Interview

Nilüfer Yanya: ‘It’s a shame when you’re at a festival and all you see is white guys’

The guitarist is stepping it up with second album ‘PAINLESS’ but at the same time, trying to find her way back to who she was before she became the buzziest act in indie-rock. Not that she knows entirely who that is yet. She talks to Annabel Nugent about sexism, Sum 41 and how she doesn’t yet have any answers

<p>‘I’m always trying to get back to the person I was,’ says the 26-year-old </p>

‘I’m always trying to get back to the person I was,’ says the 26-year-old

When Nilüfer Yanya was 10, she would scribble throwaway lyrics in a notebook she kept hidden at home in west London. One day, her sister found them. “She left a message inside letting me know that she read it and she liked it,” laughs the alt-rock singer-songwriter, scrunching up her face like she’s bitten into a lemon. “It was horrible.”

No doubt, an older sibling gaining access to your innermost thoughts is grim. But that early encouragement would prove foundational for Yanya, who now bares all lyrically to a fanbase far wider than her family tree. Since the release of her 2019 debut album, Miss Universe, she has shared stages with the sorts of indie artists who appear on magazine covers and headline festivals – Mitski, the xx, Sharon Van Etten – and this summer will perform at Coachella. Right now, she’s a month out from the world tour of her new record PAINLESS, a title that suggests that exposing herself emotionally isn’t the cringe-inducing prospect that it used to be.

Over coffee at her regular hangout in Ladbroke Grove, where she lives on the same road that her nan used to, the singer-songwriter tells me how it feels to be releasing a second album. Exciting? Nerve-wracking? “Old!” she blurts out. “I’m old!” She is 26. The singer admits it’s more of a feeling than a reality. But a lot has changed since she uploaded a couple of winsome acoustic demos to Soundcloud in 2018, got signed, brought out her first album, and became a thrilling new voice of rock mentioned in the same breath as Joy Division and King Krule. For one thing, she’s done reading reviews. “It’s horrible to read stuff about yourself,” she says. “The way people see me is so strange, it’s like seeing myself from a weird angle in a mirror that I don’t recognise. It doesn’t help me to read them so I try not to go there.” But if she did, she’d be pretty chuffed.

Miss Universe was a courageous, rapturously received debut. Filled with slyly catchy tracks, it seemed to show off everything at once: her lyrics, openhearted and yearning; her voice, supple and haunting; and her guitar-shredding pop-rock prowess. Two years later, Yanya has returned with a head rush of emotion in PAINLESS. “This record is very instinctive,” she says. Seven of the 12 songs were recorded in just three months – not enough time for doubt to creep in. “I’m always trying to get back to the person I was,” says the singer, too ruefully for someone who has barely lived a quarter of a century. “I’m trying to get back into that headspace where you’re not overthinking – you’re not trying to be someone. You’re having fun with music and explaining yourself the best you can. That’s the struggle. It’s hard to get back to that moment.”

For Yanya, that carefree, no bullshit moment traces back to her family home. Yanya is the child of visual artists; her father’s art hangs in the British Museum. She had grown up playing classical piano (reaching grade eight remains an especially proud moment for the musician) but listened mainly to her sister’s skate-punk CDs. Looking back, she can sum up her taste as white boys with guitars, possibly with a numerical name, like blink-182 and Sum 41. “When I started singing, I tried not to sound like a girl,” says Yanya. “I didn’t want to make it pretty; I wanted it to have a masculine energy.” Once, though, when she was 16, Yanya stumbled on Amy Winehouse’s Frank album. “I was like, this is really f***ing good. How had I not listened to this before? Doors started opening and I realised I needed to listen to more music.”

Yanya’s rapturously received debut catapulted her into a league with indie elite such as King Krule and the xx

Those open doors helped Yanya broaden her musical outlook. Her songs wear unexpected textures that feel both tender and tough. While the bendy yield of her voice suggests surrender, her St Vincent-styled jolts of guitar are all resistance. It’s the sort of sound that could slip easily into the genre of genreless-ness music that is increasingly prominent in pop – pulling from a stew of different styles without being overpowered by any which one – but Yanya insists on calling it what it is: rock music. “I’ve always felt that it’s rock. I don’t get why some people can’t get that.”

