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Get to Know Yebba, the Artist Who’s Collaborating With Everyone From Drake to Ed Sheeran

·11 min read
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If you’re not familiar yet with Yebba, it’s time to change that. The Grammy-winning artist—real name Abbey Smith—has emerged as one of the most sought-after performers in the music industry, collaborating with everyone from Ed Sheeran to Drake to Chance the Rapper to Mark Ronson. 

The singer first gained recognition in September 2016, when her captivating performance of the song “My Mind” at a Sofar Sounds presentation went viral on YouTube. The attention was enough to jumpstart Yebba’s career—but then, just weeks later, Yebba’s mother, Dawn, died by suicide. 

“I was planning on singing background and enjoying New York City,” the singer tells Glamour. “Then all this grief really struck me…life, grief, all of that is a very private experience.” 

Yebba started writing songs in her bedroom as a way to cope, as she found ways to honor her mother through her music. She offered free downloads of “My Mind” on her website and asked fans to donate to Bring Change to Mind, a mental-health-awareness charity. Her stage name is also a tribute—Yebba is Abbey spelled backwards, a nickname her mother used for her. 

And on September 10, her debut album, Dawn—the result of those bedroom writing sessions—was released by RCA Records. The album title has a dual meaning for the artist, whose genre blends alternative, pop, R&B, neo jazz, and other influences. Dawn is her mother’s name, but it also refers to the first glimpse of light in the sky after the darkness of night. It invokes the sense of possibility that this debut brings. 

The 12-track album features key collaborators like Questlove, The Roots, A$AP Rocky, Kaytrananda, Pino Palladino, Smino, James Francies, and Smokey Hormel. She also worked closely with executive producer Mark Ronson, who shared a deep, heartfelt post on Instagram about her work. “This is one of the most gorgeous, heartbreaking, perfect vocals I’ve ever recorded,” he wrote of the lead track, “October Sky.” “She’s one of the best I’ve ever had the luxury of being on the other side of the glass for.”

For me, listening to Dawn for the first time was experiencing a true work of art. Her vivid storytelling and wide vocal range allow her to express her emotions so beautifully. Without question, Dawn will make her a star. Read on to get to know her yourself in our latest installment of New Here.

Glamour: What made you want to be a musician?

Yebba: I grew up in a really spiritual household. When I was a baby, my dad used to pray and sing to me all the time. My dad’s a pastor, he plays the organ, and my grandparents used to have a gospel trio. It was my grandma, my great aunt, and a very close family friend. I would go over there, and they would be teaching me how to sing in a three-part harmony. They’d play the piano for hours. It was never like one big grand moment or anything; there were just a lot of little ones.

What was your idea of what it meant to be a successful musician when you were a kid?

Because I grew up in church, and I grew up singing in church, I always thought, Alright, Holy Spirit, wherever you want me to go, I'll go. I’m always open to whatever God signals for me to do. Right now it’s music. I’m doing this because I feel like it’s where I’m supposed to be. But I think our purpose as human beings transcends, whether it’s our career, or how people see us and what they think of us. 

My whole life has been like that. I was planning on going to school to be a music teacher. At some point I was open to being a worship leader at my dad’s church. My dream was to sing background for Aretha Franklin, Erykah Badu, and D’Angelo. I’d sit around and daydream about that. My life and career still can look any way—I never really decided that I was going to be an artist. I have always felt like everyone’s an artist in our own ways, in one way or another.

Who has been the most influential person to you in the industry?

I have to definitely say Mark Ronson because of the amount of time, the quality of time, his patience with me, and him always letting me be unwaveringly myself. He was one of the few people that really didn’t feel the panic of any theoretical pressure so he was a very healthy person to be around in the making of this debut album. I’m really excited that he stuck around to be executive producer and album producer.

What was it like meeting and working with Mark Ronson for the first time?

I went to Electric Lady Studios to meet him through a friend, and it was really just an introduction. I just remember waking up really late in the day and coming in wearing a Kendrick Lamar hoodie. Mark was wearing a blouse and wide-legged pants. I always joke and say Mark is dressed like he’s from the ’60s or ’70s. We were sitting there in the studio talking and just kind of clicked. I just sat there in silence for a while, and he was like, “Well, do you want to write music? I didn’t think we'd sit here and just stare at each other all day.” So we went into the other room, and he started playing bass, Andrew Wyatt started playing drums, and I just improvised. It ended up being a song. I love improv; I write mostly that way. From that day on, every time Mark came to New York, he was calling me into these jam sessions and trying to really get a feel for what creativity might come about.

