Yebba, otherwise known as Abigail Smith, careened into her music career on a Sofar stage. It was a small performance, just her and her guitarist playing a steady riff, but the audience was starstruck. Yebba’s unique agility, breathy vocal quality and intensely vulnerable lyricism left the room hooting and hollering. Even after five minutes, Yebba had them in the palm of her hand.
She does the same with her debut album Dawn. Dedicated to and named after her late mother, the album explores Yebba’s everyday trials and tribulations, much like any other Pop/R&B record, but grief, as it often does, looms in the shadows of Smith’s one-of-a-kind opus.
The album begins with “How Many Years,” a lament to her mother and grief itself. She wonders when she will finally lay her mother to rest in her mind, but this proves to be difficult, as the only moments she can once again experience her mother’s love is when she is wrapped in this blanket of grief. While it “comes and goes,” she confesses it is “always in control” of her, and before she performed the song for NPR’s Tiny Desk (Home) Concert she explains it took her and James Francies, her piano player, three whole years to write in order to fully encapsulate Yebba “holding onto [her] mom.”
Check out her Tiny Desk Concert here.
Throughout the album, Yebba wields and weaponizes this unique and universal vulnerability, and it sets her apart in an age where breakup and love songs, those with surface-level appeal anyway, seem to drown out genuinely transformational songwriting.
The second track “Stand,” showcases Yebba’s signature vocal agility. She riffs and runs anywhere and everywhere, but there is something deeper. What initially sounds like an address to a lover transforms into a question Smith is asking herself: Will she be able to withstand “the rain” of the emotions bombarding her from all sides. She admits navigating her grief will be no easy task, but it will make her stronger in the process.
Yebba’s ability to fully actualize such complex, already intangible emotions while showcasing incredible vocal techniques makes her an artist unlike any other.
Next, “Boomerang” resembles a tribal curse, fully achieved with conga tribal beats and a show-stopping, stratospheric falsetto motif. Smith had to flex her upper range just to assure the listener of how talented she is.
If “Boomerang” told of unchecked rage, “All I Ever Wanted” voices Yebba’s grievances on her come down. Lush strings and brushed snares give the listener an insight into the gravity of this lovers betrayal, or perhaps Smith’s lyrics are directed towards a much more omnipotent source. In her interview on NPR’s It’s Been A Minute podcast, she told host Sam Sanders the song chronicles her frustrations with “God allowing [her] mom” to be taken from her prematurely, adding an extra layer of nuance to her already impressive penmanship.
While symphonies of strings are impressive, monotony threatens even the most beautiful instrumentation, but Smith’s next track, “Far Away,” is percussive driven and features the renowned A$AP Rocky, a strategic, and successful, sonic switch up.
Cutting the album in half, Dawn is an instrumental with reverby wind chimes and a distant train horn which melts into October Sky. As nostalgia fuses with her grief, Yebba fully falls into remembrance of her mother shooting a rocket into the sky, an example of how such a small event can hold a strong place in the grief-stricken mind.
“Louie Bag,” featuring Smino, announces Yebba’s vow to authenticity over everything. She refuses to allow the “interviews and enterprise” to dilute her songwriting and personality for the sake of wealth and success. If she keeps creating singles and albums of Dawn’s quality, she has nothing to worry about in the success department.
Then, a nasally Yebba invites these unresolved emotions to “stay a while” in “One More Smile” before launching into “Love Came Down.” Yebba has a realization: Love is the only thing which will carry her through this period of grief. Whoever she holds onto, whether it be God, as she is a religious woman and the lyrics may suggest, or a new lover, she knows this time of uncertainty will pass.
Leaning into her typical sound yet again, “Distance” is an R&B track worthy of all the head bopping evoked from its syncopated trumpets and drumming. This is the love song of the album done in Yebba’s signature Jazz/R&B fusion with enough riffs and runs to impress even the shrewdest listener.
To tie a beautiful ribbon on the entire album’s theme of grief, Yebba ends with “Paranoia Purple.” Combining her beautiful tone and a hauntingly dissonant melody, Smith dons her mother’s persona seemingly before her death. Anxiety permeates every word sung as she asks if her love will find someone “like [her] Abigail” to comfort them after she is gone. From the bridge onward, Smith is back in her own body, and she releases every thought of confusion and grief left inside of her until a voicemail from her mother, stating how proud she is of her Yebba, a clever nickname bestowed as her daughter’s name backwards, brings the album to a heartbreakingly melancholic close.
Smith’s mother fell victim to suicide shortly after her Sofar stage debut, and this was her chance to lay all her emotions on the table, to tell listeners who might be dealing with grief they are not alone. This was her chance to advocate for mental health in a permanent body of work, and from its almost taboo subject matter to its instrumentation and strategically ordered track list this album is practically perfect. It successfully illustrates Smith’s journey as she swings back and forth from grief to hope.
If you are having suicidal thoughts, call the Crisis & Suicide hotline at 988.
Written by: Preethi Mangadu