album, Stand for Myself, which Yola will be the first to say has Tharpe’s impact laced throughout. Swinging between guitar-rock and soul, Yola builds off the foundation that Tharpe laid decades ago, with contemporary additions of ’90s Brit-pop and country Americana — "genre-fluid," as she's labeled it.
“So much historical research went into this movie that something became clear: I don’t think we are aware of how much we don’t know about Elvis,” Yola says of Elvis, underscoring names, like Tharpe, who’re the backbone of his legacy. “I don’t think we’re aware of how much we don’t know about music.”
She continues, “When some of the cats that told me I had no place with a guitar see me shredding Sister Rosetta Tharpe tunes and playing this icon as she invents rock ‘n’ roll before our very eyes, bigoted heads may explode. For real, I’m here for it.”
With Elvis out in theaters everywhere, PAPER caught up with Yola to dive into Stand for Myself, which might not have been possible without a figure like Tharpe. You can see Yola on tour this fall, from NYC to Philly, with ticket information here.
Where did the title for this album, Stand for Myself, stem from? And how do you feel it’s a representation of growth for you personally and musically? What was the path you took to get to a place where you can confidently say that you will stand for yourself?
I arranged the album so that it would tell that narrative. Stand for Myself is about self-actualization, emotionally as well as professionally, and all the things that keep me from dying. It's about an epiphany, and realizing that minimizing yourself and homogenizing to whatever normative crap occurs isn't gonna feed you emotionally. The more you manifest your uniqueness, the more you have a Unique Selling Point. To be like most businesses about it, that's a legitimate USP that people can't do, so you've got to be you as much as possible.
So “Barely Alive” starts with the minimized version of ourselves, surviving not thriving. And that was a lot of my life. Frankly, I was just trying to break in as a token Black lady in a lot of white spaces, trying to survive, not really thriving. I have faith in my skillset as an artist, but I was underachieving. There was nothing in my space telling me that I could do more or that I deserved anything better than that. And if anything, everyone was saying, “You sure?” There was so much doubt.
At what point did you start to feel like you had the power to not play inside a system, but be ahead of the system and in control of your own career?
When my mother passed, I realized that this is not a dress rehearsal. I was at the funeral... Well, that was like some frickin South Park ending joke of a situation. A casket is never going to be big enough to house anyone's personality, so it feels like some perfect joke. I was surprised about how underwhelming the whole funeral set was. I was like, “She's given that?” I'm going to have to manifest whatever it is that I'm wanting to do now because I'm not going out on a whimper like that.
I wasn't a person with great boundaries. A bit of a doormat, to be honest. So I started drawing boundaries and I figured whoever couldn't get on board with these boundaries would just have to jump off. I want control over my life, why is that a problem? And it's because they’ve been using you.
People don't like to see you doing the things that they wish they had the strength to do. So boundaries can represent something that’s threatening to people. It’s envy.
I've always been such a people pleaser in that regard. Since my mother passed, I don't really have the, “I'll do it later,” kind of personality, and that’s why it's all happening now. After the first record was named after [my house fire], I literally picked up my burns and a guitar, and I started learning. I have nothing but songs in my head, and some of which are on this record.
It has so much to do with this moment of realizing, if I want to live the life I've always wanted to live, no one else is gonna take me. I'm gonna have to take myself there. I can't be a part of someone else's machine because it's not designed for me. I have to design it myself. I was terrified to do that, so I had to get over this fear of thinking anyone would do anything for me. That was not something that had been my life experience. I had to go through that realization that someone would want to help me — someone that looked like me, right, because I didn't see in the UK, a lot of Black British ladies up in the streets.
The hardest thing is creating a blueprint for yourself. Most people just follow blueprints for other people’s success. But it's a constant, learning process to question, “Who am I? Is this true to me? Is this not true to me?”
You're always asking yourself that question: “Who am I? Is this true to me? Oh, it is? Great, keep moving in that direction.” You grow as a human being, hopefully, and so that becomes an ever-moving target that you're just keep on trying to trace the truth yourself.
Maybe that explains this album and why it sounds the way it does, because you can hear these moments of when I'm referencing a little bit of Brit-pop in my melodic strap or you can hear my love of disco because my mother was a disco DJ. You can hear certain kinds of soul music or Philly soul music, Smokey Robinson, or my love of repetition.
I finally knew enough people in Nashville to make [Stand for Myself] happen. My first record, I hadn’t met enough people at all. I knew like a handful of people, but I didn't have the resources.
