Editors' pick

GoingOutGuide.com's Weekend Summer Concerts -- Neo-Soul night featuring Yahzarah

Funk/soul
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Editorial Review

Yahzarah, finding her own direction
By David Malitz
Friday, July 13, 2012

After the release of her second album, “Blackstar,” in 2003, Yahzarah did something that most up-and-coming singers looking to make their mark in a crowded industry would never do.

She stepped away.

From touring, from recording, from music entirely. The singer, whose silky songs and soulful voice recall the likes of Jill Scott and Erykah Badu, and who once dreamed of becoming the next Diana Ross or Tina Turner, decided to do something less glamorous. A lot less glamorous. She took a job as a data-entry clerk for a psychologist in North Carolina, far away from bright lights and big stages. It was her first real job outside of music.

“I was a little disturbed with my experience with the business of music to the point where I kind of had to reassess whether I wanted to do that,” said the 32-year-old D.C. native (nee Dana Williams). She certainly was not the first young artist to get fed up with the nonmusical aspects of being a musician, but she used her time away to reassess her career. The hiatus gave her some perspective and helped her re­focus on why she got involved with music in the first place.

“I started making music because I wanted to make people feel better,” Yahzarah said, crediting that motivation to her musical upbringing in church. She sang her first solo at age 7 at Rhema Christian Center in Northeast Washington. “I was so small that the pastor had to pick me up so that people could see me singing,” Yahzarah recalls. One of her goals was to reconnect with her fans, something easy to lose sight of when trying to amass as many fans as possible.

As Yahzarah reentered the music world, she kept her circle smaller and her goals clearer. She collaborated and toured with such like-minded artists as underground hip-hop group the Foreign Exchange and soul standout Anthony Hamilton. When Yahzarah released the full-length follow-up to “Blackstar” in 2010, she was no longer a novice, and that was reflected in the smooth self-assuredness of that album, “The Ballad of Purple St. James.” You can hear it in the sonic splendor of the Prince-inspired “Starship” and in the cool comfort of the Stevie Wonder cover “Come Back as a Flower,” two of the album’s strongest tracks. If “Blackstar” and its predecessor, “Hear Me,” sounded like an artist being gently tugged in a few different directions, “St. James” was a more unified statement and the culmination of a process she completely controlled.

“Being able to comfortably make the music that I want to make, for the people I want to make it for, the way I want to make it, is huge to me,” she says. “It means everything. Much more than a signing bonus or a huge label. I really value my freedom more than I did a decade ago.”

Yahzarah hopes to release a new album by next spring but is now balancing music with motherhood (her son is not quite a year old). Asked whether this will have any impact on her music, Yahzarah says it’s inevitable.

“I see the world differently around me,” she says. “The changes in my life are reflected in my music because I’m a bad liar.”

When Yahzarah concludes this summer’s Going Out Guide Weekend Concert Series at Carter Barron Amphitheatre tonight, it will represent less of a change than coming full circle. Some of her earliest concert memories are tied to the D.C. venue; she even worked there as a camp counselor in high school.

“Every young kid in D.C. who is a singer, you feel like you arrive when you perform at Carter Barron,” Yahzarah says.

“At this point I’ve performed at the Lincoln Theatre, I’ve sung at Constitution Hall, I’ve performed at the Birchmere. To do Carter Barron is just another piece of the puzzle. I’m living out my dream.”