Studio Campfire Stories: YahZarah – "Shadow"

The story behind the song that ended up landing on YahZarah’s The Ballad of Purple Saint James as track number twelve almost never even happened…

Normally and quite naturally, when I learn that family is in town, it’s always time for me to carve out a time slot in the schedule in order to get up and make sure we connect. I don’t care if it is stopping through their performance and showing love, having them come through the house, or even giving kats a spot to crash for the night. In this case back in July of 2008, YahZarah told me that she would be back in D.C. and we needed to get up and record. Come to think of it, we were wanting to finish a song that she demoed about six months prior. In order to maximize our time, I had some newer music that I wanted her to check out in hopes of her recording it for my new album (SunStorm didn’t even have a working title at that time). So she came through, and of course I wanted to let her hear the new joint immediately…BUT, I couldn’t remember what I named the session (file). Yahz was over on the couch waiting patiently as I went through each of these unnamed and randomly named Pro Tools sessions to try and figure out which one contains the music that I want to put on display. This process seemed like it took forever as I was feeling like I was wasting valuable recording time. So I proceeded to have my ole ‘extra-hard-on-self’ talk, which probably went something like: “Why didn’t you just pull up the damn session in advance so she could hear it, see if she wants to write to the music and be done with it??! You’re wasting time right now, bruh… You’re wasting a lotta time!” During this whole “positive” self-talk… er…uhh.. tirade, I happened to come across a session that had not been touched in a few months, so automatically I thought, “Well maybe this could be the one.” I was disappointed when it opened to display just one stereo track of solo piano. I pressed ‘play’ on it so that I could hear what it was and at the very least remember the title of the session for the next time I go scanning through my files. Once it started playing, YahZarah popped her head up from her Blackberry…

YahZarah: What’s that?!

Me: It’s some chords and progressions I was working on a while ago and just happened to hit record on it.

Y: What are you doing with it?

M: Nothing, I damn near forgot it was even on here…!

Y: Can you bounce that down for me so I can take it with me on CD?

M: You want this one??!

Y: Yeah

As I began to bounce this solo piano piece down , I realized that I had actually recorded myself playing a full song that I had composed one late night in my old apartment (the one I lived in when I first arrived to Maryland in February 2006). There were changes in the music and it was already fully formatted. I also discovered that it was not done to a metronome or a click-track. As the song played back during the bounce, I could hear Yahz humming a couple of melodies with each part. Hearing her maneuver these notes up and through the piano chords off the top of her head peaked my curiosity… Just what the hell is she gonna do with this free-form piano joint?! Apparently, I was not aware of who I was dealing with…!

A couple of weeks later, I get an early morning text message from YahZarah telling me to check my email because she had sent something through…. I opened the email and saw the attachment titled, “Shadow.” Hmmm, nice… But what music did she record to? (she took home a CD of about 3 new joints that day) I clicked the ‘play’ button and began to hear that there was some heartfelt saingin goin on in that recording session. The harmonies on the hook drew me in IMMEDIATELY as they continued to build upon themselves as the song progressed. Then, the opera-influenced harmonies at the end of the second verse?!!!!?!? I get goose bumps NOW listening to that part…so I’m sure you can imagine the very first time I listened to it. I had the “C’LAWD!!! SHE’S BLACKIN THE HELL OUT!!!” – face on. I had no idea she was going to transform my piano track into a borderline soundtrack piece to an epic movie… She had truly outdone herself.

When we talked about her recording process later on, she told me how easy it was to write to and that it was the first time in a very long time that she was able to “just SING” on a track. I took that as the ultimate compliment because as the producer/musician, the goal is to bring the absolute best out of the artists you work with. Just by her sharing that information with me informed me that I had accomplished my creative goal…

Talk about a “things happen for a reason” scenario… Wow.

The Ballad of Purple Saint James
is now available at iTunes and

YahZarah’s “The Ballad of Purple St. James” receives a 4.5 of 5 Stars from… “Shadow” is a “Track Pick!!”

Purchase The Ballad of Purple St. James here

As reviewed by Andy Kellman

Original Article

YahZarah’s fourth album could be heard as the third part of a trilogy that began with 
the Foreign Exchange‘s Leave It All Behind (2008) and continued with Nicolay’s City Lights, Vol. 2 (2009). Like those earlier albums, The Ballad of Purple St. James is driven by Nicolay and Phonte and involves input from members of the extended FE family, as well as Raphael Saadiq and Marsha Ambrosius. YahZarah had worked on and off with the duo for several years, but never in a concentrated burst like this. The album allows the singer and songwriter to flash her vocal and thematic flexibility in ways her previous albums did not. Most salient is “Why Dontcha Call Me No More,” a gracefully hurtling kiss-off. It could be covered by No Doubt and taken to the Top Ten, but it’s probable that the song would lose some of its bite. YahZarah, whose voice here resembles that of Gwen Stefani, albeit with none of the cutesiness, delivers one of the most commanding scorned-lover performances in recent memory. At the point where an ad-lib or something innocuous is expected, just as handclaps and “whoa-oh”s enter, she slips in an additional verse that begins with “I hope you have a little girl, and she’s the apple of your eye” — uh-oh — and ends with “I hope somebody makes her cry” and a vaguely brainsick laugh. There are other moments when the singer’s magnetic forthrightness is on display, as on the pulsing and intense “The Lie” (“If you gotta go through hell with somebody, why won’t you do it with me?”) and the prime Neptunes/Kelis-like “Change Your Mind” (“I can turn your world around in a heartbeat, and bring you to your knees again”). The more sensitive songs, including a gliding duet with Darien Brockington, a devotional ballad resembling a Teena Marie session in Memphis, and a gleaming Afrofuturist anthem, are just as affecting.


Download YahZarah’s “Why Dontcha Call Me No More”

I took an overnight trip to Raleigh, NC in late December armed with just a change of clothes, a few toiletries, and my bass guitar. The mission: Play on a couple of joints for YahZarah’s new album The Ballad Of Purple St. James. Phonte picked me up from the airport, we made a couple of stops before heading right over to SoundPure Studios to meet up with Yahz and guitarist/engineer Chris Boerner. I had already done my homework on the joints, learned all the changes and nuances in hopes to knocking um out in a single take… Drummer Lil’ John Roberts walked in and was ready to work… BUT, first things first, we ordered some sammiches, ate, and we were finally ready to go. John cut his drum parts first and was ridiculously on-point – Hell, the brotha has already worked with a who’s who of kats, including regularly touring with the one and only, Janet Jackson. I was next up on the bass… A couple of takes later, it was knocked out.

Editing took place throughout most of the night and “Why Dontcha Call Me No More” was born…