Photo: Molly Daniel

Life between lines – A Q&A with Nilüfer Yanya

In conversation, London-based songwriter and musician Nilüfer Yanya doesn’t give you a whole lot of meaty, palatable answers. Ask her a question and her mind inquisitively starts jumping back and forth. It’s sometimes tricky to figure out whether to take her words at face value or place them between quotation marks. She’s lightning quick in bursting her own bubble whenever she catches a whiff of insincerity coming out of her mouth, and this quirk somehow adds to her overall magnetism. 

In that same spirit, Yanya’s acclaimed 2019 debut LP Miss Universe never concerns itself with chasing sweeping pop paradigms. If that were her main objective, she’d sequence the cathartic “Angels” as the album’s finale instead of plugging it somewhere in the middle.  Yanya instead bends a wide range of stylistics – indie rock, latin, new wave, post-punk, jazz and trip hop – in an understated, self-interrogating push-and-pull kind of way. As sonically vibrant and adventurous as her songs can sound, it’s easy to feel suspended in time by her distinct raspberry lilt and cunning, versatile guitar chops, oftentimes more transfixed on the next note to play than the outcome. 

The backdrop of Miss Universe is some kind of subtropical wellness retreat – complete with cheeky spoken-word vignettes. In some ways, the record felt like a precursor to some of the big releases of 2021 – namely Lorde’s Solar Power and Billie Eilish’s Happier Than Ever –  in terms of more introspective pop statements.

Meanwhile, Yanya seems perfectly content to continue marching to her own beat on excellent new LP PAINLESS. This new collection of songs finds her within grittier, colder urban environments, less preoccupied with self-preservation and more geared towards self-confrontation

That fight-or-flight disposition is especially palpable on its spectacular first single “stabilise”, a fraught Bloc Party-styled stab of indie rock that channels a restless inner city paranoia. When I link with her via Zoom, she’s in the same bright, white-walled living room depicted in the music video, which was once again directed by her sister Molly Daniel. After a week of rehearsals with her band, fortunately, Yanya appears significantly more at ease than the characters she acts out for the song. 

Is there a particular new song you’re excited about translating to the stage?

Yeah, “midnight sun” is going really well at the moment; we’re doing that version of it tomorrow, that’s going to be fun. “stabilise” has been really hard; we’re getting closer, but it’s a tough one. I’m really excited to try “trouble” and do that properly because it’s quite different from other material I’ve done in the past. So I’m interested in how that’s going to translate.

I love “trouble”, how it centers around the melody, and how the rest sounds like background noise and street atmospherics turning sentient. There’s a real sense of place on that one.

“trouble” is the song that goes like [at this point Yanya starts playfully mock-singing the melody and beat] It’s quite sad! (laughs)  It also has this dance beat going on in the background. That song was produced by Wilma Archer, we did about seven songs together for this record. He actually wrote all the music for that, I just did the vocal line, melody and lyrics. It came together really easily, he basically had that guitar looped and that was it, he had the drums, I wrote my parts and the rest was just atmosphere. It’s been more a case of a co-writing equally for this album. 

You’ve gotten quite the hang of the whole touring-and-recording freight train existence of artists. But with PAINLESS – being made during the pandemic – there were obviously less time restraints. I reckon it gave you an opportunity to reflect deeper on your environment and relationships. So how has that seeped into the songwriting?

Yeah, the songs are very introspective, and also quite revealing about how I was feeling, and also how everybody was feeling. Because I think everyone was speaking in everyone’s general mood. And the mood wasn’t… well… the mood wasn’t great! (laughs) So the songs are quite honest and also a bit stubborn, I guess. I feel in the past I’ve been a bit hesitant to stick with one style per song or push through with a whole sound for a whole release. This time it’s a lot more like ‘this is how the song is’ – well, I don’t know! I feel that if the songs all adopted different genres it’d be a lot easier, like it would be on the last record. I feel PAINLESS is more cohesive, more streamlined as well.

