Yebba's Journey From 'My Mind' To Her New Album 'Dawn' : It's Been a Minute It was 2016, and Yebba's career was beginning to take off. But 2016 was also the year that something awful happened: Yebba's mother committed suicide. And that changed everything, too.

Now, after years of collaborating with artists the likes of Sam Smith, PJ Morton and Robert Glasper, Yebba has her own standalone album. It's called Dawn, a reference to her mother's name. In this chat, Yebba and Sam talk about the emotional toll it took to make Dawn, growing up in the church, and shedding old beliefs while making room for new ones.

Yebba Sheds Old Beliefs With A New Album

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SAM SANDERS, HOST:

Hey, y'all, Sam here. Before we get started, I want to mention that today's episode addresses suicide and grief, and it has a frank discussion of mental health.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

SANDERS: You're listening to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR. I'm Sam Sanders. Back in 2016, the singer-songwriter Yebba performed one of her original songs at an intimate venue in New York. The song is called "My Mind."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY MIND")

YEBBA: (Singing) I heard you come in at a quarter 'til 3. You closed the door and laid down next to me.

SANDERS: It was just Yebba and an acoustic guitar and that voice.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY MIND")

YEBBA: (Singing) But then I heard you say her name in your sleep.

SANDERS: A video of this performance hit YouTube soon after, and it quickly went viral. A lot of people all of a sudden were talking about Yebba. Ed Sheeran was one of the millions to watch it, and he later said it made him cry. And Sheeran went on to co-sign Yebba to his record label. But shortly after that electrifying career-making performance, this performance that kind of changed everything for Yebba, something else happened, a thing that would change everything in a very different way.

And then was it three weeks after that song came out there was some tragedy? Can you tell our folks what that was?

YEBBA: My mother committed suicide. Yeah.

SANDERS: This is Yebba, which is just her real name, Abbey, spelled backwards. Yebba's a nickname her mother had called her.

YEBBA: You know, I didn't really - I felt like I had lost everything, you know? And I had to go through the first half of my 20s just missing my mom and, you know, in denial that she was gone, really.

SANDERS: And so just as doors were opening for her, Yebba slowed down. She wanted time to deal with PTSD and just heal. That led to a roughly five-year wait between that first video for "My Mind" and her debut album, which is out this month. But in those years, Yebba still made some music. She collaborated with big-name artists like Sam Smith and sung backup for Chance the Rapper on "SNL." She even won a Grammy for a collaboration with PJ Morton.

(SOUNDBITE OF 61ST ANNUAL GRAMMY AWARDS TELECAST)

YEBBA: I want to dedicate this to my mother.

P J MORTON: Yes, yes. Thank y'all.

SANDERS: But all of that was really part of other people's work. Now, with her debut album, the music is all her own. It's called "Dawn," which was her mother's name. Yebba and I talked about what it was like making her own thing, the experience of growing up in church and what it feels like to shed old beliefs to make room for new ones.

If you had to describe the album thematically in just a few words, what words would you use?

YEBBA: I'd just use grief, a lot of panic. I was frustrated the whole time because I had this idea of, you know, if I ever did make music, which - you know, didn't really give a damn if people heard it, but I just thought, you know, if I ever made music, I would want it to be something that is, you know, laced with hope and, like, joy and love and things that, you know, all of these things that we love the idea of. But I was very scared the entire time and very just panicked. And I feel like I installed a lot of panic in these songs. And, you know, that's not something that idealistically I would want to just give to the world. Nobody needs more panic. You know, we already have that [expletive] so...

SANDERS: Yeah, but you know what I felt listening to it? You know, I think that there are some artists and some songs and some albums that purely live in sadness, and people need that for catharsis. They live in the pain. They live in that sorrow for a bit. And there are some albums and some artists and some songs that are purely about joy and euphoria and ecstatic celebration. And people need that. But what I found with this album, with "Dawn," and with a lot of your work, it is about the journey and the movement from pain to joy and back again. And it's accepting that both of those emotions and the panic in between is part of a full life. And it's OK to live in all of that. And so I find that more interesting and more fulfilling. Yebba, for me and "Dawn" for me is not one note. And I could see an artist like yourself after experiencing the personal tragedy that you did and having the voice that you have, I could hear a label coming to you or a producer coming to you and saying, make a sad album. We can sell that.

