Have you met Nilüfer Yanya? It’s about time you did. The 24-year-old London-born artist grew up listening to Nina Simone and The Pixies, and it shows: she has courted many a musical genre in her still-brief career, beginning with sparse, moody pop on her Small Crimes and Plant Feed EPs, and landing “somewhere under the rock umbrella” on her debut album, 2019’s Miss Universe.
As an introduction to the artist, Miss Universe seats Yanya neatly at the crux of pop, soul and rock, with a strong—if somewhat strange—narrative through-line. It’s almost a concept album; interspersed among rich, syrupy tracks are spoken interludes in which Yanya plays the role of a telephone operator for a dystopian wellness hotline. (Their tagline: “We worry about you, so you don’t have to”). Her voice on these interludes, disembodied as if piped through telephone lines, is a chilling embodiment of chirpy customer service, illuminating the sonic and emotional contrasts she explores throughout the album. On “H34T RISES,” Yanya paints a panicky portrait of a fraught love affair. Her voice escapes in breathy snatches over a tight electronic beat, in a way that is somehow both anxiety-provoking and sensual. She smooths things out on “Paradise,” a slow-pulsing track with breezy chords and a hiccupy beat, in which she flits between a low-pitched, unadorned plea and a glimmering falsetto that threads its way through schmaltzy saxophone riffs.
If you met Yanya at a bar, you’d know she’s a singer straight away. The voice I hear over the phone when I reach her in bed, where she’s recovering from an 11-hour flight, is deep and honeyed. Between that and the silky tangle of emotions her songwriting elicits, it’s easy to understand why Miss Universe has propelled Yanya into the ears of the music-savvy. There’s more to come; back in the U.K. after a year-long tour, Yanya is desperate to get back in the studio. From the depths of her jet-lag, she told me about her love of covering other artists, the music that cures her touring angst, and the most embarrassing moment of her recent Asia tour.
MARA VEITCH: Where are you right now?
NILÜFER YANYA: I just got back from Japan! I’m finally home. I’m pretty jet-lagged.
VEITCH: Do you enjoy being on tour?
YANYA: Sometimes. I don’t like being on tour non-stop. This year was absolutely non-stop. You’re just like, ‘Ok, I’ve done lots of things in terms of travel and shows, but I haven’t done any normal things, like actually making music.’ It can be lonely. I just didn’t know it would take up so much energy.
VEITCH: What does a typical day on the road look like?
YANYA: We’re not at the point where we can have super comfy tours, so often I’m kind of doing everything myself. Loading in, loading out, setting up. The people come, then the people are gone. The whole thing’s quite grounding, though. It’s just you and your suitcase.
VEITCH: You don’t really have much time to go out, get to know the city or anything?
YANYA: Generally, not really. Every now and then, you have a night off or a bit of freedom. But if it’s a proper tour, most of the time we’re just driving every day to the next show. I’m sure one day I’ll be able to build in more time to hang out.
VEITCH: Is music a big part of your family?
YANYA: My parents are visual artists, and my uncle’s a producer. But everyone’s into music.
VEITCH: So, it’s in the blood a little bit. What genre would you say suits your work best?
YANYA: I don’t know. I just keep saying indie rock these days. But I really don’t like the term indie-rock. [Laughs.] I’ll just say rock.
VEITCH: One of your top songs on Spotify is a cover of “Hey” by the Pixies. What is your stance on covering other artists? You’ve performed a number of other covers as well.
YANYA: The fact that “Hey” is one of my most played songs was actually more of an accident, but I just think it’s fun to cover tunes. It’s just a good learning thing to do.
VEITCH: Because you get to reinterpret something classic?
YANYA: Yeah, and you do learn a lot about songs. And if you really like a song, it brings you closer to the artist, in a way.
VEITCH: What do you think a person should be doing while they listen to your music?
YANYA: I don’t know, actually. It’s a good question. I think riding the bus or the train. Driving is my favorite way of listening to music. I love blasting something through a car.
VEITCH: It must be a strange thought, to imagine what people are doing while they’re listening to your voice.
YANYA: Yeah, I really should think about it. It’s a nice idea.
VEITCH: Do you have any other creative pursuits? Are you interested in other types of art?
YANYA: Well, I like adjusting and changing clothes.
VEITCH: Like tailoring?
YANYA: Yeah, tailoring and customizing. That’s fun. Most of the time I never finish. There’s so many things that I buy second-hand where I’m just like, ‘Okay, I’ll change the sleeve, or adjust the waist, and then it’ll be perfect.’
VEITCH: I always think I’m going to adjust the clothes I buy second-hand and I never do.
YANYA: Those things just sit there in their own part of your wardrobe.
VEITCH: Well, now that you’re home for a while, you can get to all of them.
VEITCH: Do you have any hidden talents?
YANYA: Well, I can’t do magic tricks, but I’m quite flexible.
VEITCH: What line of work do you think you’d be in if you weren’t a musician?
YANYA: Wow, I don’t know. Maybe something in the visual arts, or maybe more of a writer. But outside of that realm, I haven’t any idea. I probably wouldn’t be very happy.
VEITCH: A lot of your music is quite emotionally driven. Do you think an artist has to be kind of coming from a place of longing of some kind to make powerful work?
YANYA: I don’t think you need to be suffering. You have to feel kind of safe-ish and happy-ish to be able to actually make something. Writing songs is quite an empathetic act…It’s a thing you feel you have to do. Because even when you are writing just for yourself, you are kind of empathizing with everyone listening at the same time. You’re going to draw from all your experiences, and I think I naturally tend to dig a bit deeper into the harder ones.
VEITCH: Do you have any vices?
YANYA: Oh, yeah. Buying things, being materialistic. That’s a vice. Just clothes. You convince yourself, it’s like, ‘This is helping me shape part of my personality.’ But it’s not helping anyone. It’s my fault, but also not really at the same time, because of the world we’re living in.
VEITCH: What song puts you in a good mood no matter what?
VEITCH: Are you kind of doing research for your next album, or just for fun?
YANYA: No, it just happened. With touring, I just needed something calming and soothing. I couldn’t really deal with listening to anything else.
VEITCH: What was the last thing you were embarrassed about?
YANYA: I was just touring in Australia, and I did that classic thing in Sydney when we were finishing the show. I screamed, “Thank you Brisbane!”
YANYA: It was really embarrassing. I knew I was in Sydney! I was going to say Sydney, but I just said Brisbane. I don’t even know how it happened.
VEITCH: It’s actually surprising that it doesn’t happen more often.
YANYA: Yeah. It’s the first time it has ever happened to me.
VEITCH: Well, you’ll probably never forget it and you’ll never do it again.
YANYA: I probably will! I probably will. [Laughs] I’ll start spiraling. Once it starts happening, you know it’s going to happen again.