In 2016, when Yebba was on the verge of a viral breakthrough on YouTube, the Arkansas singer-songwriter lost her mother Dawn to suicide. Yebba, the daughter of a preacher who sang in church from a young age, had dropped out of college and moved to New York to pursue a career in music. A fascinating rendition of a song called “My mind“At a show for Sofar Sounds, introduced her voice to the world. Then there was a tragedy. Yebba seemed unsure how to proceed, how to use the doors that opened for her. She performed with Chance the Rapper on Saturday Night Live and appeared on songs for A Tribe Called Quest, Sam Smith and PJ Morton, for which she won a Grammy. Cold, calculating label managers felt, to their horror, that their grief could become fuel for song making.
After a few years of research, Yebba found a creative partner in producer Mark Ronson in 2018. Best known for his work with the late Amy Winehouse and contemporary funk star Bruno Mars, Ronson has made a career in trading Yebba’s blues brand. While working on his 2019 album “Late Night Feelings”, they began working on what would become their own songs. Yebba didn’t want her mother to die, but the letter led her there. Her debut album “Dawn”, named after her mother and a symbol for a new beginning, examines the pain of being left behind and the freedom to find a way through music.
Dawn herself casts a shadow on the album – there are direct references to her death – but many of the songs seem more preoccupied with surviving in her wake. There’s an underlying tenderness on “Dawn” and the tracks get warm like a bruise responding to treatment. Restrained and yet soulful, the project combines sparkling indie folk, inviting R. & B. and light jazz into a tonic. Inspired by D’Angelo’s classic neo-soul album “Voodoo,” Yebba and Ronson sought help from many of the album’s key players – drummer Questlove, keyboardist James Poyser, and bassist Pino Palladino – and also performed at Electric Lady Studios on, create continuity. They were joined by other like-minded musicians such as guitarists Thomas Brenneck and Smokey Hormel as well as Yebba’s friend James Francies. This gives the music a familiar yet distinctive style, like using a vintage filter.
The retro and the contemporary find a nice balance in Dawn, but the pull is still Yebba’s voice and the way she massages each note into a sigh. She has an explosive melisma on par with some of the great power pop divas of the past, but finesse is her strong point. She lets the depth and purity of her tone echo even in quieter moments. The album’s opener, “How Many Years”, lets the threads of whisper song fray into a wafer-thin veil that reflects their concerns and doubts. “Where can I run when the ground moves under my feet?” She wonders. While her elegant, smoky voice hovers in the niches of a smoldering production, she pays tribute to her mother’s memory on “October Sky”. The song and lyrics create a nostalgic memento of her childhood – Dawn calls her kids outside to launch bottle rockets built by her high school students – and while Yebba sings about the moment of launch, her voice rushes in the stratosphere. The rest of the song is built around that framed picture that Yebba holds onto as she tries to figure out what her future in New York looks like without her mother.
The greatest triumph of “Dawn” is that Yebba never loses her self-confidence in memory. A tragedy of this magnitude threatens to stifle a debutante’s identity, but Yebba does not allow her story to be defined solely by what happened. Instead of romanticizing her grief, she prevails and untangles a jumble of emotions in search of a deal. The songs center her as she works through trauma and pressures of her newfound fame, remembering her mother, managing her other relationships, and uncovering who she will now become. “They cut my palms with paper / Made from their fall leaves / I’m bleeding disclaimers / On my family tree,” she sings in “Louie Bag,” a song addressed to the music managers who tried to get them into a deal directly after the death of her mother. “Fuck the interviews / I’d rather look my mother in the eye / And let it be.” When Yebba’s voice goes slightly falsetto, she won’t let anyone dictate her trajectory.
There are subtle, lovely flourishes throughout the album that seem to mimic acceptance and set the stage for the talented 26-year-old artist to enter the next phase of her life. “Far Away” reverses the text of “How Many Years” and means gradual progress. “One More Smile” is a skilful reminder of “Louie Bag”, a recall that demonstrates the many feelings that Yebba had to contend with during this time. Both tracks lead to “Love Came Down”, a celebratory song about romantic liberation. The haze that hangs over the instrumental title track also hangs over the babbling closer “Paranoia Purple”. Both songs were written and produced by Yebba alone, and they feel private. The latter contains a verse that appears to be written from Dawn’s perspective, to which Yebba is responding. She admits that she still can’t understand her mother’s decision. But there is a muffled approval in her tone – a realization that it’s all about moving on.