YEBBA: Oh, they never got the chance to say that to [expletive] me. You know, when I lost my mom...

SANDERS: Yeah.

YEBBA: ...When I was in that place of just shock and despair, like, desperation, like, just wanting to go back home, like, you know, nothing that any stranger, person has to say can even penetrate that guard, that mindset. It's not even really a mindset. It's just like - it was just a symptom of grief in a, you know - I mean, I'm happy, I'm excited, and I was always eager to learn, you know, from whatever music business people, you know, wisdom they might offer. But at the end of the day, I'm just like, all right, well, I got to do this and I got to do this with the courage that my mom, you know, installed in me before she left and allow myself to be somewhat, you know, of an independent thinker about how I feel about these sort of things or how it feels at least truthful coming out of my mouth.

SANDERS: Yeah.

YEBBA: You know, if I'm going to have to sing it, if I'm going to have to hand-deliver it to you, I got to make sure that...

SANDERS: It's got to be you.

YEBBA: ...I can carry the weight.

SANDERS: Is it a weight?

YEBBA: I think so. I always try my best to honor my mom and honor where I came from to the best of my ability this day.

SANDERS: Yeah.

YEBBA: I'm trying, you know?

SANDERS: Yeah. So you mentioned feeling panic as you're making this album and panic being one of the emotions in it, on top of a lot of other ones. When you hear the album now - it's all done - what do you hear now on the songs?

YEBBA: I still hear panic (laughter).

SANDERS: OK, OK. Which one is the most panicky?

YEBBA: I still hear - you know what? I think the one - and it's my favorite one, but "All I Ever Wanted," I think, is one of the more panicky ones. Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL I EVER WANTED")

YEBBA: (Singing) I walked across the wire, straight to the razor's edge for you. Cut through my own desires only to watch you hold her.

SANDERS: Really? OK, 'cause that would not be the first descriptive word that I would think of when I think of that song.

YEBBA: Yeah?

SANDERS: It's lush and lovely and, you know, pining for something. But I didn't - panic. Describe that for me more, how it plays into that song.

YEBBA: Well, this was at a time where - it was, like, just before - have you ever gone through a point in your life where you feel like it was just a series of rapid, I guess, changes, where old beliefs or old patterns kind of just fell off of you? But...

SANDERS: Yes, yes.

YEBBA: ...It was, like, right before one of these moments in my life. So then I write this song that's kind of laced with this lyrical skin on it, that's, like - looks like romance.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL I EVER WANTED")

YEBBA: (Singing) You promised her everything, but...

But really it's, like, a frustration of God allowing my mom to make that decision.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL I EVER WANTED")

YEBBA: (singing) Promised her everything, but I can't wait too lon-lon-long on you, my baby. All I ever wanted was you.

SANDERS: Which lyric in that song most gets at that for you? Was there a certain line?

YEBBA: Well, I mean, it's all of them. But I've always said, all I - God, all I want is your presence in my life. It's all I want, because I love God's presence, and it's what I grew up on and around.

SANDERS: Not - oh, yeah. Not to be too nosy, but what kind of church did you grow up in 'cause I grew up Pentecostal?

YEBBA: Did you (laughter)?

SANDERS: And I was the son of a church organist, and I was playing the saxophone in the church band.

YEBBA: Oh, my gosh.

SANDERS: And they were speaking in tongues and falling out my whole life. So hearing you talk like this...

YEBBA: Sam.

SANDERS: I'm like, she knows church. Church church.

YEBBA: My dad's a pastor, and he plays organ.

SANDERS: What?

YEBBA: Yeah.

SANDERS: (Laughter) Oh, my God. Yeah.

YEBBA: Oh, my gosh.

SANDERS: So I - so, like, hearing you talk, I'm like, oh, yeah, we're some church babies. Yes, we are.

YEBBA: Yeah. Yes.

SANDERS: Yes, we are.

YEBBA: Come on, Sam. What the [expletive]? Let's go.

SANDERS: Oh, wow. Yeah. (Laughter) Yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

SANDERS: Coming up, just two church kids talking about church stuff and the beauty of collaboration.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

SANDERS: Well, and then I was reading that your dad made you, like, basically praise and worship leader and musical director when you were 12.

