Search The Line of Best Fit
Search The Line of Best Fit
Nilfuer Yanya 02

Nilüfer Yanya's patchwork process transforms her pain into triumph

04 March 2022, 08:30
Original Photography by Matilda Hill-Jenkins

As Nilüfer Yanya speaks, she snaps her wooden coffee stirrer into little pieces. In her thoughts, she is often lost; prone to long, protracted silences that she’s unafraid to sit with, casting her bright eyes upward as she rummages through the filing cabinet of her mind for the right words – or the words she wants to give.

She smiles, offering up her hand. From all the broken pieces, she has made a little person.

I wonder, still, what she’s really thinking.

Nilüfer Yanya’s presence casts a reflection that is strikingly true to her sound. In person, just as in music, you will find Yanya in what goes unsaid; the blanks she deliberately leaves unfilled.

But some things don’t need to be said: her bond with the guitar is obvious to the point of some kind of cosmic communion – always meant to be, written in the stars and the lines of her palms. Her 2019 debut record Miss Universe was a body of bruised elegies, black and blue from collisions with adrenaline and anxiety, tension and release, fuzzed and frayed right down to the raw, open nerve. At only 23, her voice belied lifetimes of hunger for something, torn between anchoring herself deeper to the earth or, in falsetto desperation, giving herself up to height she might never come down from.

That ‘something’ she’s chasing - that elusive ‘you’, the inscrutable ‘it’ – is still unknown. The long-awaited release of her second album, PAINLESS, holds a different kind of answer, and demands different questions. Yet the more I ask, the less I seem to know, and maybe that’s what draws us back to her.

“Ambiguity is something I’m comfortable with,” she smiles. “I know what I’m saying, but it’s not always going to be clear to everyone else.”

Her previous work is something Yanya has fiercely protected like a closely guarded secret, and creativity was a friend she found in quiet moments, alone. “But I’ve kind of been testing out not keeping it all to myself. It’s something I’ve kind of turned my nose up at before, I guess, because I was like, ‘If you’re not doing all the work yourself, then it can’t be all yours. You’re cheating.” But with PAINLESS, Yanya has found joy in cheating at her own game.

Slowly, but surely, she is learning to share. “It was more about the process of the record more than the end result, in a way,” she says. “It’s a whole different approach - something I’ve not done in the past. But this time round, it felt like a necessity, more so than anything else. Otherwise, I literally wasn’t gonna write anything. I had nothing. I’d had a few songs I’d started working on, but most of the record I did with him.” ‘Him’, being close collaborator Wilma Archer: a peripheral part of Miss Universe who, by chance, has become instrumental to PAINLESS. It’s the first time she has worked so intimately with a single producer. For Miss Universe, Yanya always managed to hold her work somewhat removed from the hands of others, working with someone different on each track. On reflection, she tells me, she felt she was spreading herself too thin.

“What’s interesting is [arriving at a session without ideas] never worked for me in the past. If I didn’t come with anything, I’d leave with nothing,” shares Yanya. “A lot of the guitar bits he’d written were what I really wanted to be able to write at that time, and it was like he’d gone into my head and took it out. It was like putting together a puzzle, in a way. It wasn’t like they came out of the blue - but they did, at the same time. They just kind of appeared.”

Much of the record was written in strange, liminal spaces: the “dark, damp horrible room” Archer had before moving studios; Yanya’s uncle’s studio in Cornwall for a couple of weeks in that blazing summer heatwave – moments of coming up for air between lockdowns. It was a patchwork process, but back then, it felt like a patchwork world: plans stitched together in haste at a moment’s notice. “Even in that room, I think the place informed the process, because a lot of the original tapes we did had a lot of whispering and were quite eerie, kind of. I think you wouldn’t know unless you were giving yourself to a space to be able to hear that back,” she says. “You don’t think it’s good until you’re somewhere else.”

“Ambiguity is something I’m comfortable with; I know what I’m saying, but it’s not always going to be clear to everyone else.”

But still, Yanya prefers her own space – even when it was forced upon her. After the release of Miss Universe and the relentless touring that followed, the pandemic brought an unfamiliar stillness into her world. Though the world collapsed outside her bedroom window, she still held her guitar. “I felt a bit lost,” she remembers. “I felt quite lost for a lot of this process, actually. I didn’t know what was happening or where I was going… but it was also quite grounding. After travelling and doing all these things, I kinda got used to it, but being in one place opened my eyes to reality. Like, if everything was to stop, this is who I am – and I haven’t got much. All I’ve got is me, the people I’m close to, and the music.”

