N I L U F E R
Y A N Y A
Nilufer Yanya spent last year touring the world but this year’s been a little… different. Kate French-Morris meets the British singer-songwriter to talk new EP ‘Feeling Lucky?’, the ill-fitting labels that are assigned to her music and why a slower pace of life isn’t always a bad thing.
Photos: Eva Pentel.
It’s just occurred to Nilüfer Yanya that New Year’s Eve might hit differently this year. “Christmas is fine, you stay at home and relax anyway. But New Year’s in lockdown – what do you even do?”
Whether you’re usually several bottles deep or fast asleep by the countdown to midnight, let’s face it: this year was never going to end normally. It’s been a particularly unusual twelve months for the British singer-songwriter. This time last year Yanya was on the other side of the world in Japan and Australia, wrapping up a colossal headline tour after the release of her debut album ‘Miss Universe’. Nothing implied her whirlwind year was about to swing to the other extreme – though ‘Crash’, the lead single off her new EP ‘Feeling Lucky?’, jitters with burn-out. “When you get home you do crash,” she says. “And then you can’t do anything for however long you’re home. And then you’re off again.”
Except this time, of course, she wasn’t off again. But despite the cancellations – including a slot at Coachella, rebooked for next year – any creative paralysis didn’t linger. Three new songs were scorching a hole in Yanya’s pocket, and over the course of the year they became ‘Feeling Lucky?’, the EP she released last week.
A small but perfectly formed triptych that gleams with Yanya’s strongest qualities – tender grunginess, deft guitar-work, a voice that flickers from falsetto pangs to low defiance – the EP is as good an introduction as any to the London-based artist for those less familiar with her output over the last four years. Flanked by the critical success of ‘Miss Universe’ and the tentative unknowns of a second album, ‘Feeling Lucky?’ finds Yanya at a unique point in her career: taking stock in the calm between storms.
Yanya hadn’t long returned from a five-week US tour supporting Sharon Van Etten when she released ‘Miss Universe’ in March 2019. The eighteen-track debut established her song-writing flair and creative ambition. Most importantly, it shook off the ‘R&B’ label lazily affixed to her early work.
Those initial EPs, with their sharp empathy (best heard on songs like ‘Keep On Calling’ and ‘The Florist’) and colourful covers designed by Yanya’s sister, introduced an artist already some way towards finding her own sound – and no way in hell was she going to sound like anybody else. This confused the press: or maybe her Irish-Barbadian-Turkish heritage did. “People would be like, it’s indie but soul, it’s R&B,” Yanya laughs. “And I was like, ‘There’s no way this is R&B!’ You don’t know if someone’s hearing it like that, or they’re seeing your name and where you’re from, and applying a certain thought process to it. It would be impossible to call my music R&B now.”
‘Miss Universe’ tore up that label with its guitar-driven sound, and ‘Feeling Lucky?’ shows no sign of slowing down. The EP matches a go-for-it attitude with synthy pop sensitivity. Lyrically, Yanya continues to navigate the emotional appetites of a young woman out in the world, from the inner thrum of anxiety to desire and bittersweet commitment.
On ‘Crash’, her vocals twirl out from a freefall of caustic guitar. “I just tried to create a proper rock song,” she explains. “The song wants to be like that: it wants to be free and angry.”
American musician Nick Hakim, who worked with Yanya to produce the track, understood this immediately. “I quickly realised he wasn’t going to sit there and make it neat and tidy. It wasn’t going to be that kind of session,” she says. “We just put loads of ideas down, and then we had another session in London in March, just before lockdown. It was up to me from that point to make any changes but I kept it the way it was. It sounded a lot more like a demo before we mixed it, but I wanted to keep that element because I think that’s what makes it interesting.”
Collaboration hasn’t always been Yanya’s preferred approach. “When I was younger I felt like in order for it to be you, you had to do more than 50% of the work,” she admits. “I wanted to prove to myself that I had the capability to write all of the songs. But as I’ve got older, sometimes it’s hard to write something you like. Instead of forcing myself to work alone it’s nice to work with other people and realise that actually, I’m learning a lot more this way. Writing by myself in my room is not really that useful sometimes.”
The highly personal writing on ‘Feeling Lucky?’ definitely called for the fresh ears of an outside perspective. “I knew exactly how I felt when I wrote the songs, or what I was thinking about. They were all about different times and different things,” Yanya remembers. “But I think that’s generally how it starts with a song, and then in order to finish it I need to step out of myself and apply it in a more universal way – which is difficult.” That’s when she brought in producers and musicians like Nick, as well as Wilma Archer and Bullion.
“Make some friends, make some music,” she smiles. It wasn’t a bad way to negotiate this year, either – keeping productive and artistically engaged.
But the EP’s title, ‘Feeling Lucky?’, ended up with heavier relevance than Yanya had intended. “It goes hand-in-hand with this year,” she realises. “Maybe last year I’d have been thinking about different things, but now everyone’s thinking more about whether they’re lucky, recognising their privilege and day-to-day luck.”
As the year unfolded, she saw her writing from a different – and not always flattering – perspective. “Some of it, I’m just whining. This isn’t real! What are you singing about! This is not a problem.” At the same time, she grew aware of luck’s disguised and often profound role as “a force of nature. Some people have got to places because they’ve been lucky. Others don’t take enough self-congratulation for the stuff they’ve done for themselves.”
