Nilüfer Yanya on “PAINLESS” | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Saturday, September 30th, 2023  

Nilüfer Yanya on “PAINLESS”

Getting to Her Roots

Mar 03, 2022 Photography by Derrick Santini (for Under the Radar) Issue #69 - 20th Anniversary Issue
Bookmark and Share

In the DNA of Nilüfer Yanya’s music you hear the unmistakable guitar strains of mid-aughts bands such as Interpol, The Strokes, and The Libertines. These were the albums that her older sister was listening to when Yanya was in her early teens. Her mother preferred classical music while her Istanbul-born father played a lot of music from his homeland. Growing up in an interracial family (her mother is Barbadian-Irish and her father Turkish), with parents who were both visual artists, Yanya and her two siblings were encouraged to indulge in creative pursuits—drawing, piano, nature, imaginative play—rather than the indiscriminate consumption of mass pop culture. This is the mélange that sets her apart from most.

So unlike her peers, she didn’t spend her childhood mimicking the voices of reigning divas or pop stars? “No,” comes the abrupt reply, from the otherwise bubbly 26-year-old, from her cellphone in London. Later she sends me her personal Spotify playlist of Turkish music. It’s diverse, from psych-rock to chanson-inflected folk and traditional fare, much of it is affecting even though I don’t understand the language. And while Yanya admits she still feels a little disconnected from her Turkish heritage—partly she believes because her family weren’t afforded the opportunity to return there as often as they would have liked when she was younger and those foundational bonds are formed—she recognizes its influence on her. It helps that her father plays the Saz, a traditional Turkish string instrument that resembles the lute. “He said he always wanted to be a musician as well,” she is quick to add.

Perhaps that’s why Yanya’s voice can be hard to define. Her vocals have a staccato, guttural quality, but when matched up with the right melody can be utterly beguiling. She’s also an artful guitarist and when all those elements pare up nicely, you have a track like “Crash,” off Feeling Lucky, her perfectly formed three-song EP, released in 2020. The stitching of acid jazz basslines with dreamy pop melodies on “Day 7,5093” and her feathering falsetto on “Same Damn Luck” serve to highlight her versatility.

There’s a concomitant restless quality to her songwriting that, like her voice and music, could be tied up with a quest for identity or the parts of her identity that she’s never been able to articulate. Recently, her mother’s sister unearthed their family’s connection to a West Indies sugar plantation and a slave owner called Thomas Daniel. He had donated to the coffers of churches in Bristol and has memorials, stained glass windows, and art dedicated to him and his name. “In the UK, the general public’s knowledge of this topic is so bad,” Yanya explains. “They’re like, ‘Oh, that’s America. No, we’re not that bad. We just abolished the slave trade.’ And it’s like, ‘No, this is this is the slave trade. We’re still living in it somehow,’” she says referring to the money that the British government paid out to slave owners like Daniel, that have resulted in the generational wealth, power, and access that their progeny have benefitted from.

Back then people born enslaved had to take the last name of their masters. Yanya’s great, great, great grandfather was an enslaved man, who took the Daniel name. As direct descendants, Yanya’s family is seeking to get those enslaved recognized with an alternate plaque wherever Thomas Daniel’s name is mentioned. The death of George Floyd galvanized her aunt. “She really wants to and hopes to inspire other people of Caribbean or African descent, to do the same thing and find out their own links,” Yanya says.

Yanya hasn’t had a chance to come to terms with the enormity of this revelation but she has shared this information on her Instagram to bring this collective history to light. In the hour that we speak and she busies about her day on the streets of London, she does mention grappling with issues of race, colorism, and white privilege.

“This is like a therapy session,” she laughs, “I don’t really know how to talk about it.” After a few stops and starts, she says: “You see people look at you and they see just a white person—which is confusing cause obviously I don’t feel like it,” she pauses. “You’re growing up and people then project that on to you. It’s also what you identify as well. So, I don’t know. It’s weird.”

In 2019, Yanya released Miss Universe, her debut album, to critical acclaim. She has a tendency, like the best auteurs, to be a perfectionist and can be hard on herself. There’s always more she can learn and master to make her art better, and the fact that she did have a number of different collaborators on the album didn’t always sit well with her. Yet, when she’s kinder to herself, she sees clearly the value of collaboration in helping birth a new song. Besides, where her music is concerned, she is not the type to suffer fools gladly.

Yanya is now releasing her second album, PAINLESS. The title is a reference to how easy the process of songwriting sometimes felt while doing the album—though she had started writing a handful of songs before the pandemic hit, much of the album was written during lockdown, and with one main collaborator, Wilma Archer (aka Will Archer, who also used to go by the name Slime and released his last album, A Western Circular, in 2020 via Domino imprint Weird World). Her friend, Jazzi Bobbi, who plays saxophone and keys in her band, also had a hand in a couple of songs.

