Yebba’s ‘Dawn’: The Long, Difficult Road to the Stunning Singer’s Debut

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Before Yebba ever took a label meeting, she made a promise to herself. “I made sure I had at least five songs I had written by myself that were truth-based,” she says, “so that nobody could tell me who I was once I walked in there.”

Growing up in West Memphis, Ark., the artist born Abbey Smith started singing in church at the age of seven. Citing the communal and choral components, she aspired to be a background singer and later contributed vocals to A Tribe Called Quest’s We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service and Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book, among other projects. But one day, while on a run, she had an epiphany: “God spoke to me and said: ‘I want you to be an artist,’ ” she recalls.

In late 2016, Yebba took a major step toward turning that message into a reality when she delivered a captivating Sofar Sounds performance in New York. The buzz surrounding the newcomer’s larger-than-life voice was palpable — but weeks later, the momentum came to a screeching halt when her mother died by suicide. “That completely derailed the ­excitement and the hope of [being an artist] ever coming around,” says the singer, now 26.

But just before 2016 ended, Yebba agreed to perform alongside Chance the Rapper for his Saturday Night Live appearance — and ended up stealing the show. She and her team, then a bare-bones operation led by co-manager Ross Michaels and his Park Avenue Artists team, decided to capitalize on the moment and uploaded a clip from the Sofar set of Yebba singing her first original song, “My Mind.” It went viral, raking in over 18 million YouTube views. “It was like a one-two punch,” says Michaels.

That kind of start-stop trajectory has hampered Yebba’s promising launch for nearly five years, with her fans begging for her debut album online. “There has never been a moment where I was like, ‘Man, we really lost out,’ because when she puts out a song, it’s amazing,” says Michaels. “It has this earthquake effect.”

In 2017, Yebba independently released her debut single, the stunning midtempo soul-pop track “Evergreen.” A publishing deal with Pulse followed, through which she met Mark Ronson while he was working on his 2019 album Late Night Feelings, on which Yebba is featured. “I think she’s one of the greatest vocalists I’ve ever recorded; certainly one of the greatest vocalists, songwriters and musicians of her generation,” says Ronson, who compares her frankness to that of Amy Winehouse. “I’ve never played anybody a Yebba tune that hasn’t instantly taken it to heart — and that could be anybody from Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age to a hardcore old-school R&B fan to Joni Mitchell fans.” Soon enough, Yebba was landing a succession of high-profile collaborations with PJ Morton (for which she earned her first Grammy Award nod), Robert Glasper, Ed Sheeran and most recently a feature on Drake’s Certified Lover Boy.

And while her early experiences with Chance the Rapper did make her consider the independent route, by the end of 2018, she signed a recording contract with RCA. “I made sure I did two-and-a-half years of self-homework, of digesting a trauma before I could make a commitment to an entire company,” she says. As for Ronson, he admits “there was a time where of course we would have loved to sign her to our label [Zelig Records, a Columbia imprint], but she had different ideas. I have such a great relationship with Rob Stringer and Peter Edge and I’m sure I said, ‘Hey, these are great people, you can trust them and I think they’ll do right by your music,’ but other than that I never tried to sway anything.”

With a record deal in hand, Yebba buckled down on her debut album, Dawn, named after her late mother. She recorded the project — which features A$AP Rocky, Smino and Questlove on drums — at Electric Lady Studios in New York with Ronson, who produced and affectionately called it a “death playlist” throughout the process. Full of powerfully performed and lushly arranged songs that center on grief, acceptance and forgiveness — with a bit of Yebba’s Southern sass sprinkled throughout — the album was designed to signify an end and a beginning. “You can never put a lid on grief,” she said last year ahead of its scheduled release on June 27, her mother’s ­birthday, “but I think that it’ll bring some closure to those years where I feel like I was just sleepwalking straight through them.”

But as the release date neared and the pandemic worsened, something wasn’t right. “I knew she wanted to get this record out on her mother’s birthday, but you started to see the pressure of getting a record out so quickly and all the things that she had to do,” says RCA senior vp A&R Adonis Sutherlin, who was instrumental in signing Yebba to the label. “She went home for one week, then lockdown happened, and she’s there for two months in the same house where it all happened. I’m watching her every day on Zooms telling her story to people, and she’s sitting in the same spot that she found her mother. You started to see that this isn’t good. I went to her and said, ‘You need time.’”

Yebba says that she “disappeared” for those first few months of lockdown: She saw a few therapists, rewatched Everybody Hates Chris and started to read Louise Hay’s book of affirmations, You Can Heal Your Life. When she returned to the city, she reworked Dawn — now due Sept. 10 — scrapping interludes, adjusting the track list and making production tweaks. “What comes off, I’m sure, are very tiny changes,” she says. “It doesn’t take anything for a label to get a different playlist or one new master. But for me, it was like changing my world. I felt like I cleaned out my closet, and that’s a really liberating feeling. I needed every single second of this extra time to do it.” Plus, as Ronson points out, “Last year was a f–ked [time] to put out anything unless you’re Taylor Swift or [from] TikTok or Lil Uzi.”

Yebba now wonders if songs that she created years ago have evolved with her and are less clouded, resulting in a more vital project than the one she nearly released last year, with tracks like the twisty, ominous “Boomerang” now arriving with a firmer shock to the system. Sutherlin recalls driving back from the “Boomerang” music video shoot with Yebba when she played him new music she’s already making progress on — and is eager to share.

He says Yebba told him early on that Dawn “doesn’t tell the true story of Abbey, it doesn’t represent exactly who Abbey is.” As a result, its follow-up may be a more accurate ­introduction to her mainstream potential. Sutherlin expects Dawn and its eventual sequel to function similarly to Adele’s promising 2008 debut, 19, and its blockbuster follow-up, 2011’s 21. “Some people would say Adele’s best record was 19, and some say 21 — I go with 21 because of the commerciality and musicality of it; everything was there,” he says. “I think that Dawn will be some of [Yebba’s] fans’ favorite, and then the next one will be the album that people say, ‘Holy f–k.’”

Likely because “life is starting to feel good again,” as Yebba puts it.

“I was walking to Electric Lady the other day — first of all, I’m not an active b-tch — but I felt the sun, I felt the breeze, and I just had a moment where I looked up off of the asphalt and started to tear up,” she says. “I think I never thought that I would be happy again, and to have a moment to be like, ‘I’m OK?’ I’m f–king OK.”

A version of this article originally appeared in the Aug. 28, 2021, issue of Billboard.

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