I want to talk about “Be My Friend” because, for me, that song is an absolute favorite. It feels like a climax, whether or not you intended it to be that way. The lyrics feel particularly relevant coming off past years, filled with loneliness and isolation. What does it mean to you?
“Be My Friend” was pure pandemic. There's a bunch of songs I wrote before. Some songs we wrote in the room once we could get into the room. Then there's other songs where I was isolated and I couldn't get to people yet, and so you can hear the loneliness. You can hear that reaching out that was me at five o'clock in the morning, coming up with ideas. I'm not really ever trying to write when I'm writing. I'm trying to turn my conscious brain off, I'm trying to be as trance-like as possible. If I've been running around too much, if my brain is processing too much information, ideas do not come that way.
I called up Brandi [Carlile] saying, “There’s a song I want you to do some Everly Brothers-style harmony on,” and she throws down like a total badass. It speaks of that reaching out for allyship. Everyone was dealing with this process of negotiating their cognitive bias, thanks to the George Floyd situation. Loads of people were having to have some tough words with themselves that they hadn't had previously.
It was a bit of a nod to the era. The first line is, “No thanks will come, no thanks will come your way.” It’s like, “FYI bitches, you’re waiting for that big fucking high five.” That bit where everyone goes, “Well done,” for seeing humans as humans. I ain’t thanking you for seeing that I’m a walking, talking human. That’s basic.
Then in the bridge sections, it’s hoping that someone sees that you’re the only kind of your person and they go, “Are you ok? Hey, how are you doing? What’s up with you? And you’re like, “Thanks for reaching out in this moment where I was being like, ‘There’s a lot of white people up in here,’ and in those spaces that feel ostensibly white. The tangible kind of whiteness that makes your other white friends feel weird. Like, “This is too white for me and I’m Scottish.”
If you’ve ever been an other, you need people who’re not in your group to have solidarity with you because you’re not the majority. At some point, you're going to be in a space where it's not your people, directly your demographic. That's really this song: I thought, “I'm gonna represent the minorities for this message and Brandi’s gonna bring up the L’s, the G’s, the B's, the T's, the Q's, the I’s, the A’s.” In the lyrics of the song I detail a bit about what allyship is and it's seeing people. It isn’t reading a book, it isn’t making some post. When you feel seen, then you chill the fuck out, you feel a lot better about your life.
That's actually much easier than reading a book, it takes less time.
It takes so much less time, but it also takes the deprogramming of someone's cognitive bias and that's the hard thing. Because if you don't know what the cognitive biases are, you might have to go on the Harvard implicit test. Somebody will be like, “Oh, I don’t have a problem.” I’m like, “If you don’t think you have a problem, here’s a link. Prove it.” Every human on planet Earth has some cognitive bias in some direction. We've all been programmed, let’s just deal with it.
Life is all about creating the blueprint for yourself and undoing the things that you've learned.
Constant undoing, like, “That was toxic.” I suppose that's like “Dancing Away in Tears” [on Stand for Myself]: the things that you've grown out of, the people, the relationships. Yes, in romantic senses; yes, in social senses and even in professional senses. Even if they've been positive in one part of your life, you’re like, “I've outgrown this now, I'm sorry.” Breaking up is always hard to do, but let's just have one last beer, one last high five, one last shag and then call it quits. Because I'm done, these days are gone.
How do you strike a balance between creating songs that sound classic and referential to the past, while still addressing modern issues?
I don't know if I'm really that cerebral about the process. It's so involuntary, it's ridiculous. For example, I’m watching television and strumming the guitar. Then all of the sudden, something happens. I'd love to say it's more graceful than that, it really isn't. It's like a guitar and then the song lands in its completeness in my mind. It's been born, it's like it's growing, it’s crowning and it’s here.
Essentially, that's what I'm doing, so it ends up being mixed genre all the time. Even with things like “Starlight” or “If I Had to Do It All Again,” referencing some ’90s aesthetics, it’s because it's a mixture of all the things in my life. It's never really one thing, in the same way Brit-pop is being combined with something slightly country-fied. I was into Shania Twain and Blur in the ’90s, so I listened to those things back to back a lot.
That's why it sounds the way it does and the balance is maybe showing the era because there was so much ’70s throwback in the ’90s. You think of My Life by Mary J. Blige and the “Everybody Loves the Sunshine” sample. You were always going to discover ’70 music through the 90s aesthetic. It feels as though albums like Awaken, My Love! [by Donald Glover] are parliament, funkadelic throwbacks, but through the lens of someone that grew up in the ’90s. So all of these things, I feel as though there's a straight line that goes through them.
Photography: Joseph Ross Smith