To begin with, the process was anything but painless. At the start of the pandemic Yanya didn’t feel creative. After two years of intense touring it would have been a good break and a time to write but the end-of-world mood of lockdowns, as most of us have discovered, aren’t exactly conducive to making art. She describes the rut: “I didn’t feel like making [music]—playing guitar. It was strange.” Having Archer come to her with some ideas was a blessing. It motivated her to write songs like the album’s first single, “Stabilise”—a circular, meditative track that features an Interpol-like propulsive guitar solo that also captures the angst of being confined.

“Will had written the guitar parts and the instrumentation, all I had to do was come up with the melody and the lyrics. So it was a very freeing process in a way,” Yanya says. And when she got stuck again, she folded that struggle into the lyrics and made it a part of the song’s momentum. “It was hard actually to finish that song,” she explains, “because the lyrics in the verse came quite easily. Like telling a story. And then the chorus, I was like, ‘Oh, I need to top this and make this better.’ And I couldn’t. It just kept being—‘I’m going nowhere. I’m going nowhere.’ And that was kind of it,” she laughs. “And I was like, ‘Okay, it’s just going nowhere.’”

Creatively, her partnership with Archer, who also worked on her debut and produced her Feeling Lucky EP, was rendering good results. “Will and I got on really well,” she says affectionately, “and I think those working relationships don’t come by as often as you think they do. Forcing things is kind of horrible. We didn’t have to do that. It just kind of happened this year.”

Bobbi had spent much of the pandemic in Greece. Like Yanya, she was also feeling frustrated that she didn’t have the creative energy to work on anything. But as soon as she returned to London, they wrote a song together. “Jazzy also helped me finish writing ‘The Dealer,’” adds Yanya, of the album’s opening track.

Yanya was thankful that she was even able to continue writing the record through the various lockdowns that the UK went through. “I totally just got myself into the process because I thought, ‘This is better than just not doing anything,’” she says. “And I love the songs so it would be really sad if I didn’t make them, and it makes me angry at myself. Because I’m like, ‘What else could I have made if I was just a little bit more open?’”

To be fair, by the time the UK went into their third lockdown in the depths of winter in 2020, she had every reason to feel down. “In the beginning it was more astonishing,” she explains how she found the early days of lockdown amusing. “That was when they taped up the benches. That was weird! In the park, you couldn’t sit down. If you did, someone would tell you to get off…it was kind of funny. Everyone was in the park because it was the only place you could go but you couldn’t sit down!” That was in March of 2020. By December, it was hard to see the humor in anything. “Everyone thought we were coming out of it…and you could feel everyone’s energy was kind of sucked out of you. And when eventually it was like, ‘Things are were going to open up again,’ you didn’t really believe it.”

But by April of 2021, she had a batch of new songs and together with Archer she headed to Cornwall, a county on England’s southwestern tip where her aunt and uncle have a studio, to record the songs. And by the summer, they had another batch of songs so they went back into the studio there.

“Both times were pretty good but the second time we went down the weather was amazing. It was like a heat wave. It was so hot, we were swimming in the sea in the morning and then in the studio for the rest of the day. It was perfect,” Yanya remembers fondly.

Cornwall proved restorative and away from the over stimulation of the big city, she was able to unlock different parts of herself in her songwriting. “The sea’s there and nature,” she reminisces, “you can tap into your own self a bit more easily.”

There’s a song on PAINLESS that has a definite Middle Eastern influence. Is it the Arabic scale I ask her? “Yes!” she answers excitedly. “I play the Saz, that line that comes in”—she quickly sounds out the melancholic, semitone-punctuated melody. Surprisingly, Yanya doesn’t actually play the Saz. It’s to her credit that she manages to play just enough to use it effectively in the song. She could hear it in her head and acted on her impulse. “So I took my dad’s Saz and recorded it really badly,” she giggles, “and then layered it so many times.”

When asked what she thinks of the songs from 20 years ago that she had loved so much—religiously learning every guitar lick, and memorizing all the lyrics—she pauses then replies: “I wouldn’t listen to The Strokes now, not because I don’t think it’s good…it just feels very much, kind of in the past.” All those bands are also a part of her in a way that’s been acknowledged and trumpeted.

“I feel like the face of music and the industry was just literally white male bands,” she continues, cognizant of the people that were excluded. Given the seismic shift in culture and her own reckonings with race and identity, she is conscious of bringing more parts unknown into her songwriting, and calling attention to them. She wants to employ her much-vaulted music as a means to explore her complex identity in a deeper way not just for kudos but that others with roots like hers will see, and also feel confident doing so. She thinks the pace of change has been too slow. “A lot of people I know, they didn’t feel accepted into that kind of music when they were younger,” she says about indie rock. “It’s kind of already affected people my age. Hopefully it won’t happen for the people 10, 15, or 20 years younger, hopefully things will be different.”

[Note: This article originally appeared in Issue 69 of Under the Radar’s print magazine, our 20th Anniversary Issue, which is out now. This is its debut online.]

Support Under the Radar on Patreon.


Submit your comment

Name Required

Email Required, will not be published


Remember my personal information
Notify me of follow-up comments?

Please enter the word you see in the image below:

There are no comments for this entry yet.