Nilüfer Yanya: ‘I’ve only recently started to think of myself as female’

Anxiety trembles through Nilüfer Yanya’s debut album, Miss Universe. “I cannot tell if I’m paranoid or it’s all in my head,” she sings on opening track “In Your Head”. “I’m tired from all these dreams/Lack of sleep, I’m still wired” she sings on “Heavyweight Champion of the Year”. It’s in the lush, creeping plucking on “Paralysed”, the feverish and edgy urgency of the synths in “Heat Rises”, the woozy saxophones on “Melt”.

“I’m not an open person. My music is like that because I’m like that”

“I never knew what anxiety was until I felt it,” she says today. “Then you realise it’s always there, always part of your mind, it can get really big and take over and it’s hard to decipher anxious thoughts from reality.”

Nilüfer Yanya (Photo: Molly Daniel)
Nilüfer Yanya (Photo: Molly Daniel)

Since her first EP, Small Crimes, was released in 2016, there has been a buzz around Yanya, now 24. Her inventive blend of dusky, sometimes angelic vocals, fierce electric guitar and crashing percussion and jazzy, dreamy soul earned her a place on BBC Music’s Sounds of 2018 longlist, and she has been compared often to artists such as Amy Winehouse (though she says that’s just because they’re both from London). She is reluctant to put any label on herself at all. “People say, ‘It’s indie, it’s soul…’ It’s not soul, it’s not jazz, it’s not R&B, much as I’d like it to be. What are you guys talking about?”

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Of Turkish, Irish and Bajan heritage, Yanya was born in Chelsea to artist parents – her mother is from London, her father from Istanbul – and brought up with three siblings. She learnt the guitar aged 12 at school in Pimlico. Now, she lives in Ladbroke Grove. She isn’t shy, exactly, but waits to consider each question and speaks in quiet, unhurried, staccato sentences. “I’m not an open person. My music is like that because I’m like that.”

Miss Universe is a concept album: songs are threaded together by the theme of a fictional healthcare provider called Wway (We Worry About Your) Health; the Miss Universe in question is a woman at the end of the phone, an “authoritative voice ingrained in our modern society, that tells you what to do, and you’re not totally aware of it all the time.”

“To make music when people already had opinions blocked my creative process”

Songs are less about her feelings than a feeling: titles such as “Monsters Under the Bed” and “Safety Net” sit alongside pre-recorded interludes asking for feedback on the service, or offering instruction. She was listening to Joni Mitchell, Kelis and Blood Orange when she wrote.

Did the use of the concept help to separate her personality from her songs? “Definitely. But also linking the songs with the story around them helped me to feel more attached to the record. It’s personal in a way, but also I don’t want it to just be about me, I want it to be about life.”

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She captures the encroaching, uneasy sensation created by an age of social media and 24/7 news that is only amplified for young people. “We’re constantly surrounded – being told we need to do something, be something.”

In the album’s introduction, she speaks in an automated voice as if reciting symptoms. “There is a sense of being watched;/ There is a sense of being followed;/ I often feel alone, and in deep paranoia;/ I often search for validation in others.” Is that something she relies on? “I’d rather be able to validate myself. I’m normally able to tell if my music’s good or not, but as a person I’m seeking other validation.”

Though the record is abstract, the anxiety is still personal – and has grown as she has become better known. It made the record harder to finish. “Before, the music I’d written was behind closed doors. You’d release an EP then have feedback. To make music when people already had opinions gave things a weird weight. It blocked my creative process a bit. There’s interference in my head. I found it really hard to override.”

Nilüfer Yanya (Photo: Molly Daniel)
Nilüfer Yanya (Photo: Molly Daniel)

Yanya’s voice is deep when spoken, yet jumps between octaves when sung. It has a spectral quality, which she uses with restraint. It took a lot of coaxing to get her to use it in her own songs. “I was very resistant, and when I was quite young it took me a while to put myself out there. But people around me were saying, ‘You can do it.’” She has had the same friends since school – they’re in her live band. “I never thought we’d still be playing music together now. It feels like you’re doing something for a reason.”

“It’s hard to forget about everyone and play your music and not to think, ‘I’m wasting everyone’s time’”

We meet just before she sets off on a tour of the US with Sharon Van Etten. In the past, she has supported The xx, Interpol and Mitski, so the audience are usually “music types”.
“At the beginning, I was like, ‘It’s loads of old people!’” she says, grinning. “It’s kinda weird – it feels a lot more serious [when they’re older]. You automatically connect when you see someone your age in the crowd – it’s encouraging, but it makes you more nervous. They know what you’re trying to do.

“I’m not a natural, ‘I wanna be on stage, I can’t wait to play you my new songs’ kind of person. Sometimes you’re just not in the mood, but you can get a lot out of it if you want to,” she says. After a long pause, she adds, “It’s hard to forget about everyone and play your music and believe they want to be there. Even if they bought tickets to your show, it’s hard not to think, ‘I’m wasting everyone’s time.’”

To be a young woman in music can be difficult. For one thing, you can be underestimated in a male-dominated scene – and Yanya was, by some. “The surprise – ‘Oh you play guitar, oh, it’s not the acoustic guitar?’ And people compare you to other artists only because they’re females. I try to push back, but to an extent you have to accept it.”

“It’s not until you get closer to adulthood that the differences between men and women become obvious. I hope my music isn’t too damaged by that”

Just being a woman can also take up a lot of brain space. “It’s not until recently that I started thinking of myself as a female,” Yanya says. “When you’re at school you don’t think of these things too much – it’s not until you get closer to adulthood that it becomes obvious, the differences, why you become certain things. I hope my music isn’t too damaged by that.”

Damaged? “It’s definitely blocking something in your mind – you could be using that space for other things, instead you’re thinking about how people perceive you because you’re a girl. I hope my music doesn’t just come from a female perspective.”

Nilüfer Yanya
Nilüfer Yanya

There is also the pressure to look a certain way – which Yanya dismisses. She has just come from a photoshoot. “When you’re there with everyone watching you, you think, ‘I’m just not meant to do this,’” she laughs. “It can be a fun and creative part of the package, but seeing myself in videos, I think ‘I can’t watch this, it’s painful.’ It doesn’t matter how much effort I put into a look or how good I felt, some part of me is still gonna be unhappy. It’s a wasted effort.”

“When you’re pretending something’s fine if it’s not, going along with it, it alters you as a person”

A stand-out line on Miss Universe, comes on “Paradise”. She sings, “You have to fake it.” How often does she? “‘Fake it till you make it’ is something we all see as harmless, but when you’re pretending something’s fine if it’s not, going along with it, it alters you as a person.”

Yanya’s dream was to release an album. “I’ve become the person I wanted to become, but then, who is that person? You go back to the start,” she says. “I’m an adult now, I can’t go back. I used to think, ‘One day, I’ll live alone, I’ll be free,’ but I didn’t understand the permanence of growing up. I kinda wish things would happen a bit slower.”

‘Miss Universe’ is out now


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