Nilüfer Yanya on “Miss Universe”

Raw Power

Apr 16, 2019 Photography by James Loveday (For Under the Radar) Web Exclusive
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Nilüfer Yanya thought she would have done her debut album when she was 20. The 23-year-old's cover of Pixies' "Hey" in 2016 marked her out as a distinctive voice in London's underground indie scene, by trading the original's anxious snarl for a bewitching after-hours vibe. Three EPs followed, each one more critically acclaimed than the last, along with enthusiastic profiles in national papers and a coveted BBC Sound of 2018 nomination. But when it came to making her debut, she almost had to force herself to do it.

"Anyone can do an album, but I wanted to feel like I knew what I was doing," she says, when I ask what held her back for so long. "Weirdly enough, when I came round to it, I still didn't feel like I knew what I was doing." She set herself a challenge to finish her debut album by the end of 2018, with the condition that it would contain none of the singles she had made her name with. And even if she didn't feel any more prepared, the time had done her good.

The result, titled Miss Universe, is a strikingly confident record that demonstrates the breadth of Yanya's talent. Whether she's tackling taut grungy alt-rock ("In Your Head") or sugary synth-pop ("Safety Net"), Yanya is a commanding presence whose voice bounces between aloof London-accented sing-speak and a sweet feather-light falsetto. The album's diversity is partly caused by its production, recorded across multiple cities and with numerous collaborators adopting a "try anything" spirit. The presence of co-writers was something that initially troubled her, if only for fear of a backlash from traditionalists. "I felt weird about putting so many co-writes on my debut album, because I'm supposedly a singer/songwriterI'm not just a singer, so you feel like a bit of a fake," she says. "I don't want to be labeled as someone who can't write by themselves." Although that concept of a lone songwriter with total control of their work feels outdated in an era where songs are produced across countries via voice notes and emails. "I guess I just want to be like, 'I wrote it all!" Yanya says, as she laughs; a reflex that often kicks in when she seems to catch herself sounding too serious. "But why should I have to do that? Why does it make it any better?"

In hindsight, the idea that Yanya's use of collaboration could negate her contributions is laughable once you listen to Miss Universe, as it is her identity that binds these songs together. Whether she's borrowing the beat from Kelis' "Millionaire" on "Heat Rises" or trying on the indie-house stylings of Jamie xx on "Baby Blu," Yanya's songwriting always has a few recognizable features: melodically rich vocal lines, unpredictable changes of pace, and a forceful rhythmic focus, even in its sparsest moments.

The album is also linked together by a collection of tongue-in-cheek interludes which star Yanya as the Siri-esque voice of a company called WWAY Health ("We worry about your health so you don't have to"). Throughout Miss Universe, WWAY promises to make you fitter, happier, and more productive, all while offering banal, often meaningless advice.

"We're constantly being told how to behave and where to go and what to spend money on," she says, when asked what inspired the album's concept. "Self-improvement is just funny because everybody wants to be the best version of themselves. You want to be the best and the fittest and the strongest...but not everything about you is perfect and good," she adds. "And it's like, for what reason are we doing this? What's wrong with you? Nothing really."

Although Yanya doesn't think of Miss Universe as a concept album, the loose narrative does help reframe her songs with a satirical edge. It encourages you to interpret these songs, which might otherwise seem introspective and personal, in a wider social context. And you can't help but wonder if the decision was designed to distract from the confessional interpretations of her music.

"I think my music is not just [a personal thing]. I guess I just subconsciously don't want to be seen as a confessional female singer/songwriter and all that rubbish," she says, laughing again. "And since I have the freedom to put it in another context, I can put it into any context." The confessional tag might fit Yanya well but it's not one she's particularly keen on. "I think it closes your mindI know I do it. It's like, what do you mean? I'm not whispering in anyone's ear when I'm singing."

In general, classification is something that doesn't seem to sit naturally with her. Miss Universe is clearly a rock record, but it's one that defies conventional at almost every turn. Yanya grew up listening to indie stalwarts like The Libertines and The Strokes, and while those bands are in this record's DNA, its creativity feels more in-tune with her current influences, such as Frank Ocean, Blood Orange, and experimental R&B singer Tirzah. Yanya's music often gets labeled with a set of adjectivesraw, soulful, intimatethat fail to capture the versatility of her music.

"I like raw. I feel that's a good way to describe it because I'm not really interested in making something sound polished," she tells me, when I put those descriptions to her. "Soulful? Yeah I guess. I don't really know what that word means."

On Miss Universe, Yanya shows how flimsy the barriers between genres are, much like how her peers in hip-hop and R&B have done in recent years. By forcing herself to make an album, she encouraged herself to try out new ideas and experiment with styles she might have previously dismissed. The writing of "Baby Blu"a song that may take her music to a wider audienceproved formative in that process. "It doesn't sound like the rest of my songs...in a way, part of me was resisting it, but I needed to write something," she says. "I think it's abolished the feelings in my head about what my music is." It helps that Yanya is a writer with a vision that can stand out in any context. Or, to put it in her words, "It doesn't matter what my music sounds like. It could be anything, but it'll still be me."

www.niluferyanya.com

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Cluster
April 27th 2019
11:42am

Good interviews, 5.5 stars