Capturing a screenshot of Nilüfer Yanya
Across three EPs, NILÜFER YANYA has amassed a quiet cult following off the back of her stylistic melting pot of 90s indie-rock, guitar-driven soul and velveteen R&B. Her smoky voice glides over sparse, minimal compositions built around the emotional affectivity of her guitar playing. Her most recent EP, Do You Like Pain?, distills this stylistic melting pot into two excellent tracks, reemerging as something completely new of Nilüfer’s own creation, marking her arrival as one of Britain’s most exciting pop auteurs in the process.
Nilüfer is quietly spoken and reflexively considered when she does speak. Like her music, she’s trying to communicate a lot with a little; like the sparse, plaintive guitar line of ‘Baby Luv’, she uses the spaces in-between notes and words as much as she uses the notes and words themselves. As she navigates these spaces, you can hear her locating the most honest and authentic way to convey emotions in the search for empathetic expansion. The impression that shines through is one of an artist who’s watching the unfurling of her own promising career by simply living that maxim through her music. The nonchalant demeanor of both Nilüfer and her music might seem like a conceit on the surface, but it ultimately speaks to the fact that there’s little pretension to be found in the generous humanism of her project, as the distinction between Nilüfer and her music essentially become one.
Much like the characters that populate her lyrical vignettes, Nilüfer finds herself in a small, transient phase that she happens to be passing through right now, part of something bigger that is due to play out later, most likely in the spaces in-between. We sat down with Nilüfer below to capture a small screenshot of the 22-year-old Londoner in this opening phase of her career.
Hi, Nilüfer. The three EPs you’ve released so far have presented this fully-formed, mature sound – it gets compared a lot to Sade, Amy Winehouse, King Krule and so on. But I’ve read that you consider your sound a constantly evolving work-in-progress. What areas are you exploring, or are hoping to explore, with your sound and style moving forward?
It depends where the music wants to go. I don’t really know, basically.
I love the way you play the guitar with a focus on rhythm and the spaces in between the notes being played. What does the instrument mean to you personally?
I think it means the chance to I guess explore and kind of create without there being a right or wrong way of doing it. I learnt guitar, but I did piano first, so I learnt how to play piano classically and then I learnt cello for a bit and then guitar was kind of like an interest in making things up.
What was it about the guitar attracted you to it as an instrument, particularly to use it as the backbone of your sparse compositions?
I’ve always liked the sound [of guitar], I thought it sounded cool. I guess the way you change the way the guitar sounds, it really makes a difference to composition or, you know, you make a certain sound and you can make it sound different. It just depends on how you play it.
I find that there’s a focus on honestly conveying a feeling in your music – Why is this something that’s so important to you?
I don’t know, it’s just important to be able to feel the music.
As a teenager you were given guitar lessons from The Invisible’s Dave Okumu. And both your parents are also artists. How did his mentorship and your familial background help convince you to pursue music and develop your sound?
For me it’s like, my sound it hasn’t developed enough to know what, where and how it developed exactly. I still see it as still being at the start of that process. It’s just now starting to make sense.
Your lyrics are full of these almost elusive character portraits. ‘Small Crimes’, for example, touches on the inequalities of the British justice system by adopting the perspective of a self-described “petty thief”. Do you use these different perspectives to tell different stories rather than writing just from your own perspective? What’s the significance of writing about characters to you?
I have different kinds of scenarios in my head and I don’t really know where they come from but it’s just like I’ll have like this picture painted in my head or like a scene from a film where I’ll want to see what happens next. From there it kind of tells itself. I don’t really think of them as stories, maybe more like one thing or like the end of something or the beginning. [It’s] a feeling, a shot or a still, more like one part of a book or one part of someone’s life that’s passing through, a small screenshot.
So just kind of like you’re dropping into someone’s life?
You grew up in Chelsea, an area known for its stark class divisions and its rapid gentrification. I’ve seen you describe your family as “not the classic Kensington and Chelsea thing”. What do you mean by that? How did the experience of growing up in such an area shape you?
I think most peoples’ perception of people that live in Chelsea are like very wealthy and middle class and very English and, you know, my family’s very mixed, like first or second generation immigrants so just very normal people, I guess? I mean, there’s a lot of Chelsea like that but I think most people what they imagine is someone who’s rich, which wasn’t me.
Your high school scrapped arts and music to focus on science and history and you were also rejected twice from a popular music degree. What do you think this does to young people, like yourself, who need music and the arts as a mode of expressing themselves and making sense of their worlds?
They’re kind of two different things, cause like the music school closing down was because the school itself was failing so in order for it to carry on, they had to shut down the school and turn it into an academy, which was privately owned, so that somebody buys it and they control the curriculum. So they kind of got rid of the music because that’s not what gives the school a good rapport, which is what keeps the school going, what makes other people want to go there. That was a bit sad cause I think the music department there was definitely really special, and there was nothing quite like it else in London at the time. I don’t know if there will be something like that again that is different, cause that’s like local education. It wasn’t like ‘Oh, I really wanted to go’ and then I didn’t get in and then I was really upset. It was more like I thought about going, it was kind of like the next step that would make sense, but I didn’t want to stop [making music].
Artists in Transit is a really fantastic philanthropic project you work on with your sister that hosts art workshops in refugee camps. What are you hoping to achieve with this initiative?
A way of sharing solidarity with the people who are living in these spaces and it’s kind of a way of getting to know them, I think.
What have you learnt from the experience?
I don’t know. People are unpredictable. They’re so nice, like their outlook and personalities are happy. You know that they obviously must be very distressed, but they don’t show it to you and the people are very kind and friendly. It’s crazy.
Is empathy and the power of art to bridge divides an important part of your music?
I’d say so, like the decision to try and understand rather than not understand something but like what can make things work between people, and, like, try and make things work harmoniously, I think it’s important.
You’ve released a steady stream of singles and EPs over the past two years – Can we expect to see you move into a full-length record soon? Where are you looking to go with it?
I’m working on the album now. I think it’s hard to tell because it’s all going to be new stuff that I’m writing at the moment. I don’t know. I guess some of the compositions will sound like more full, some of them will sound really – I guess I want it to sound quite excessive, and it’s going to be different: different worlds, like something big and small, some jazz and punk. Both ways.
Do You Like Pain? is out now – you can stream or purchase it here.
Photo by Molly Daniel
Words by KYLE FENSOM