While studying to be a music teacher, Abbey Smith had a vision. "It feels kind of wild to be sharing this, it’s so personal," she tells me, hesitating. "But I had this feeling, like a valve opening up in my chest and taking in this air." She takes an enormous, gulping breath. "And then it became very dark, and I was looking down as if from beyond [myself] at this tiny person on stage, and I felt... free."
When, on her dazzling debut album, Smith sings about her mother’s suicide, the rawness of her grief registers with devastating force. Not since Amy Winehouse has there been a voice like this – a giant, soulful vessel that swells with pain and shimmers with gorgeous vulnerability. Smith, who performs under the name Yebba, has the music industry at her feet.
The 26-year-old American always dreamt of becoming a backing vocalist, an endearingly humble dream for a girl with a voice that marked her out for the spotlight from the start. Every Sunday throughout her childhood in Arkansas, her father, a Christian preacher, would take her to sing at his church while, back at home, he introduced her and her brother to the music of Aretha Franklin and the Clark Sisters. When Abbey was 12, her father made her the church’s worship pastor, a role that saw her arranging music for Sunday service, choosing the songs, running choir rehearsals, and – though still a child – happily presiding over a group of 35-year-old men.
The experience gave her the skills and the confidence to start writing and performing her own songs. In 2016, after clips of her singing on Instagram earned praise from such influential industry figures as producer Timbaland and rapper Missy Elliott, she got her first break, backing Chance the Rapper on Saturday Night Live. Her dizzying falsetto riffs prompted him to turn around, mid-song, in stunned admiration.
Determined to seize the opportunity, Smith dropped out of college in Nashville, where she’d been studying with the intention of becoming a teacher, like her mother, who taught physics at her school. Instead, she moved to New York, and that September, at an intimate gig in the city, performed her first song, My Mind, a furious ballad about unfaithful love, which sees her unleashing the pain of heartbreak with a level of vocal precision sure to bring you out in goosebumps. Her dream was starting to come true.
Then, just three weeks later, her mother took her own life, leaving Smith so racked with rage, grief and guilt that she temporarily lost her faith. When she found it again, she adopted the stage name Yebba – ‘Abbey’ spelt backwards, an affectionate nickname her mother had used – and My Mind’s lyrics ("I’m about to lose my mind, how could you do this to me?") took on a distressing new meaning. She asked fans who downloaded the song for free to make a donation to the mental health charity, Mind.
Launch of a star
That song would become her bittersweet calling card. After hearing it, Ed Sheeran told an American radio station in January 2017 that it had made him cry. Meanwhile, Mark Ronson – who famously worked with Amy Winehouse on Back to Black – agreed to produce Smith’s first album, Dawn, named after her late mother. Her profile duly raised, when Smith released her debut single, Evergreen, two months later – a sorrowful gospel ballad about joining her mother in heaven – it caught the ear of everyone from Sam Smith to Stormzy, leading to chart-topping collaborations with both, in 2017 and 2019 respectively.
Also in 2019, she was invited by Sheeran to contribute to his album No 6 Collaborations Project; and Ronson asked her to sing three songs for his album Late Night Feelings. With mesmerising vocals, genre-defying versatility and now some of the best connections in pop, it seemed certain that Yebba was about to make one of the most anticipated debuts of the decade. And yet two more years passed and, still, the album didn’t come.
"The grief had physically manifested itself in my voice," says Smith, Zooming barefaced for this, her first proper interview, from a meditation retreat in California, where she has finally given up smoking – the one vice she managed to sneak past her strict parents as a teenager. Choosing her words with care, Smith is softly spoken but assured, pausing often to gather her thoughts.
She recalls how, when she went to Sheeran’s house to record her vocals for Best Part of Me, "I told him, ‘You can trash my verse if you want’, because I could just hear that I wasn’t in the right head space. My grief wasn’t coming from a place of acceptance... I was in it and I was consumed by it. I wasn’t proud of any vocal I was doing."
It later became clear that Smith was dealing with PTSD, triggered by her mother’s death and, while she put out two singles over two years (one of which, Distance, made it on to Barack Obama’s 2020 playlist), her album stalled. She tells me that the hauntingly beautiful lead single, October Sky (titled after the month her mother died), is the result of 300 vocal takes over the past four years "because every time I cut a vocal, I was going through a different period of grief – most of which was just straight-up anxiety."
Embracing grief and loss
Only recently has Smith started to come to terms with the tragic circumstances of her mother’s death. "I always thought it was so strange how people worship pain in art," she says. "More than they do the feeling of when that pain has been overcome: when it’s been turned into something beautiful, so you can have communion with me; not so you can feel sorry for me."
Smith says the music industry’s exploitation of pain put her off signing to a label for years. "I was ready to wait everybody out," she says bluntly. "I was uninterested. Firstly, I was thrilled with background singing, but also I didn’t want to meet record-label people when I was dealing with severe post-traumatic stress. I was seeing a therapist for the first time ever, and so I was busy – busy getting therapy. I was trying to figure out how I could stay alive; how I could tolerate life for long enough. So, anybody that pushed me? I said great, I won’t meet them then, that’s not a problem."
It must have felt uncomfortable, too, sitting with strangers discussing money and contracts for songs that were written to express such a personal loss. "That’s exactly what my song Louie Bag is about," says Smith, nodding. One of the album’s catchiest songs (its title refers to the Louis Vuitton bag many stars have bought with their first paycheck), Louie Bag has a chart-friendly beat but a dark and poetic chorus. "They cut my palms with paper/ made from her autumn leaves/ I’m bleeding out disclaimers/ Into my family tree/ F-- interviews with enterprise/ I’d rather look into my mother’s eyes."
Dawn, released by Columbia Records/Sony, part pop, part soul, part rap, with lyrics that swerve from the biblical to the diaristic, defies categorisation and will no doubt unite every demographic in the auditorium when she eventually gets to perform it live. It will also make her a star. Is she ready now, for the inevitable fame; ready to be mentioned in the same breath as Winehouse, to be anointed the next Adele?
Smith laughs cynically. "It’s all a lie though, isn’t it? I mean, I’m not, I won’t be." She pauses, finding herself unable to say the word ‘famous’ and changes tack. "I mean, to be compared to Amy Winehouse and Adele, that is just an amazing compliment. If 13-year-old me could hear that as she obsessively watched their videos..." She shakes her head. "She’d be sobbing."
Still shy of the spotlight
When I speak to Ronson over the phone from his home in Los Angeles, he tells me how he was struck by the musical similarity between Smith and Winehouse. "What is remarkably evident is that they both have one-in-a-million raw, unbridled voices that only come around once every five years," he says, recalling being sent her video for My Mind back in 2016 by a friend, and the industry buzz that was already building around "this girl with an amazing voice".
"Both Amy and Abbey couldn’t try to write a pop hit if they tried. Like the greats, they work with free association, like jazz musicians – they don’t plan anything, it just comes out. Abbey’s musicality dwarfs mine."
Despite all the plaudits that have already come her way – including a Grammy win for Best Traditional R&B Performance for a cover of How Deep is Your Love in 2018 – Smith remains curiously disdainful of the spotlight. She would even prefer to keep her work as a backing singer. "I always say to artists I meet, if you ever need any backing vocals, any arrangement, then let me know."
The last word on the new album is spoken, not sung – a sample from a voicemail once left on Smith’s phone: "I hope you’re having fun, and I hope you’re singing away," says a disembodied voice. "You’re my little star. I love you. Bye. Love, Momma."