When I first saw Nilüfer Yanya perform over two years ago, I heard a guitar sound which glowed ruddy and gold; horns which turned each song into a cinema; a voice which sounded as firm as it did friendly. Yanya and her school friends played and smiled on the stage, the audience swayed, and I remember thinking how proud I felt to live in London in that moment.
“I’ve always loved London,” Yanya tells me on a call from Washington DC. “I guess it has created my sound in a way.”
You can hear the city in each of the singles she’s been steadily releasing since 2016. Her truncated voice is unmistakably the voice of the capital, her guitar is heated like sunshine on the city’s concrete, her candour and coolness is identifiably, ineffably London.
Beyond her home city, Yanya’s gained immediate interest with her humble back-catalogue, which she’s taken on the road while supporting the likes of Interpol, Broken Social Scene and, currently, our recent cover star, Sharon Van Etten. While her songs so far have displayed Yanya’s vital talent for writing neat, catchy bops, they also point to a songwriting capability which is bordering on greatness.
And, like any great songwriter, Yanya’s songs work on multiple levels. Take ‘Small Crimes’, for instance, a highlight from her 2016 EP of the same name. On one level, it’s the story of her stolen bike, on the next it’s a pleading love song, on another, it’s a broader commentary on injustice and repentance at large. “I think that’s because I’m not really an open person, so for me it’s easier to bring other contexts into it, instead of it all just being about me,” she says.
While she refers to herself as opaque and somewhat closed-off, Yanya’s deepest fears, her paranoia and her need for validation are exposed on her forthcoming LP. The long-awaited debut, Miss Universe, maximises Yanya’s macro-micro songwriting methodology, as she draws on her own experiences and emotional universe to identify the ways in which authorial voices govern our lives at a distance.
Specifically, Miss Universe muses on the ways in which self-help culture stultifies our own personal conduct and relationships. As Forbes reported in 2018, around 94 percent of millennials are making personal improvement commitments. We wear health monitors which allow professionals to intervene should something look awry, we consume self-help books and take on veganuary and sober January. Each year, we better ourselves to death.
Miss Universe – which opens with elevator- style muzak and a hebetudinous voice positively reinforcing: “Welcome to WWAY [We Worry About Your] Health, our 24/7 care programme. We are here for you, we care about you, we worry about you,” – is Yanya’s attempt at satirising the devious parts of self-improvement culture.
The 17-track album is peppered with these interludes, which become increasingly farcical, and are “based off tube announcements”, Yanya says; “the tone of authority that you don’t really question much”.
“It plays into the idea that you can always do better, which is fine, because most of the time you can, but it’s also hard to enjoy the present and appreciate the state you’re at now when you’re always trying to improve, and WWAY Health takes it a bit further, in the way you’re improving but you don’t even know why you need to improve anymore.”
While self-improvement culture – with its vow to help you exceed your expectations — seems rewarding at a first glance, Miss Universe’s pivotal moment occurs when Yanya realises her limitations. “This is the bar I’m waiting,” she sings on the album’s closer ‘Heavyweight Champion of the Year’. “This is the bar I’m staying.”
So, is Miss Universe Yanya’s anti- self-improvement manifesto? “Yeah! ‘Cos it’s so much pressure to do well, to be the best, but the most important thing is the process. You picture yourself in the future, doing whatever, with whoever, but you’re never actually at one with the process of getting there. I think that’s why people get disillusioned. They wonder what they’re doing in their relationships, ‘cos we’re sold this idea that if you’re aspiring to something, and you get it, you often think, ‘this isn’t as great as I thought it would be, whats wrong with me?’”
Photos by Molly Daniel.