YEBBA: Yeah, like 13, 15.

SANDERS: Wow.

YEBBA: It was a small church and it was a small town, so he didn't really have anybody probably that had enough free time.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

YEBBA: So at 15, I was definitely picking the songs, picking the keys, you know, teaching the arrangements, rearranging things, sometimes rewriting sections. And then, of course, like, there's always, like, 10-, 20-minute gap to do free worship.

SANDERS: Oh, yeah.

YEBBA: And that's where it just, like, pours out.

SANDERS: Exactly.

YEBBA: And that still, you know - it still runs deep.

SANDERS: I could tell. I could tell.

(LAUGHTER)

YEBBA: Yeah.

SANDERS: What kind of stuff were y'all doing back there? Was it, like, Black gospel, white gospel, Hillsong, contemporary? Like, we were like - our stuff was, like, songs you might have heard on a plantation. It was down-home.

YEBBA: Oh, really? Our stuff was a lot of Hillsong stuff. I just always listened to, like, Israel Houghton, Marvin Sapp, Clark Sisters...

SANDERS: Oh, my goodness. Come on. Yes.

YEBBA: ...All that stuff, like, in my own free time.

SANDERS: Let me find out you know about The Clark Sisters. What? (Laughter) Yes.

YEBBA: Look - and we would sit there - my dad would dream, and he would say, Abbey, please, before I die, even if it's at my funeral, please get me a huge choir, and I want you to sing me a gospel song.

SANDERS: I love that. We used to jam out on "Friend Of God" from Israel.

YEBBA: Oh, yes.

SANDERS: We could do "Alpha & Omega" for 45 minutes.

YEBBA: Oh, yes.

SANDERS: (Laughter) We would just do it so long. And we had this live album...

YEBBA: (Singing) I am a friend of God.

SANDERS: Yep.

YEBBA: Yep.

SANDERS: Uh-huh. And his live album from South Africa - I probably played that thing for two, three years, crying every time. Yeah, it's good.

YEBBA: Oh, my God.

SANDERS: Bless him.

YEBBA: There is the Holy Ghost in his arrangements. Like...

SANDERS: Yes, yes, yes.

YEBBA: (Singing) Your love is too deep to navigate, too high to climb. But still, it's available time after time, after time, after time, after time, all around, all around.

You like that one 'cause that's my favorite one?

SANDERS: I do. I do, yes. Oh, I was hoping you'd sing, and you did. I didn't want to pressure you, but you sang, and it just warms my heart. Oh, my goodness.

YEBBA: (Laughter) And you're getting these coffee and cigarette vocals this morning.

SANDERS: Listen, I'm here for it. I'm here for it. What song on the album do you think your father, the pastor, would enjoy the most?

YEBBA: That's a great question. I think "Stand."

SANDERS: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STAND")

YEBBA: (Singing) No need to try so hard.

The chorus is definitely something that I think comes from a little bit of my dad, who says, will you stand? It's just a question. It's not a demand on myself. But it is a question. Will you stand? Will you prosper? Will you lean into the timeless, bending, never-ending strength in your heart? Or will you falter? Will you recover after all the love you've lost and lost again? Will you stand?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STAND")

YEBBA: (Singing) Will you recover after all the love you've lost and lost again? Will you stand, stand, stand, stand?

And I always tell him when he comes to one of my shows, if he's there, I'm going to find a way to do "Will You," (ph) you know, "Stand" and then... (Singing) I'll stand with arms high and heart abandoned.

You know that song?

SANDERS: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

YEBBA: (Singing) In awe of the one who gave it all. I'll stand, my soul, Lord, to you surrendered. All I am is yours.

I'm going to find a way to work that in when we do it live.

SANDERS: Yeah.

YEBBA: I think it'll be fun.

SANDERS: Yeah.

YEBBA: You know, you can have worship. You got to have some [expletive] talking, too.

SANDERS: There you go. There you go - my kind of church (laughter).

YEBBA: Yeah.

SANDERS: It's funny you talk about incorporating stuff because, correct me if I'm wrong, doesn't some of the melody of "Stand..."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STAND")

YEBBA: (Singing) I want you, but I don't want your reasons why.

