But just before 2016 ended, Yebba agreed to perform alongside Chance the Rapper for his Saturday Night Live appearance — and ended up stealing the show. She and her team, then a bare-bones operation led by co-manager Ross Michaels and his Park Avenue Artists team, decided to capitalize on the moment and uploaded a clip from the Sofar set of Yebba singing her first original song, “My Mind.” It went viral, raking in over 18 million YouTube views. “It was like a one-two punch,” says Michaels.
That kind of start-stop trajectory has hampered Yebba’s promising launch for nearly five years, with her fans begging for her debut album online. “There has never been a moment where I was like, ‘Man, we really lost out,’ because when she puts out a song, it’s amazing,” says Michaels. “It has this earthquake effect.”
In 2017, Yebba independently released her debut single, the stunning midtempo soul-pop track “Evergreen.” A publishing deal with Pulse followed, through which she met Mark Ronson while he was working on his 2019 album Late Night Feelings, on which Yebba is featured. "I think she’s one of the greatest vocalists I’ve ever recorded; certainly one of the greatest vocalists, songwriters and musicians of her generation," says Ronson, who compares her frankness to that of Amy Winehouse. "I’ve never played anybody a Yebba tune that hasn’t instantly taken it to heart — and that could be anybody from Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age to a hardcore old-school R&B fan to Joni Mitchell fans." Soon enough, Yebba was landing a succession of high-profile collaborations with PJ Morton (for which she earned her first Grammy Award nod), Robert Glasper, Ed Sheeran and most recently a feature on Drake's Certified Lover Boy.
And while her early experiences with Chance the Rapper did make her consider the independent route, by the end of 2018, she signed a recording contract with RCA. “I made sure I did two-and-a-half years of self-homework, of digesting a trauma before I could make a commitment to an entire company,” she says. As for Ronson, he admits "there was a time where of course we would have loved to sign her to our label [Zelig Records, a Columbia imprint], but she had different ideas. I have such a great relationship with Rob Stringer and Peter Edge and I’m sure I said, ‘Hey, these are great people, you can trust them and I think they’ll do right by your music,’ but other than that I never tried to sway anything."
With a record deal in hand, Yebba buckled down on her debut album, Dawn, named after her late mother. She recorded the project — which features A$AP Rocky, Smino and Questlove on drums — at Electric Lady Studios in New York with Ronson, who produced and affectionately called it a “death playlist” throughout the process. Full of powerfully performed and lushly arranged songs that center on grief, acceptance and forgiveness — with a bit of Yebba’s Southern sass sprinkled throughout — the album was designed to signify an end and a beginning. “You can never put a lid on grief,” she said last year ahead of its scheduled release on June 27, her mother’s birthday, “but I think that it’ll bring some closure to those years where I feel like I was just sleepwalking straight through them.”