Photo by Ricky Alvarez
Every week we tell you about an album we think you need to spend time with. This week’s album is Yebba’s debut, Dawn.
Abbey Smith — aka Yebba, a nickname from her mother that’s her first name backwards — was poised for her breakthrough in 2016, after a performance of her song “My Mind” went viral. But that same year, her mom died by suicide, followed by pressure to capitalize on that tragedy as a source of inspiration. According to an interview with The New York Times, a label head once introduced her to another artist by saying, “Her mom just died by suicide, but it’s all good because she’ll be able to write really good songs out of it. Yebba took nearly five years to prioritize her mental health and not rush into the music industry.
During that time, Yebba was hardly inactive, collaborating with high-profile artists — even winning a Grammy for her collaboration with PJ Morton — and recently appearing on Drake’s Certified Lover Boy (“Yebba’s Heartbreak”). She sang on Mark Ronson’s 2019 album Late Night Feelings, and the two have been close collaborators since. Many have drawn comparisons between Yebba’s powerful voice and both Amy Winehouse and Adele. Yebba told The Telegraph that if her 13-year-old self could hear that she was being compared to Winehouse and Adele, “She’d be sobbing.”
But Yebba’s experience with gospel music and D’Angelo’s Voodoo speak more to the sonic world of Dawn than Winehouse, Adele or even Ronson’s production. Like Voodoo, it was recorded at Electric Lady Studios, with several members of the band who played on that record: bassist Pino Palladino, keyboardist James Poyser and Questlove on drums.
Dawn is an album that could have been solely about grief, but chooses to be about healing and the nonlinear ways that grief stays with us. “Dawn” was Yebba’s mother’s name and the overall arc of the album is bookended by her loss: The opening track is Yebba’s most direct discussion of grieving, and at the close is “Paranoia Purple,” with lyrics that address her mom directly, with a voicemail from Dawn as the last thing we hear. In the voicemail, Dawn says, “Hope you’re having fun, and I hope you’re singing away. You’re my little joy, you’re my little star. I love you, bye. Love, mamma.”
The midpoint and emotional center of the album, the pairing of the haunting instrumental title track with “October Sky,” which is about Yebba’s mother launching bottle rockets in the backyard for her and her brother, is the other part of Dawn most explicitly about her mom. Yebba told NPR it took her a “few hundred” vocal takes to record “October Sky,” since her search for acceptance of herself without her mom affected what she thought about her voice and how she wanted to articulate things.
Although loss is present throughout the album, shaping both mood and message, similar to the real-life processing of loss, there are moments when the sun peaks in. “Boomerang” is pure retribution, “Love Came Down” is a KAYTRANADA-assisted dance party and “Louie Bag” is buoyed by a catchy hook and an energetic Smino verse.
Dawn is a uniquely realized debut by an artist who took her time to get it right, leaving us to anticipate what comes next, as Yebba steps into the full light of day.
Theda Berry is a Brooklyn-based writer and the former Editor of VMP. If she had to be a different kind of berry, she’d pick strawberry.