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With The New Album 'Dawn,' Yebba Sheds Old Beliefs


About five years ago, a video of the R&B singer Yebba performing for a small crowd went viral. With this smoky voice and an impressive wail, it seemed like she was on a short runway to stardom, but her debut album is only being released now. NPR's Sam Sanders wanted to know what took so long. A quick note - this story runs about four minutes, and it discusses suicide.

SAM SANDERS, BYLINE: Yebba's debut album is called "Dawn," and it's deceptive in the best way. Take the song "Stand." It sounds like a love song - Yebba mourning after a breakup.


YEBBA: (Singing) When you went away, moonlight took the day. Stars and darkness all collided in the loneliest of space.

SANDERS: But Yebba told me this song is about a lot more than just a fling.

YEBBA: "Stand" lyrically deals with the intrusive OCD thoughts and the PTSD, you know, just my conversation with that.

SANDERS: PTSD and OCD - heavy stuff. All throughout Yebba's album are lyrics and songs that, under close examination, are about something deeper - a big loss Yebba experienced just weeks after her professional career began. It was 2016. Yebba had just put out this video singing in front of a live audience belting this song called "My Mind."


YEBBA: (Singing) My mind, my mind.

SANDERS: Was it three weeks after that song came out there was some tragedy?

YEBBA: My mother committed suicide. Yeah.

SANDERS: Her mother's death stopped everything.

YEBBA: And I had to go through those - the first half of my 20s just missing my mom and, you know, in denial that she was gone, really.

SANDERS: Yebba processed that through her music. But she also knew that she didn't want to make a record just about her deep pain.

YEBBA: 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.

SANDERS: And so Yebba made an R&B album that wraps her panic and her grief in songs that can kind of read in several different ways. They're about a lover or a friend or yourself. Yebba's own story is in there, too, if you want to find it, but you don't have to.

YEBBA: Nobody needs more panic. You know, we already have that.

SANDERS: Throughout the album, Yebba's singular voice carries every song. In some moments, it's as if that voice is flying through the sky.


YEBBA: (Singing) I'll be sending all my love (vocalizing).

SANDERS: This skill came from years of training as a kid at a church her father pastored in Arkansas.

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. So at 15, I was definitely picking the songs, picking the keys, teaching the arrangements, rearranging things, sometimes rewriting sections.

SANDERS: Perhaps the most lush arrangement on "Dawn" is a song most explicitly about Yebba's mother. It's called "October Sky."


YEBBA: (Singing) Well, 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.

SANDERS: It's a memory from her youth. Yebba's mother, Dawn, she was a science teacher. And sometimes Dawn would bring supplies home from school to let her kids launch rockets themselves.

YEBBA: She'd bring all those science projects back to the house. We'd shoot off bottle rockets and, you know, measure the air pressure and the height.


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: This song, "October Sky," it's not just about the sadness Yebba experienced after her mother's death. It's also about the joyful memories she still has of her. And that is the beauty of Yebba's entire album. It's about the journey between joy and pain and a whole lot of other feelings. And it works because, really, that space between, it's always the most interesting part.

Sam Sanders, NPR News.


YEBBA: (Singing) I was outside shooting rockets almost as high.

KING: You can hear more of Sam's interview with Yebba on his podcast, It's Been A Minute. And if you are in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK.


YEBBA: (Singing) In your October... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Sam worked at Vermont Public Radio from October 1978 to September 2017 in various capacities – almost always involving audio engineering. He excels at sound engineering for live performances.
Sam Sanders
Sam Sanders is a correspondent and host of It's Been a Minute with Sam Sanders at NPR. In the show, Sanders engages with journalists, actors, musicians, and listeners to gain the kind of understanding about news and popular culture that can only be reached through conversation. The podcast releases two episodes each week: a "deep dive" interview on Tuesdays, as well as a Friday wrap of the week's news.