Walk me through the process of creating your album Dawn.

The whole process took me about four years. I moved from Arkansas to New York, just after my mom passed. I was planning on singing background and enjoying New York City. Then all this grief really struck me as I came out of shock and I just started writing in my bedroom. Life, grief, all of that is a very private experience. I was really isolated, and I started writing songs and saw what it felt like to complete things out of pure reflection with no aim of broadcasting it. That’s how I wrote most of my songs. 

Then I met Mark, and he took my songs and turned them into actual records. It’s totally different from being in a small studio apartment, smoking cigarettes in bed, writing new songs, to having this very long process turning songs into records. We did several demos, from voice memos to a gorgeous record with people like Pino Palladino, most of The Roots, James Poyser, Questlove, Captain Kirk Douglas. I met James Francies along the way, then we started writing together, and that’s the only other person that I wanted to write with. Then Mark brought Ilsey Juber in to help out on “Boomerang.” Throughout the making of Dawn, we would record, listen to it, and say, “I hate this, I love this, I can’t stand that, we’re never doing this, we need to take it in this direction, let’s redo it.” We would do something 50 times and work it out until something finally feels like, “Well, this isn’t a perfect record, but it feels like we’re in a good place to drop the anchor. We can sit here for now.” 

Eventually it would all solidify, and at this point, I have made peace with all of the songs. During the process of making this album, I went through a lot of weight loss, I wished my mom well a million times, I prayed a lot, and sometimes didn’t pray at all. I spoke to God for a while. You live for a long time and you make art.

Which song on Dawn resonates most with you and why?

My favorite song is called “All I Ever Wanted. It’s weird because it’s not a delightful song. It’s a song that’s cloaked in as a romantic song lyrically, but it’s really about my frustration with all of the issues about rage. It’s also about my frustration with not being able to pray to God, and not finding words. Most of the things I had to say to God were things that I had to write down. They are things that we don’t know how to put into words, the things that are unspeakable. It’s nothing that I can sit around and virtue-signal about. Even though it’s a kind of panicky song, there’s a lot of anxiety, kind of the number-one feeling I felt during making this song. I just love that song. I love the panic in it.

How did this album impact you, musically and personally?

Musically, my ear grew. I grew a lot musically, for sure. Mark really helped me and guided me through this process of being able to actualize my songs into recordings. It definitely changed my perspective quite a bit. James Francies really helped me chase down some avenues I wanted to take in songwriting, structure-wise and road-wise. It impacted me because I had to live with these personal experiences and emotions in my life, and it’s certainly going to be the close of a very painful chapter in my life. 

I’m so thankful that albums and art exist because of the aspects of the follow-through and completion. It’s the thought of, I may not be done with my grief, but at least I finished a song today. It’s the processing of that that eliminates any pressure and allows reflection.

What has been the biggest lesson that you have learned working in the music industry?

One that I have always learned, in or out of any industry: I have the responsibility to create the love I want. There’s always freedom if we just do the work, do the work of reflection.

You’re an outspoken mental health advocate. What does mental health mean to you?

From my experience, and my journey through these past few years, dealing with grief and PTSD, OCD, anxiety—most of it is learning what it’s like to have patience for myself. I was so terrified to really embrace my anger and to admit that I am angry. Mental health to me means learning to have patience, having mercy, acknowledging grace, and exploring what those words mean. It’s about redefining all of these words for myself and where I am in my experience.

What activities or practices do you have that maintain a good mental health?

Eating balanced. I just eat vegetables for most of the days of the week. It’s all about healing my full body so my eating habits have gotten a little bit better. Sometimes I would dip, and then I would come back, and then I would dip again. Then I would gain 20, 30 pounds, lose it. It’s all a process. Same thing with depression—everything went hand in hand. Of course I think you can heal without losing weight. But I think that it’s all very hand in hand. Eating healthy helps me stay balanced.

After this album release, what’s next for you?

I don’t stop writing, because I’ve fallen in love with that so much. I’m working on my second album right now, but I have no expectations for when it’s going to be out or what I think about it yet. I can say now that I feel like I’m in a much healthier place, and I feel like I’ve completed a very great chore that was kind of on my shoulders for a while. I feel like now, my lyrics are way clearer and more vivid. After being bitter for so long, God blessed me with more imagination. Now I feel like I get to be 26, instead of holding on and embodying my mother, who was a 55-year-old woman. I kind of feel like it’s okay for me to feel free now.

Originally Appeared on Glamour