Interviews

The Universe Belongs to Nilüfer Yanya

On her soft-rocking debut album the young west Londoner remains fiercely independent while setting up a path for world domination.

by Douglas Greenwood
22 March 2019, 12:02pm

Photo by Molly Daniel

Nilüfer Yanya is balancing an amaretti biscuit on a teaspoon.

“Do you want it? I’m not eating sugar,” she smirks, recalling the fond memories she has of eating freakishly sweet vegan desserts on her recent tour of America. When the 23-year-old songwriter returned home, about a week prior to our conversation, she vowed to be a little more conscious of the crap she was putting into her body. The pact she’s made with herself seems to be going well so far.

We meet in a delicatessen off Ladbroke Grove: stuffed with yummy mummies and their screeching babies, men having lunch meetings over MacBooks, and Nilüfer, perched on a stool by the window, looking out onto a day of torrential rain. Her mind seems to be elsewhere, which I can tell before she clarifies that she’s feeling “a bit spacey today”. Maybe it’s the glum weather, or an unshakeable jet lag that’s lasted all week? Or perhaps it’s because, after six years of releasing songs aplenty, there’s barely a week left before she drops her debut album, Miss Universe (which is released today).

Such an achievement is usually seen as a benchmark moment in an artist’s career, but Nilüfer is already keen to move on to whatever’s coming next. “Everyone makes a big deal about your first album, but I don’t really think it’s taken me my whole life,” she admits, saying how she got those first record jitters some time ago, when her first trio of EPs released by the cultish South London label Blue Flowers took her from Soundcloud notoriety to becoming one of the few independent British artists to break the BBC Sound poll back in 2018. “It’s taken me about a year and half. But now I’ve done that, I don’t want to hang about!”

Nilüfer Yanya hasn’t been forced to ‘hang about’ since people started to catch on to her music three years ago, when she was a 21-year-old West Londoner, releasing guitar-led soft-rock that was somehow both spectral and emotionally incisive. “We won’t even have to shout / ‘Cause not even words can find a way out” she cooed on “Keep on Calling”, a breakout track from 2016, harnessed by sparse plucks of guitar strings and a synth pad percussion that told the story of a lover who wouldn’t let go. That pared back approach, alongside a ‘wiser-than-her-years’ voice sent tastemakers and A&Rs into a spin, but she’s retained control throughout it all. Ever since then, she’s been touring and recording at her own accord.

In contrast to her singing voice, one that’s piercing and ambitious in the registers it flits between, Nilüfer’s speech is consistently whisper quiet; it’s almost drowned out by the sound of heavy-handed jazz playing over the cafe speakers. She’s a pleasant, comforting person to be in the company of, and exercises that by avoiding hyperbole and unnecessary expressions of faux excitement. Throughout our conversation, she only bursts into a brief shout once: when we realise her dad and I share a birthday.

Photo by Molly Daniel
Photo by Molly Daniel

Today at least, she has a habit of weaving in and out of incomplete sentences. There’s contemplative, and then there’s a ‘Nilüfer Yanya’ pause: something that can last for 10 seconds or more as she tries to source the second half of the statement she wanted to make. Refreshingly, nothing she shares feels like a pre-prepared spiel, which isn’t exactly surprising when you realise how little striving for fame through a constructed media personality seems to pique her interest. She is, what a Celebs Go Dating star might call their new-found partner in a chewy Essex droll, “genuine”.

Instead of doing the whole shtick to draw attention to ourselves, you get the impression that Nilufer would be quite happy to fade into the backdrop of music, so long as the songs still reach the right people. She leaves morsels of her neuroses scattered across Miss Universe, ready for dissection in the form of spoken interludes. Over some jangling elevator music, the record opens with an ominous, monotone voice of a woman from the ‘WWAY Health’ programme, imparting some faux-inspirational tales of self care and falsely coercive wisdom onto the listener: “We’re here for you. We care for you. We worry about you,” she says, hypnotically.

