Nilüfer Yanya’s Story is Only Just Beginning
Her voice will surprise you, her raw, romantic songs about love and loss will break your heart, and you better get ready to hear more.
All photography by Chloe Sheppard
It’s a freezing, typically grey February afternoon in west London, and this morning was Nilüfer Yanya’s first time waking up in her new flat. The 22-year-old has just moved out of her family home in Chelsea where she has lived her whole life with her parents and three siblings, and into her own place in Ladbroke Grove. Choosing to stay in often-overlooked west London rather than moving to south or east like most people her age may seem like an unusual move for someone at the start of a music career, but then Yanya is in many ways an unusual artist. In contrast to the majority of London’s music scene, she is a lowkey presence unaffiliated with any other artists, scenes or collectives – she’s just doing her own thing. She likes watching films, visiting galleries and has just started learning ballet. In her free time she can usually be found hanging out with her siblings, with one of whom she runs Artists in Transit, a non-profit arts initiative for refugees in Athens started in October 2016. Like I said: unusual.
Yanya’s captivating blend of soulful indie and folkish R&B has already earned her a place on the BBC Sound of 2018 longlist, along with support slots for Mitski and Broken Social Scene. Her voice is both husky and silken, perfectly suited to her raw, romantic songs about love and loss. Yanya’s music has been likened to The XX – whom she has already shared a stage with – and King Krule; and she is arguably similar to the latter in that they both surprise you with what comes out when they open their mouths: a voice that is older, growlier, more soulful than you would expect from the face that acts as vessel.
Her videos – so far directed by her sister Molly and boyfriend – fit neatly into the current aesthetic: coloured lights, flip phones, the famous pink staircase at Peckham’s Franks all filmed on grainy footage emulating what home videos looked like before she was born.But Yanya is nonetheless distinct from her peers. Unlike most artists who grew up in music-filled households, Yanya says it was more “background noise” in her childhood home. As she approached her teenage years she discovered bands like Blink-182, The Strokes and The Libertines through her sister’s compilation CDs and she cites The Cure as an influence on her sound because their music “had all those melodies and lines that crop up all over the place and really interact with each other”. Yanya excels at simple, guitar-driven melodies with big impact, but she doesn’t necessarily see herself as part of a ‘new wave’ of singer-songwriters – “I think it's more like a continuation… now it's just freer”, she tells me of the trajectory of the 'singer-songwriter' style since the 70s. We're sipping hot drinks in a canalside cafe that feels like a resort during the off-season. “I call myself a singer-songwriter but it's not really singer-songwriter music. The style itself has evolved – I'm a singer-songwriter but I have a full band set up”.
Her latest video for “Thanks 4 Nothing” – which she describes as “The Handmaid’s Tale meets Pulp Fiction” – sees Yanya alternating between sharp suits and a dressing gown, laying out tarot cards on a bed and playing guitar in a cult meeting. As for the song itself, she tells me it’s about how “you can be really close with someone one year, and a few months later you don't wanna answer the phone to them, or you don't wanna see them, or you see them and you're like ‘oh my god’ and you try and hide. I think it was just about accepting that feeling and knowing when to move on, but also looking at it in a nice way as well – not being totally bitter about it. Knowing that it was kind of pointless, but you'll still remember it.”
How does she feel watching herself back in the video? “I can't watch any of my videos – I only watch them if someone's asked me to check if it's good. It makes me cringe!” The statement is surprising coming from someone whose presence on camera is so commanding – she appears front and centre in all her videos, glaring at the camera with a look that is both cool and self-assured, almost to the point of boredom. In contrast to her confidence in front of the camera, Yanya is somewhat shy in person, her speech quiet and fast. as she sips her honey and ginger tea. “I do think music has made me more confident in some ways” she muses, “although because you're having to perform and bare yourself all the time, it can be the opposite – after I perform I sometimes feel it was a bit much and I just want to lie down”.
Yanya emerged onto the scene proper with Small Crimes in 2016, and last summer put out her second EP Plant Feed; the lyrical vibrancy on these records paired with her captivating, dulcet voice placing her on a fast-track for success. The language in which Yanya talks about her music is similar to that used in relation to therapy; when I ask her what her music is about, she is silent for a long time before eventually answering: “In my head it kind of works like problem-solving. Or just working things out – when you write things down they tend to make more sense. If I’m thinking about something but don't necessarily have the courage to go through with it or don’t want to do it… if I write about it it makes it happen in a way because then I’m confronted with it”.
I mention the oft-repeated (erroneous) belief in music journalism about guitar music being dead, but before I can finish my sentence Yanya interrupts, visibly impassioned: “That’s not true. There's always guitar music happening, especially at the moment. You can't get away from it, it's everywhere!” Yanya herself got into guitar music as a teenager – although she studied piano as a child and was too young to appreciate the ‘golden years’ of indie in real time, she’d “always been attracted to the sound” of guitar. Her former school's music department meant that she was able to explore the medium under expert supervision (her first guitar teacher was Dave Okumu of The Invisible). Although the school, in London's Pimlico, was failing in many ways – and was eventually turned into an Academy whilst she was still a student there – it had a flourishing music department. There were music tours, productions every term, jazz bands, choirs and “amazing music teachers who were really inspiring”. Yanya remembers the school fondly as an inspiring place for anyone interested in music – in fact, two members of her band are people that she went to school with.
At the moment, Yanya is working on her first full-length album; she hopes to start debuting songs from it by the end of the year, with a release pencilled in loosely for early 2019. She spent the last week at her uncle’s house in Cornwall writing songs, and it is clear the songwriting process is her favourite part of being an artist. I mention that it can often be hard to find time for creativity when your art becomes your living. “At the moment a lot of the work I'm doing is for shows and for performances, which are all really good things but yeah… now it's like trying to find that time to write. You can't forget about it because that’s the whole point – that’s what you’re doing”. Of what we can expect from the album, she says that she thinks it will be “a bit braver. A bit more… loud?”
Until then, Yanya has a UK and Europe tour coming up and will be stepping out of her comfort zone for the next few months. Perhaps due to how quickly she has risen to success, she admits to still feeling unprepared about live performances, as well as excited and nervous: “I still feel like 'why are people buying tickets to come see me?' In my head I still feel like it's not gonna be that good, or that I’m going to let people down. But when you're on stage you're just there so you do it and give it your best.” The 22-year-old better start believing and fast, because her star has definitely only just begun to shine.
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