You’re really good at bending genres and bringing influences into interesting new contexts. With Miss Universe as well; that record felt like a necessary escape. PAINLESS seems more like you’re right in the middle of the shit.

That’s exactly it. The whole time during this I wanted to get away. I definitely wanted to escape, but I couldn’t.

The pink flamingo angel wings is a recurrent image in your work. You wear them in the videos for “Heavyweight Champion Of The World” and now “midnight sun”. They’re also visible on the album art: in fact, it’s the only colorful thing in this collage of stark, granular structures. What does this imagery mean to you?

First of all, I didn’t plan to use the wings and stick them on everything. The wings just give it this kind of life, this fantasy element. I was thinking about something like freedom; you see this angel in the backdrop of this ugly city. I think that’s what everyone feels in  away. Sometimes when you dress up and you’re like ‘Oh I feel better now, I’m an actual person or character and I have a personality, as opposed to just blending into the brick walls’. But at the time I was doing it, it was just totally random! When I was doing the artwork – I was like, ‘I should wear the wings! That would be a really fun thing to make.’ It could look either really cool or really tacky. I didn’t know. But yeah, but now it’s like: ‘Yeah they symbolise hope, being free and expressing yourself’ as well.

I appreciate your candor, because I tend to overthink this kind of stuff. People relate angels to transcendence, sainthood and divinity: seeing you sort of adrift in the city wearing prop wings kind of evokes this idea of purgatory, of being grounded. You once described on Instagram that you see making music as a form of purgatory as well. Which makes me wonder how you experience the discord between being an artist and being a person. Do you struggle with that sometimes?

Yeah, definitely. It’s tricky because I don’t think I am that different day-to-day than who I am as an artist. But being an artist, always pushing myself to try and do different things and having new experiences helped me grow as a person. It’s definitely pushing my development forward as a human being. So I would say mostly there’s not much of a discord, except sometimes when I’m on stage or something and I catch myself thinking ‘This is so unlike me’. I kind of hate performing and being the center of something, unless you’re in the right mood and get yourself ready. You hype yourself up for it, and it’s a weird alienating experience at the same time, because you’re like: ‘Who am I?’ ‘Why am I even doing this? I’m not even good at this, why do I think this is a good idea?’ I think that’s when you feel that discord. You’re just like: ‘Why the hell did I get myself into this situation?’

It could be a good thing too. I imagine reading your own interviews online and just being like: ‘that’s someone else saying this stuff’. I think it’s positive to sometimes dissociate, it allows you to reach out and connect with people strictly from the work you put out there, and not from you personally, per se. It seems counterproductive to have your work always be synonymous to your person. It could make you more fearless even.

The other thing is, if you only think of yourself as an artist and not as a person, you neglect other parts of your life and other things you should also be focusing on. ‘Cause when you think ‘Well, I’m an artist, so…’ you get these weird, almost self-righteous thought patterns. You don’t worry about certain things because you’re already doing this.

There are so many other things you can’t lose focus on to help stay grounded. Make sure you do normal things as well, not just be like ‘Oh yeah I’m in a studio all day’. It happens to loads of different kinds of artists as well, not just music. If you only think about your work, there has to be another way to … relate to the world.

I just think that if I wasn’t an artist I’d be quite lost and … (laughs)… yeah, I’d be quite lost

I honestly find it impossible to fathom and relate to that reality, to be confronted with your face on posters and billboards every day. 

I don’t really think about it too much. But it’s not like I’m very famous and people know me everywhere. In most places, no one is going to know who I am or what I’m doing. I’m just a regular person and I feel like a regular person. It would be very weird if that’s not your experience, when everyone is always staring at you. 

What’s your preferred method of capturing ideas quickly? Voice memos? Notebooks?

Notebooks and recordings definitely. With the songs I worked on with [Wilma Archer], which were about seven or eight, this is how we worked: he’d play me an idea, and I would start to sing something straight away and we’d record all of it. Then we’d pick out the nicest parts and I’d just keep singing it over until it sounded like I was saying something. At that point you got the melody and almost the lyrics. So it’s all very instinctive; instead of trying to improve it, it’s more like you’re sticking with the initial first sound. You’re just making it sound more strong as opposed to redoing it over and over, you’re recording layers of it until it sounds believable.