Has luck played a significant role in her life? She pauses. “I feel very lucky to be born into this country because of all the opportunities I’ve had… but I also feel unlucky, because I feel disconnected from my different backgrounds and cultures.”
Given the hotly charged events over the summer around racism and Black Lives Matter, Yanya has specific reason to feel that disconnect. In July, not long after the Bristol statue of slave trader Edward Colston was toppled and sunk, her aunt Gloria Daniel appeared on the news to confront their unsettling family connection to Thomas Daniel, “the slave owner that enslaved my ancestors!”
Yanya was shocked to learn of her family’s link to Daniel, who owned sugar plantations across the Americas, though less surprised by his Bristol Cathedral memorial: “of course he’s going to be glorified!”
“It’s disgraceful that slave owners are still being honoured for their hateful crimes against humanity in the 21st century,” she later wrote on Instagram. “The work to show the ugly truth has only just begun.”
The news landed amid global protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, and Yanya was vocal in her support for all of it: Black Lives Matter and Black Trans Lives Matter marches, Justice For Grenfell, Justice For Windrush, as well as working with her sister’s collaborative art project Artists In Transit to deliver art packs to vulnerable children across the capital during lockdown.
“What’s really important is to vocalise it,” she says. “Not letting it become a taboo subject again, not being like ‘oh yeah, racism…’ and not wanting to talk about it. Trying to keep the conversation going.” Though the Black Lives Matter movement allowed her to open up that conversation, keeping it open meant the risk of difficult interactions.
“People will always critique and abuse what you say anyway, so you might as well say something that’s worthwhile,” she says. “I definitely feel responsible in getting across the right information, without taking up space. I don’t want to make it a personal thing.”
But when you’re a mixed-heritage, female musician wielding a guitar, sometimes it can feel personal. A recent article highlighted how Black British indie musicians are overlooked in the industry. “I look really white,” Yanya says, “so I’ve benefited from white privilege my whole life. But it’s something you notice as an undercurrent, an undertone. I can’t say I’ve been impacted by it personally. But you sense it everywhere, because the UK indie scene started off very white male, so in order for things to progress to being open to everyone, it has to go through all these little phases. It’s infuriating to watch it move so slowly.”
“Traditional labels don’t see it as their responsibility to make those changes,” she continues. “They’re just like, ‘oh it’s going to come to us, when that music happens or when that band’s ready’. Instead of looking for genuine new talent, they lean towards recreating things that have influenced them – and generally that’s white people. You’d feel very unwelcome if you weren’t white. There are people of colour who have made it in indie music, but you don’t hear about them as much, and there’s definitely a reason for that, and it’s racism!”
Yanya was lucky with press at the beginning. People wanted to talk about her guitar. But as her career flourished and she began to play shows, often supporting male-fronted bands like Interpol, the full scale of the issue became apparent: “Seeing how male guitarists are treated differently is disheartening.”
Her shows with Sharon Van Etten last year – the large venues, the warmly receptive audiences – gave her newfound confidence as a female guitarist. “When you’re female and you’re playing guitar, you feel a lot of pressure to make sure you’re really, really good at it,” she says. “If you make a mistake and mess it up, you feel it a lot more. Your confidence comes from a lower level, because when you get on stage people already assume you’re gonna be crap, so you have to push even harder.”
The pressure of being a young female guitarist explains lines from ‘Miss Universe’ like, “Got to learn/Got to realize what this means/Got to earn/Got to decide who to please.” But Yanya needn’t worry too much about messing it up. She plays so dexterously, it’s as if the instrument coils naturally around her voice. On ‘Day 7.5093’, the third track of ‘Feeling Lucky?’, vocals and guitar slide up and down past each other, aligning in the chorus to break into buoyant eighties pop, before dissolving into the optimistic bleeps of a jackpot machine.
In September, Yanya flew to Greece to film the video for her EP’s second single, ‘Same Damn Luck’. It’s almost painful to watch from the depths of winter: sunned skin, salty ocean air, the pink gauze of a late summer evening. A family affair – her sister directed, her cousin was the Director of Photography, her mum did art direction, her friend the stylist – Yanya exudes a relaxed confidence that can only come from working with people you’re close to. Family time has been a crucial part of her year, from artistic collaboration to taking part in the Black Lives Matter marches.
Looking back, it seems as if the quiet of 2020 has been a blessing as much as a curse. Last year’s crazy touring schedule left no time to write. “You just have to sit with your thoughts,” she shudders. “You can’t do anything except be aware of them.” This year, of course, has been entirely different. “The luxury of the time I’ve had,” she says, “I want to apply that to future things. What’s the rush? In your head, you’re like, you can’t not release something for a whole year – and well, yes you can!”
That’s why she’s given herself “as much time as possible” next year to work on a new record. Even after the triumph of ‘Miss Universe’, she’s aware of the notorious pressure placed on the second album, but really, “a lot of the pressure comes from myself.”
Before all that, there’s Christmas. The family usually spend the holidays at her aunt’s place in Cornwall, hanging out, going for long walks in the fresh air. Her uncle has a recording studio there, which could tempt her to start early on the second album. But this year, they’re staying in London. And while New Year’s Eve remains a mystery, one thing is certain: we’re feeling lucky that 2020 forced Nilüfer Yanya to slow down – else she might have crashed, after all.
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