This collar-tugging claustrophobia, the feeling of the four walls closing in, is something that has bled into the sound of PAINLESS itself. “I think quite a lot of the lyrics pick up on spaces and the impact of your environment,” Yanya muses. “I think you get that a lot on ‘midnight sun’ and also ‘stabilise’ – they’re both very cyclical and you get the feeling you’ll never leave.”

The latter track, with its rhythm that sounds like it’s trying to outrun its own shadow, is a struggle against the spectre of London, the city in which she was born and raised. It’s a glorious morning in Ladbroke Grove: the sun is blindingly bright after rainfall, and the ornate townhouses stand proud in brilliant white. It’s the London of our collective imagination – but this London is not Yanya’s. The visual for “stabilise” sees her weaving through the chartered brutalism of West London estates, all concrete, steel and hard lines. “Nothing goes above the high rise”, she sings: a testament to entrapment. “I didn’t want it to be so dark,” says Yanya. “But I remember walking around, looking at buildings, and I couldn’t top it.” She tells me what she always had in mind, while writing “stabilise”, was the grey monolith of Arlington House in Margate that juts into the seafront sky: “apocalyptic, dystopian and weird”.

Yanya’s relationship with London mirrors the feelings we all have towards our hometowns: a sickly concoction of rejection and a confused need for familiarity. “I love it. I do love it,” she reassures me, “it’s my home. But I think even before lockdown, I was kind of like, ‘Oh my god, do I have to spend the rest of my life here?’ You can hate it, but you’re not going to leave. It’s the first time I thought about wanting to live somewhere else. I didn’t want it to be my only experience of being alive.”

The pandemic was, for all of us, a painful time of self-examination. “You can’t stay away from yourself,” she offers, recalling that period of her life. There is a quiet victory in naming an album PAINLESS at a time when pain felt almost inescapable. “I was stuck for a name, but in the end, it summed up the process of making it. It’s not like you’re forcing something – it happens naturally. That doesn’t mean it’s not hard,” Yanya explains, “but then I guess it’s also about that idea that you’re expected to suffer for your work. You always see that romanticised, especially with artists. Everyone’s like, ‘Well, if it wasn’t hard, then what’s the value?’ – but I don’t think that’s true.”

Yanya is certain that sadness doesn’t galvanise her, it just immobilises her. “I think we need to have the opposite,” she tells me. “We need to have the joy in our lives to be able to do things, to feed your work and your soul. People always romanticise the stories of artists who sold loads of records, crumbled and then died completely poor, and it feels like people expect us to go through that. It’s the absence of pain, I think, that everyone should be aiming for…” She dips into a long pause for thought, looking to the sky again. Then she says: “But I don’t know if that’s achievable.”

I ask her if PAINLESS is about finding joy. “Yeah, I guess, actually… that’s a good way of putting it,” she nods. “You’re always searching for the light at the end of the tunnel, the light in the dark – and it’s definitely about that. I know ‘midnight sun’ and ‘stabilise’ are a bit more sombre, but I didn’t want the songs to be lacking in energy. I wanted most of them to have really good rhythms and vibes.”

But try to delve any deeper into the record’s personal significance for Yanya, and you hit a wall. “midnight sun” is almost holographic in its lyrics: depending on your angle and approach, it’s a song about a strained relationship - but stand a little to the left, and it’s an ode of self-love. Does she remember the circumstances that brought a particular song to life? “Yeah. Yeah…” she says, absentmindedly. “You don’t have to read into it too much,” she shrugs. “I’m not reading into it too much, basically. People ask me questions and I’m like, ‘I don’t really know. The song is the song, and that’s why I wrote it like that: because it sounded good at the time’. There’s always going to be loads of interpretations and hidden meanings behind things, but it doesn’t always have to be something.”

"Art informs everything we do, and you have to work hard for it - but if you come from a low-income background, expect to work even harder.”

Yanya believes that most of the work is done for a record long before you get into the studio – before you even begin the writing. “You have to have it with you, a part of you,” she says. She feels that with PAINLESS, she has learned not to make the same mistakes as she did with Miss Universe. “And by that,” she explains, “it’s not that something’s wrong. It’s more just like, ‘Why did I feel I had to make that choice at the time?’ Most of the time, it’s me thinking I should’ve given myself more time to think about it and approach it because I feel like it’s rushed. I’m rushing it, sometimes.

“I think that comes with the pressure of wanting to put things out, but also the fear of overthinking things,” she continues. “I want to get the balance, but that’s tricky. You don’t want to be working on something forever. Some of my favourite things that came out last year were records that people brought out in a really short space of time. You can really capture something. It’s like, you can tell they’re not slaving away, making every detail perfect, when it’s already perfect as it is, in a way.”

