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Singer-songwriter Nilüfer Yanya on why her music is too fluid to be confined to genre

Singer-songwriter Nilüfer Yanya on why her music is too fluid to be confined to genre

Singer-songwriter Nilüfer Yanya on why her music is too fluid to be confined to genre
March 22
06:59 2019

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There are only the slightest of clues in 23-year-old Nilüfer Yanya’s musical past to how she ended up with her debut album, Miss Universe. She grew up in west London, the daughter of two artists — Ali Yanya and Sandra Daniel — in a home where her dad played Turkish music (he played the saz, a lute-like instrument), and her mum nurtured hopes of Yanya becoming a concert pianist. As a teenager — “I was so rock” — she had her head turned by The Strokes and Blink-182. Even the influence of artists she’s come to love more recently — Jeff Buckley, Nina Simone — doesn’t seem to be terribly evident in Miss Universe.

It’s a fantastic record, released to rave reviews, one that flits around like a butterfly, encompassing raucous guitar rock (“In Your Head”), sharp indie pop (“Paralysed”), gentle R&B (“Melt), solo singer-songwriter material (“Monsters Under the Bed”) and more. She says that’s because music is too fluid to be confined to genre, and that the choices made in the studio determine how it eventually emerges, from the array of available possibilities.

“You can write a song and put it into any production style,” she says. “And people will say: ‘Oh, it’s jazz.’ And it’s not jazz at all. I’ve never made any jazz music in my life, but people say it’s jazzy. Or people will say it’s grunge because it has a distorted guitar. But really it’s not grunge. I feel like I’ve grown up in a post-genre world.”

Miss Universe is also a record of extreme clarity: in an age of maximalism, it feels unusual to be presented with something so stark, in which the spaces between the sounds are as important as the sounds themselves. “Then you can hear the music,” she says. “Some things just sound better by themselves. My parents were always talking about composition, and I sort of knew what they meant, but I didn’t really understand it. But now I do, when I think about arrangements.”

There’s a sense of unease about the record — heightened by spoken-word interludes from an imaginary healthcare company — that have led some to suggest it’s a concept record about modern life. She laughs at the idea. “I don’t think it’s a concept album. The interludes are to set the scene and guide you through the album.”

But why do these interludes emanate from some slightly sinister healthcare company? Is she suspicious of the insistence we must always be improving ourselves, healing ourselves?

“That’s part of it. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to make yourself better, but I don’t like the way it’s sold to us as a solution. As if when you do one thing all your other problems will dis­appear. It’s the actual process of doing something that makes things better, and even then you’re not going to be happy all the time.”

It’s true that fear haunts the album, but it’s not a fear about life: it’s more inward looking. “A lot of the songs are just about being able to write something. And breaking down those blocks in your head.” So the anxiety in the lyrics is really about whether you’d be able to finish the record? “I think so. Will I be able to make an album? Will it be good?” She laughs, gently. “Do I know who I am?”

So who is she? She didn’t grow up feeling particularly Turkish — “We weren’t living in a very Turkish area, in Chelsea. I guess if I had grown up in north London I would have felt more connected, more part of the community. For a while, I didn’t really know where it came from. People were like, ‘Where do you come from?’ I don’t know!” — and she suspects that being a multicultural Londoner (her mother has Bajan and Irish heritage) gives her “an almost naive way of looking at things” in age of resurgent nationalism.

“People are always going to feel a country should be ‘theirs’ and belong to them,” she suggests. “I’ve never really felt like that about anywhere. It’s funny, because my mum feels very British in that sense. I guess my experience of Britishness is different to how ‘real’ British people think Britain is.”

It feels like a tacit rebuke to the “real Britain” brigade that alongside her music, Yanya is also heavily involved in Artists in Transit, a charitable programme set up by her sister, in which artists travel out to refugee camps to run workshops. So she’s engaged politically at a human level, but not at a party level. “You see people who have devoted their whole lives to politics, but they’re no closer to making any decision or solving anything. It feels like everything needs a massive reform or change. But I know how hard that would be.”

Yanya enjoys writing songs more than any other part of being a professional musician. That doesn’t come as a complete surprise: she has a slight air of diffidence, and speaks very quietly.

“But it’s surprising me how much I do enjoy how songs change [when playing live] and how they are a different thing every time. It gives you a chance to connect with your own music. And for other people to. This last tour opened my eyes a lot more. I noticed people listening and inter­acting. And afterwards, people tell you random things about their lives that I wouldn’t tell anyone. And you realise it’s because they feel like they can, because of the way you’ve been connecting to them.”

She sounds genuinely astonished, as if it had never occurred to her that the bond between singer and audience was the whole point of playing live.

“That whole connection thing, that sounds a bit mushy. Not like a real thing. But it is real! I’m putting out my energy and people are taking it.”

Miss Universe is released on ATO Records

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