A Brave New World: Meeting Nilüfer Yanya
Nilüfer Yanya was always going to make music.
Growing up in West London as part of an artistic, creative family, she began writing songs in her head at the tender age of six, before moving onto the guitar at 12.
Nilüfer learned the riffs to Libertines tracks, started attending weekend music classes, and formed a rock band (that she never sang in).
As her confidence grew, she began writing her own material and singing on these tracks, doing her first live shows as a teenager and producing demos and EPs inspired by the sonic sparseness of The xx and the recognisable riffs of Pixies.
Now with the release of her debut album ‘Miss Universe’, it’s evident that Nilüfer has truly found, and embraced, her own voice.
She’s found her own sound too, developing her craft and folding in jazz, soul, and ‘80s synth pop into her intimate tracks, along with the electric guitar that started it all.
As her debut dropped – making serious waves – Clash caught up with Nilufer, an artist whose star is well and truly on the rise.
Congratulations on the incredible album! It’s had an amazing response already – how does that feel?
It's actually really nice, can't lie. I really had no idea what people would think about it, I didn't really have a chance to think back about it myself. All of a sudden, it was coming out and I was like, 'Ok, whatever happens happens’.
It was a quick process wrapping it up, everything was really quick - I'd only been working on it for a year. I still managed to doubt myself though! But I think it's good.
It really is! You’ve been making music since you were really young, right? What was your stuff like then?
Yeah I started playing at 12. I guess I was just working things out then – working out how to write a song, and playing in a band working out what goes where. The songs were quite stripped back, I didn't want to fill the sound with everything – I liked being able to hear things.
It felt a bit grungy, a bit pop-punky, folky...it really depended what I was listening to at the time. When I was really young I listened to a lot of skater rock, then that changed to indie rock, and there was the whole folk thing.
Growing up, my parents had their own personal tastes, and my sister had her own music collection. I remember my mum listening to Cat Stevens [now Yusuf Islam] and my dad listened to Turkish music. So there were quite different sounds around at home.
My lyrics then were quite angsty, the sort of thing you'd expect from a 13-year-old. I remember writing a song about ghosts!
That actually sounds great! How did you develop from there?
It was always the thing I wanted to do, in the back of my mind. I did a song writing class and that was encouraging, everyone would talk about their music. I think it helped with my confidence, talking about the music seriously, but not taking yourself too seriously.
At that point I was about 14, then I did my first show when I was about 17, when I was more comfortable performing and comfortable in my work. I did one show in Brixton with two friends – they were playing bass and drums – I think it was at the Queens Head pub? And then my first solo show was at The Troubadour in Earls Court. It was horrifying but it felt great afterwards, it was something I needed to do, I knew I had to do that first show.
I felt like I was never gonna do it...so I was really happy that I had. Loads of adrenaline – it felt great.
And that led you to this new record. There are lyrical influences taken from literature like Edgar Allen Poe and Malorie Blackman – what else do you draw on when writing lyrics?
It can come from anywhere really. Those were books I'd read recently, so I remembered them. I do enjoy lyrics but I feel almost like you don’t get to choose – the song decides so much for you.
I feel like I could change lyrics and rewrite songs again and again and again...but sometimes a song dictates what the lyrics are going to be and how it's going to flow.
Like a song takes on a life of its own?
Yeah, exactly. When I'm writing a melody sometimes lyrics will appear with the melody – I couldn't come up with a phrase and then think of a melody...it's the other way around. It's kind of weird.
One of the things that jumps out of the record immediately is the eerie Miss Universe herself, a sort of automated, digital presence – the voice of mysterious organisation We Worry About Your Health. Where did you come up with that concept?
It was growing for a while, maybe about halfway through the album I had this idea for We Worry About Your Health but I didn't know how to include it. I just remember writing it down on a piece of papoaer and thinking it was cool and wanting to incorporate it.
I kind of wanted to tell a story, but I didn’t get that far...
It feels quite dystopian, have you read a lot of dystopian fiction?
Yeah, I love that stuff. Like, Brave New World - it's an amazing book. And I love Black Mirror, stuff like that. I feel like people have always felt alone and paranoid, but that it's grown in our society – an angst that's growing with us.
I find it really interesting how we talk about this “dystopia” as in, “This might happen if we're not careful”…but it IS happening. It's happening right now.
It's easy to feel in a different reality, and I think that is the dystopia – it's hard to accept but there are other realities happening right now, in front of us. And choices we make, what do they really mean? We can't see that – we're kind of stuck, in a bubble.
100 years ago people who were wealthy found it hard to acknowledge poverty happening right next door, or down the street – it would be hard to accept that as reality. Now we look back and wonder how they could possibly have gone about their days, but we're doing the same thing – with global warming, or refugees, poverty, sexism, racism. We've just convinced ourselves we're not. We don’t want to acknowledge it.
And is there really a We Worry About Your Health website?
There is one! It’s just a basic 'manifesto' as a company, I guess, explaining what they're going to do.
That's quite high concept stuff!
Thank you! It's because I was saying it in the interludes, so I was like, “I might as well just make a website then”.
The themes seem quite dark, but the album feels warmer and fuller, almost upbeat. Was that intentional?
I haven't thought of my music as upbeat, but I don't think of it as depressing either. I think that's just how my music is. I want to be able to enjoy playing it and singing it – it's about the energy. There's two sides of my music as well as my singing - my voice isn't something I feel super in control of.
I feel like my voice has developed a lot over the last few years. I think I feel more confident, I've sung so much more that I've made it grow in a way. I'm learning how to sing constantly.
I feel like I'm stepping into my voice.
And you’re taking on so many different sounds now too – grunge, jazz, guitar, synth pop...where did you draw influences for the record’s sound?
All over really. The more rocky stuff has just always been there, stuff I've been listening to throughout my life. Some stuff I come back to again and again, then there's stuff like Blood Orange – I was listening to his album a lot last year – and Frank Ocean, I've been listening to him a lot over the last few years. Then there were times we'd think 'Oh it'd be cool to write a song like that, or this', so we'd just experiment, I guess.
It was nice to branch out, until you do it you don't really think you can.
Do you have a favourite track?
I really life ‘Safety Net’ at the moment - it feels really good to play it live. And it is really different to some of the other stuff I've done before. But I feel like the thread is there, I can still feel like that's my song.
For me it's more about the song than a style – pop music is really interesting right now, people can get constrained in genres but now it seems like everyone’s getting past that, in a way. No one wants to be just one thing anymore, kind of post-genre.
I think Miles Davis said something about how one day music will stop exploding and start imploding. He said that ages ago, and he has a point. Not that there are no more genres, but that now people are just doing their own thing.
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Photography: Lauren McDermott
‘Miss Universe’ is out now.
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