Is it in your nature to power through once a song idea starts to lose some of its initial charm, or is this a sign to abandon ship to something else?

Generally I power through, so that once the idea is finished I know whether I like it – and whether I don’t really like it. I always feel I need to try and finish it, otherwise it might escape, which I think it can. I think so much about songwriting is about capturing the moment, because most of my songs don’t take long to write. I’ve written most of my songs in a day. It’s only like the difficult ones that need a lot more time. I’m not including lyrics, because they are a whole other thing. But the melody of a song, I can do that in a day. I can work out the lyrics for, I don’t know… the rest of my life? (laughs)

You’ve got a very distinct guitar style, you’re holding it almost like a bass guitar, which is very cool. What kinds of records are at the root of your playing technique?

When I was younger and still learning to play guitar, I listened to a lot of indie rock, anything with a guitar. But it was mainly like pop punk kind of stuff a lot of power chords, quite simple kind of lines. That definitely stayed with me. I could play something more interesting, and then switch onto something simple. It just sounds better and I feel like I’m connecting to the song better. I think in the past I tended to overcomplicate my guitar parts, but now I’m enjoying keeping it simple.

This sounds cheesy but eventually the guitar becomes a symbiotic entity, an extension of yourself, and it’s cool once that relationship becomes really developed. It’s like a foundation; maybe you want to do a more weird electronic record next , so it’s nice to always have that  bread and butter within reach as a source for creating.

“company” is the most stripped-back song on the record, and it makes me wonder why you chose to keep that one fairly minimal.

Well I had a few different versions of “company” that were more like a full production. It just wasn’t working. I didn’t believe it. I liked it at first but then listened to it a few days later and… – that happened like three times. Then I almost forgot about the song: the album was nearly finished. So I figured, there’s one more song I’d like to try and record. Because I was working on it with someone else. So I did it with Will and he was like, ‘How about we completely strip it back?’. There was this whole other guitar part, more like a line and a riff. And he was like: ‘The simpler you make it, the better’ . And… tada! It worked! Then I had to change the lyrics, because the lyrics needed to be different.

Was it like simple tweaking, or did the entire meaning of the song change for you? 

Well… there were a couple of things. There was another guy who sang on an earlier version of the song, and I really liked his vocals. He passed away. I didn’t really know him, we didn’t meet; we were chatting online. I told him I wasn’t into the production style of the song, so I wanted to sit on it for a while. Then afterwards, I heard he passed away. And after that, it felt more important to record the song. I still didn’t like the production style of the song, so I wasn’t going to release it, but it felt important to try and finish it. So the lyrics changed a bit based on that,  because I was thinking about it in a different way. It was quite a weird experience, quite eerie, really. It’s a very sad song to me now. 

I guess sometimes a song takes on a life of its own. And being aware of the fact that other people are listening to your music, do you also write your lyrics with that in mind? Or did you take more or less heed to that on PAINLESS?

At the time I was writing the album, I was still quite isolated. I wasn’t seeing a lot of people and not living a normal life. It was pretty much in and out of lockdown. But I wasn’t thinking so much about what other people would be thinking in terms of the lyrics. At the beginning as well, I wasn’t sure if these were going to be on the album. It was more just about just writing. On most of my songs, I’m thinking about how it relates to everyone, the bigger picture and what everyone is dealing with. With “L/R”, for instance, when I started writing that song, it made me think of it as my weird version of a protest song. It’s got a marching energy to it. It was also a bit like that with “midnight sun”: “I won’t keep my head down / I won’t keep my mouth shut”. You don’t want to keep being this obedient character, so it plays into wanting to stand up against things.

PAINLESS is out this Friday, March 4, via ATO Records. Order the album here

You can find Nilüfer Yanya on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.