SANDERS: ..Also show up in one of the tracks you did for Mark Ronson's album?

YEBBA: It does. That's where it started. Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHEN U WENT AWAY")

YEBBA: (Singing) I want you, but I don't want your reasons why.

SANDERS: Yes. OK, tell me that story 'cause, like, I was listening, and I said, I've kind of heard a little bit of that before.

YEBBA: (Laughter) Yeah. Yeah. And it's shorter. It's much shorter there. You know, it's called "When U Went Away." And this is when I first started jamming with Mark because, you know, we just kind of met here in New York, and really, I just kind of instantly trusted him. And even back when I did backgrounds for Chance the Rapper, I felt like they were my family and same experience with meeting people like Sam Smith and doing a song with him.

I always love working with other people or for other people on their records because I get to see - especially at that early time before I wanted to step into any kind of, well, I'm going to be my own artist bull****, like, it was really beautiful to see people bring their own records to completion and being a part of that in a way and seeing the joy and the peace and the satisfaction that they get from saying, all right, we did that. And that was like, OK, so this is how it's supposed to feel when you really love something and you're proud of what you've made.

SANDERS: Yeah. I hear you say how you like to collaborate and be a part of other folks' stuff. That sounds very church to me 'cause, like, when you're in a band at church...

YEBBA: Yes.

SANDERS: ...Y'all all have to work together.

YEBBA: Oh, yes.

SANDERS: The bass guitarist is just as important as the lead singer is just as important as the organist is just as important as the drummer. It has to be a partnership and a group effort, a total group project. So just hearing the way that you talk about your features, I hear that. I have to say my favorite feature of yours - well, actually, I can't say just one, but you on that James Francies track, "My Day Will Come"...

YEBBA: Oh, I'm so glad that's your favorite.

SANDERS: It is just magical every time.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY DAY WILL COME")

YEBBA: (Singing) I thought that I had everything to myself.

SANDERS: I have a playlist in my Spotify that I share with friends called Yebba Essentials, and "My Day Will Come" is the first song 'cause I'm just like, this one hits me every time. Every time.

YEBBA: Sam, I didn't know that you were the one that made that.

SANDERS: Wait, what? You saw it?

YEBBA: Did you share it on Twitter? Did you share Yebba Essentials on Twitter?

SANDERS: It's public, and someone else might have shared it, but yeah, I made that.

YEBBA: Yeah. I've looked at that before.

SANDERS: (Laughter) Oh, my god. Yeah. So cat's out of the bag.

YEBBA: I've looked at that before. I'm like, damn, they really like - you got that [explicit], cuz (ph). I'm so glad. When that is on a playlist of my stuff, I'm like, thank you. Thank you, 'cause you hear me, you know? That song was one of my favorite ones that's out that I've written. And of course, I always love writing with James Francies. I mean, together, I really feel like we are both unwaveringly ourselves.

SANDERS: Yeah.

YEBBA: And it just ends up being truthful every single time. And I'm still proud of that song.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

SANDERS: Stay with us. Yebba breaks down her new song "October Sky" and why it took more than 100 vocal takes to get it right.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

SANDERS: So, you know, hearing you talk about this, there's so much joy in these collaborations. And I think about making your album - it's different because so much of the album is dealing with the grief of your mother's death. And so as you put the album out into the world now, is that joy and satisfaction you feel on your features - is it more complicated with this album just because of the grief that is a part of it?

YEBBA: Now I don't really see my experience of grief as as complicated as I did before.

SANDERS: Why do you think that is?

YEBBA: I think just life.

SANDERS: Yeah.

YEBBA: You know? Life and time and finding new ways to, you know, accepting and, like, inviting new creativity for my life experience, my day to day. It's just different now. It's much more different.

SANDERS: Yeah, yeah. Well, I mean, like, I was reading some stuff on - so there's a really good comprehensive interview that you did with The Telegraph recently, and you were telling them that, like, in the midst of your grief, your career was still happening. Lots of folks still wanted to work with you, but it was hard. And I believe it was the Ed Sheeran song that you did with him. Was it - you said you had to do, like, a few hundred vocal takes just to get it right because it was hard to sing. It was hard to sing.