Some people “get it” less than others. Yanya was shocked to hear a label executive describe her as the next Lily Allen – given that the similarities end with their west London upbringing. “I was like, we need to leave now!” she recalls. Yanya was equally baffled to see early critics call her music R&B. “It doesn’t sit in that world at all,” she laughs. “I guess people see your name and they see what you look like and that becomes the conversation instead of what kind of music you’re making.” Nilüfer, by the way, means water lily in Turkish. Yanya is mixed-race (Turkish, Irish and Barbadian) and looks, as she puts it, ethnically “ambiguous”: olive skin, green eyes and curly hair, which today is piled in a bun on top of her head, cradling a pair of sunglasses.

Questions about heritage are part and parcel for any artist who happens not to be white. “People always ask me how my culture affects my music and… I don’t know if it does!” She shakes her head, ringlets bobbing either side of her cheeks. “I’ll be trying to come up with an answer but if I’m honest, there’s nothing – and that should be okay. I shouldn’t have to have an answer for those questions. Not everything I do is related to my culture.” Yanya pauses for a long moment. “But then again, maybe it is?!” She throws her hands up in mock exasperation. “I don’t know. I don’t want to think about it too much.”

People see your name and they see what you look like and that becomes the conversation instead of what kind of music you’re making

But the pressure to consider it can be unrelenting. As the terrain of pop music becomes more diverse, artists who look a certain way are expected to wax lyrical in interviews about how their culture influences their music. “I get the curiosity,” offers Yanya. “But when you’re being asked it all the time…”

Enjoy unlimited access to 70 million ad-free songs and podcasts with Amazon Music Sign up now for a 30-day free trial

Sign up

Conversation with Yanya often follows this trajectory. A winding journey of thought that leads to a conclusion, which feels solid until it suddenly folds back on itself. One throwaway comment implodes what came before. These are the answers of someone still working it out. Where previous interviews have described Yanya as shy, today she is easy and at ease. She puts on funny voices and flashes a toothy grin. Twice, she points out cute dogs that stroll by: a whippet and a chow-chow. Her opinions, though woolly and caveated, are readily offered and fully explored.

In that way, PAINLESS is an extension of Yanya. The album recomposes the DIY sensibilities of its predecessor into something more direct. On “Stabilise,” grungy guitar itches to free itself from the concrete maze Yanya sings of. “Anotherlife” is the beacon of the record, its mood drifting; her guitar wafting with gentle melody while her voice, low and steady, keeps everything afloat. Yanya, the person, is more accessible here. Miss Universe had cloaked her within its concept (the record was framed around a satirical wellness hotline for which Yanya was the call operator); on PAINLESS, there is no such obfuscation.

‘When I started singing, I tried not to sound like a girl,’ says Yanya. ‘I didn’t want to make it pretty; I wanted it to have a masculine energy.’

When Miss Universe came out, Yanya was anxious about the number of co-writes it had, including “Baby Blu” and “Heat Rises,” which she wrote together with her old guitar teacher, The Invisible’s Dave Okumu. “What’s that about anyway?” she asks now, confessing that she still can’t shake the feeling that co-writing is somehow a lesser pursuitthan writing something on her own. “They’re still my songs. And other artists I love are always collaborating, so why do I think I have to do it by myself?” Maybe it’s the idea of purity in the craft? “Yeah, I think it’s about feeling like I always have to prove myself.”

Even in 2022, proving yourself as a quote-unquote woman in music among the male bastion of indie-rock isn’t a straightforward ride. “I think people are a lot more critical whenever you do something they don’t expect you to,” she says. “I don’t even see myself as a ‘female guitarist’ but once you accept that badge, you have to wear it all the time.” Add to that the fact she isn’t white and Yanya is suddenly wearing a lot of badges. But it’s not who she is sharing a stage with that concerns her; it’s who she’s performing for. “It’s just a shame when you’re at a festival and all you see is white guys,” she says. “Not that anything is wrong with them! I’m grateful to everyone who listens to my songs – but I just feel like my music is for other people as well. People who are like me.”

Yanya is the first to admit she’s still figuring out what that entails: who is like her; who she is. There’s an expectation in her industry – even more so in her genre that prides itself on being real – that Yanya knows herself fully, and that everything she puts out into the world is a true reflection of this genuine self. It’s a surprise then when Yanya confesses so easily to being the worst thing you can possibly be. “A lot of it isn’t authentic,” she shrugs. She doesn’t mean the music. It’s the PR machine toiling behind her, the social media persona she begrudgingly curates, the stage presence of every show. “I don’t know how else to say it. I can’t be authentic all the time; sometimes I’m just pretending. It’s not fair to expect me to be that person when that person is who I’m trying to find.”

PAINLESS is released on 4 March via ATO Records

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

By clicking ‘Create my account’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in