Posted July 25, 2019 by Jeff in Tunes

Nilüfer Yanya’s Success is Hard Work

Nilüfer Yanya
Nilüfer Yanya

British indie pop singer Nilüfer Yanya was just voted #3 on NPR’s Best New Artists of 2019 poll, right behind Billie Eilish and Maggie Rogers. After supporting Sharon Van Etten last winter and releasing her debut album Miss Universe in March to rave reviews, she’s coming to the States on a headlining tour. She recently spoke to us via phone from London.

Your parents were visual artists. How did they inspire your artistic impulses?

I didn’t really think about it when I was younger. I can see looking back at how it helped me choose something creative to do with my life . . . When you grow up around people making things, you don’t question it. You just want to do the same thing. 

What made you take up guitar at age 12?

I wanted to learn it for a long time. I loved to write songs. Up until that point, I had only written songs in my head. I wanted to write songs for guitar. It was a dream I had. To do that, I had to learn guitar first. 

What were your musical influences back then?

A lot of bad stuff like skater rock anthems and stuff like that. I was listening to weird compilation discs that my sister had. It was nothing too interesting. I just loved the sound of guitar so I think that’s what it was.

At what point did your musical taste change?

I listened to so much of that poppier stuff when I was younger but then got into indie music. I don’t have a specific taste. I love listening to music where you can hear all the instruments. It can be anything. I’ve gotten more into electronic music lately. You just go through different phases. I listened to a lot of Jeff Buckley, too, who is more alternative.

What about soul and R&B?

I love R&B and soul. 

You first released a series of EPs. How different was it to make this full-length album?

Very different. I didn’t really enjoy it as much as I thought I would. For the EPs, they were songs I was sitting on, in a way. They were songs I had played for six months or a year. When it came to the album, I had released everything. I wasn’t writing as much because I was doing shows. I signed with label but they were like, “Album time.” I had to write some more. It was very difficult to do that and be pushing live stuff and promo . . . I had never seen it like that before. I had never seen music as working but now I was working.

Where’d you go to record the album?

I recorded in lots of different places. A lot of it was done in London depending on what producer I was working with and some in Cornwall at my uncle’s studio, which is on the west coast of the UK. It was very nice and by the sea. I did some writing and recording there, which was great. I did two songs in L.A. over two or three days. I didn’t spend a lot of time making the record. You always feel like you could’ve done more.

It starts with a voicemail. What’s the story behind that?

I was playing around with an idea. That was the end of when I finished the album. I was in L.A., and we were making a video and I had been forming this idea about Way Health, which is this fictional company. I had found these instruction manuals. I liked the language and the pictures. I thought it would be cool if I had listener instructions for the album, something quite mechanical. I tied that in with the health company. One of the producers, my friend Will Archer, sent me this beat ages ago. I asked him if we could record the instructions over the beats. That’s what we did. They were fun.

So, is there a concept to the album?

There’s a loose storyline. The story is that you’re on the phone, and you’re on hold, and this is the music you’re listening to. This company worries about your health and they’re trying to sell you their music. It’s actually a health company trying to improve you in every way possible. You don’t know if you trust them, or if they really care about you. 

It sounds like science fiction.

I love science fiction stories.

I like how “Angels” moves so effectively from loud to quiet segments.

It was the first rock tune I was going to do. I wanted to go for distorted guitars. It came together in terms of the dynamics. 

Baby Blu” has an intensity to it. Did something in particular inspire that song?

That was a very specific breakup song. We started writing it two or three years ago. I had a session with a pop writer. I didn’t know if I could write anything with this guy. It was one of the first writing sessions I’ve ever done with another person. It was so nice. I had broken up with my boyfriend at the time. We talked about it, and then we started writing the songs. It’s funny because I sing it now and I don’t think about that person at all. 

It has an intensity to it.

Yeah, it was like a week after we broke up.

What do you make of all your positive reviews? 

It’s weird. It’s kinda mad. You flip back to when you were younger and think about how much you would have died for this dream. It’s a weird thing. I don’t think about it most of the time. You get used to things so quickly. The hard thing is staying excited about things and focused on the music and not letting anything else set me off. Once you do the EP and the album and the tour, it’s loads of hard work, and a lot of the time you’re just driving everywhere. It feels like you’ve been working a long time but you go and play a show and people are singing the lyrics. It’s very abstract, even if I get something really cool in a magazine that I’ve always liked. You read it and, of course, it’s about you, but you think it’s not real. It’s just words on a printed paper. It doesn’t have the same effect as when you read a story about someone else or see someone else perform. When I’m on stage, I’m just playing some weird songs I wrote on guitar. It’s disorienting. It doesn’t feel like I’m doing anything of interest.

What is your live show like?

I’m bringing my band, so there’s bass, drums, synths and saxophone. I’m on guitar. It should be a good show. My guitarist is also playing a solo set at the beginning. We have another London artist opening for us. It’ll be fun. 


Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at [email protected].