YEBBA: Well, that was for - the few hundred vocal takes thing, I believe, was for, you know, "October Sky."

SANDERS: Oh, really?

YEBBA: Yeah.

SANDERS: Wow. Which is about your mother.

YEBBA: Yes. I recorded the "October Sky" vocal in New York, in LA, in the U.K., over the course of, like, a year.

SANDERS: Really?

YEBBA: Yeah, 'cause I said, no, that's not how I want to sing. No, that's not how I want to sing. And you know what? You know, every time I get to the mic, I feel like it's going to come out a different way. And I just couldn't find any, you know, acceptance of myself without my mom, so I think that just, you know, affected what I thought about my voice and how I'm articulating these things.

SANDERS: Yeah. And the song - I want to just take a little time and tell listeners about the lyrics. I didn't realize what it was about until I played it three or four times, but it's about a - I think it's about your childhood and your mom and, like, her having fun with you guys, right?

YEBBA: Yeah.

SANDERS: Yeah, the lyrics say she slid down the hall in her socks and yelled come outside. No, no, no, nothing's wrong. I just happen to have a surprise.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OCTOBER SKY")

YEBBA: (Singing) No, no, no, nothing's wrong. I just happen to have a surprise. So we fell through the door like the autumn leaves, and I wrestled my brother down to his knees just to watch as her rocket shot into the October sky.

SANDERS: She would shoot rockets for y'all. That's just beautiful. That's really beautiful.

YEBBA: Yeah. Well, my mom loved to be a teacher. She loved teaching. And every year in October, she'd have us watch, you know, Jake Gyllenhaal in (laughter) his movie, you know, "October Sky," and we'd shoot off bottle rockets. I don't know. That's something that just flashed in my head one day, and it was actually very early on. And, you know, I was, of course, in that state of panic. There's always this, like, urge to feel like I have to analyze myself, and then that adds to the panic, but I felt like maybe this is, like, a moment of acceptance. Maybe I won't be miserable after I write it down.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OCTOBER SKY")

YEBBA: (Singing) There's a picture of us hidden in a layer of dust on the mantle right by my cigarettes that I smoke since you left 'cause you said you had to fly.

SANDERS: So you mentioned earlier that in the process of making this album and just in life in general, there are moments in which you're shedding old beliefs. As you put this album out into the world, what old belief-shedding do you think it most represents in its entirety?

YEBBA: It's difficult to say because I feel like those types of things are the unspeakable, the ones that I don't know how to put into words.

SANDERS: Yeah.

YEBBA: If I'm walking, you know, down the street in New York looking for a city bike and something kind of just flashes in the back of my mind, I don't really know how to put that into words, which is something that, you know, causes me to still kind of roll my eyes at myself for being an artist and, you know, being self-important enough to call myself that, which I think is kind of bogus, but it's like - I mean, [expletive], Taylor Swift said it. She's like, the best movies we ever, you know, saw were the ones that, like, we didn't write or didn't - I don't know what the [expletive] it is. [Expletive]. But it's like...

SANDERS: (Laughter) I hear you, though. Yeah, yeah.

YEBBA: The best songs that we live are the ones that we never wrote. Terrible job quoting that, but...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SANDERS: I'm not going to keep asking you questions all day, but I am going to say I so appreciate what you're doing and the realness with which you do it. I'm going to be in the front row at one of your shows.

YEBBA: Oh, thank you, Sam. I'll be so excited to see you when I do.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SANDERS: Thanks again to singer-songwriter Yebba. Her new album, "Dawn," is out right now. And listeners, if you are in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK, 1-800-273-8255. Or you can text the crisis text line. Just text talk to 741-741.

All right, this episode was lovingly produced by Jinae West and edited by Jordana Hochman. We had engineering support from Kwesi Lee.

And listeners, do not forget, we are back in your feeds this Friday with another episode, and for that one, we want to hear from you. Share with us the best thing that's happened to you all week. Just record yourself and email that file to me at samsanders@npr.org - samsanders@npr.org.

All right, listeners, till Friday, thank you for listening. Be good to yourselves. Go play some good music. I'm Sam Sanders. We'll talk soon.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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