The genesis of the album also forced Yanya to confront her future as a musician, especially as she’s still acclimatising to this world she felt so suddenly thrust into. “I was getting to the point where I was like, ‘Who am I? What am I doing?’ If I can’t write music – not that I was thinking about quitting – but I was thinking I should maybe find another thing to do. I know that I’m not cut out for touring and performing. I’m not really a performing kind of person, and that’s where I’m not doing my best. Obviously, I love playing with my band and bringing people together, but it got me thinking that I need to find a way to make this work for me, where I’m not always putting myself physically out there. I want to be able to put more of myself into my work because, at the end of the day, that’s what I’m doing it for, right?”

Yanya approaches a career in the arts from the unique perspective of a child of two visual artists. Her Irish-Barbadian mother is a textile designer and her Turkish-born father’s work is a painter and printmaker, whose studio is just around the corner from the deli we’re sitting outside of. His work is exhibited at the British Museum. “My dad never takes breaks, he’s crazy,” smiles Yanya. “His work is figurative – and I almost want to say ‘dark’ – but there’s lots of hidden meanings. It’s almost figurative and abstract at the same time, about people, places and things.”

There is still so much to learn, she feels, about her Turkish heritage in particular, but PAINLESS has marked a tentative dip into uncharted cultural waters. While the instrument only accounts for “a tiny bit – like, one-percent of it”, Yanya decided to bring in saz for the record, a lute used in Turkish folk and Arabesque music, which she had grown up watching her father play. “Even saying I wanted to bring this in and try it was a sign of me being more willing to try these things,” she says. “I wouldn’t have done that in the past – definitely not on my first EPs. It’s an avenue I’d like to explore, though. It’s such a big culture that I haven’t even tapped into yet. Me putting that in there is not even scratching the surface.”

Having an artistic flair seems to run through her family’s bloodstream. Her sister, Elif, is also a visual artist and designer, has accompanied her on stage a number of times, and her second sister Molly Daniel drives Yanya’s visuals, directing a handful of music videos including “Heavyweight Champion of The Year”. She is also devoted to Daniel’s community group project, Artists in Transit, where together, they collaborate with other artists and hold workshops for children who are currently residing in refugee camps in Greece. “It’s just about showing solidarity with people, and connecting with your community as well,” Yanya explains. “Seeing people enjoy the small things is really quite powerful. And also, the crazy thing is seeing how much joy kids can radiate even though they’re in a shit situation. You don’t need a lot to make things a bit better.”

Being immersed in a family who nurtured her creativity from the earliest opportunity meant that Yanya’s determination to pursue a career as an artist was unwavering. Her parents were a living testament to the fact that it was attainable. Her mother encouraged her to learn piano which, while she “kinda hated it”, admits that she learned the discipline required to truly command an instrument. Academic environments, however, were never really her forte. While she went to Pimlico’s music school and earned a scholarship with Saturday school, ultimately, she decided to forget trying to apply to Goldsmiths, University of London to study Popular Music. Anyway, by this time, she was already carving a name for herself on the live music circuit, and her talents needed no certification to be obvious.

It must have been a gift to have grown up in a family of creatives, surely? “Yeah, but there’s definitely setbacks with that,” Yanya shrugs. “Because nobody has stability. No one has a stable income. No one has anything, in a way… but it’s very rewarding in other ways. It’s not that I don’t want to be like them, but seeing my parents makes me think about wanting to do other things. Not that they don’t have a good quality of life, but it shouldn’t always be about compromising. I don’t think it’s right, I think it’s messed up. Art informs everything we do, and you have to work hard for it - but if you come from a low-income background, expect to work even harder.”

Yanya thinks for a moment, nudging her stickman’s appendages with her finger. “Sometimes, I wish I had some sort of stability,” she says. “It’s nothing exciting, but as you get older, you’re like, ‘Well, where am I gonna be? Because everyone else kind of knows where they’re going to be, I guess’.” Yet, the idea of art being truly painless is an ideal that Yanya chases still - even if it’s just a mirage. She dreams of a day when an artist’s choice is not synonymous with sacrifice.

I ask her who she makes her music for. “I think it’s always for me,” she smiles. “I think I’m a bit selfish like that.” Her fascination with music is still her own, private love affair. Now, she’s learning to produce, so that there is no facet of her expression that is not entirely her own. “It’s what keeps me going,” says Yanya. “Knowing that one day, I’ll do it myself, and it will be perfect.”

PAINLESS is out now via Ato Records.
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