But in contrast to that controlling mindset, there’s also a brilliant insouciance to the record, which is less of a concept project, and more of an album made in a headspace that subconsciously wound up tying everything together. “I wrote all the songs then added the [WWAY HEALTH] idea for it at the end,” Nilüfer admits, unprepared to bullshit for the sake of a good story. “The idea was always cooking in my head, but I didn’t become conscious of it until the end of the record. I realised I needed to put it together in another way, so when I talk about the album, I can talk about something else other than ‘I wrote this song here’. It gives a bit of a different meaning to each song, and that’s more fun to me.”

For a while, Nilüfer felt like she was running out of time. Nearly two and a half years after journalists and industry types first took note of her work, she was hurtling towards an impending deadline to wrap the album. But she was here, there and everywhere: touring the world and scheduling the obligatory boring meetings; the latter something she clearly doesn’t enjoy all that much. “I thought that, when you made an album, you devote a long period of time to doing it,” she says, calling it her “only regret” with the record. The whole thing was written and recorded between Los Angeles, London and her uncle’s studio in blustery Cornwall in momentary bursts of free time in her schedule, rather than sprawling months spent in the kind of isolated setting most musicians seek out.

But the romantic nature of solitude isn’t one you think of when you hear Miss Worldwide anyway; it feels like a record made by a woman who lives in a society that’s constantly rubbing up a little too close to her. If musicians spend too much time in their own heads, Nilüfer seems to be look outwards first: those themes of external manipulation and influence, soaked in irony in the interludes, imbue every song with a little more emotion and sincerity. The close proximity of “Paralysed” and “Paradise” on the tracklist, for example, feels like a conscious statement on how we chase personal utopia. “In Paradise, we pay the price,” she sings on the latter, before asking herself, “Where do the good things go?”.

“When I was younger, I felt like a sponge that was absorbing things,” Nilüfer says now. “I always think about trends and how they work, and now I’m at that stage where I’m like, how long does this go on for? I’m questioning all of my beliefs, but did I even come up with them myself?” I ask if she’s a worrier, and she tells me she’s privy to nightmares. We joke about how she thinks the ladybirds in her garden might be stealthy government agents sent to spy on her. There’s an unwavering sincerity to what she says, no matter how mad it may sound. Maybe that’s why a major label would do a terrible job of pushing her and her work onto millions of people at once.

We laugh about the time an executive decided to frame her as the next Lily Allen: not an insult to Nilüfer or the No Shame singer, but rather a lazy comparison conjured up purely because both of them are women who grew up in west London. The concept of commercial thinking is something most indie artists have to reckon with at some point; usually when they find themselves opposite a suited executive at a major label. The offers for that kind of career path were there for Nilüfer, especially after she became one of the few independent artists to break the BBC Sound list, but she saw through the lure and signed to American label ATO Records, home to Rodrigo y Gabriela and Alabama Shakes, instead.

“The best thing about independent labels is that they want to release your music once you’ve made it – not five years later,” she shrugs. “I know a few people who’ve been sitting on their work since they got signed at 15 and are only releasing stuff now. It shouldn’t be a big event. If you can release music on Soundcloud yourself, why would you wait for ‘the right moment’?” Nilüfer articulates those words with industry-scathing air quotes. “It gives it too much importance. Your first release probably won’t be the best thing you’ll ever do, and that’s a good thing!”

To Nilüfer Yanya, releasing a record doesn’t feel like a big deal, but why should it be? When you’re a young woman in an industry that loves to bend them to their will and crush them without a second thought, allowing yourself to make music without a weight of expectation is both liberating and rare; the fact that Miss Universe is an excellent record doesn’t seem to be important when you consider the context in which it came to be. As she rests the spoon down next to the intact amaretti biscuit, I wonder what excites her about her future. “You never know what you’re going to be in 10 years’ time really,” Nilüfer says, looking over my shoulder and out of the window; an aimless, if hopeful glimpse. “Not knowing. That’s exciting to me.”

You can find Douglas on Twitter.

Tagged:
Music
Noisey
Interview
New Album
miss universe
NILUFER YANYA
2019