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Nilüfer Yanya: All in Her Head

“Welcome to WWAY HEALTH™ … our 24/7 care program. We are here for you. We care for you. We worry about you, so you don't have to,” utters an emotionless voice over the faint sounds of soothing muzak. The tone is familiar, clinical. It’s one heard many times before, on the phone while holding the line, in late-night ads on television, and in films centered on dystopian futures. This time, it’s coming from the depths of Nilüfer Yanya’s Miss Universe, the musician’s debut album released earlier this year. 

Part-eerie, part-satirical, these vocal interludes represent a dubious wellness corporation fictionalized by Yanya herself, whose concept was inspired by our increasingly hyper-commercialized, media-saturated society. “I feel like we’ve gotten to a stage where we’re being sold so many things that we’re just very automatically jaded. We don't believe these things, but we still buy into them,” reflects the 23-year-old. Yanya's work is perhaps best defined by this sensibility, a certain millennial awareness that playfully winks at her own generation's anxieties without being heavy-handed.

When I meet Yanya, she’s remarkably lively for a 9am interview on a bright Saturday morning in London. Dressed in camouflage trousers and an orange top draped with her free-flowing curls, she is warm and unassuming. 2019 has been a landmark year for Yanya. In the past six months alone, she’s released her debut album, embarked on a world tour, performed on the Stephen Colbert Show in New York City, and was invited to hold her very own Tiny Desk Concert, which is an intimate performance recorded at the radio station NPR music and considered to be a major milestone in many artists’ careers. “These are the things that I had on my bucket list,” she beams.

Born in West London to visual artists of Turkish, Bajan, and Irish descent, Yanya grew up in a household that encouraged creativity through music and art. The piano was Yanya’s gateway instrument, but soon, at age 12, the guitar became more alluring. Yanya’s school laid the foundations for much of the start of her career. There, she met her current bandmates Jazzi Bobbi and Lucy Lu, through whom she later met Ellis Dupuy, and was taught by Dave Okumu of the critically acclaimed band The Invisible. “The school itself was pretty bad, but the music and art department were great – probably the best in London – and I met so many inspirational people there,” she recalls. “But eventually, the department got shut down because the school lost all funding once it got bought out by an Academy. It happens a lot in London. Then, it became quite ... bleak. I did all the normal things at school, but it wasn’t until I left that I became more focused on just trying to put music out.” At the age of 18, Yanya released two demo tracks on Soundcloud – “Cheap Flights” and “Waves” – showcasing her breathy vocal harmonies and indie sensibilities.

Yanya’s evolution as a writer is evident in her latest album. Miss Universe, which was released this past March, is a rapturous waltz through fantasy, anxiety, and love; a step in a different direction from her initial Soundcloud releases. Her music sees crooning, full-bodied vocals which meander through blaring alt-rock and grunge on tracks such as “Angels” and “Heavyweight Champion of the Year.” Elsewhere, on tracks like “Tears,” hints of 80s synth-pop emerge. Yanya has the ability to traverse through different styles and genres, batting off any attempts to categorize her music into one distinct sound. The cohesion in her music lies in the raw vulnerability of her vocals, catchy guitar riffs, and lyrical sentience. Her lyrics merge wise romanticism and beautifully metaphysical imagery with an anchoring realism: “Strange dreams and weather/They have taught me a lesson/I see stained scenes of heaven saying ‘save me’/When I realize/That I'm paralyzed,” she sings on “In Your Head.”

Yanya captures the frank reality and aspirational fantasy of what it means to be a 23-year-old living in a fast-paced city. For someone so young, her songwriting is perceptive and open. This perhaps has parallels to her generation’s effortless inclination toward sharing and communicating intimate feelings in a digital age. For Yanya, however, the sharing is on her terms. “I’m not as scared to show more of myself in my music. I know that no matter how much music you write, there's still a part of you that no one is ever going to really have to see,” she smiles. “I feel quite protected by that.”

Morna: You released your first album, Miss Universe, this year. How did that feel?

Nilüfer: It was a relief because it was a very high-pressure situation. I told my label and publishers that I was ready to put out an album, and they were like: “Great!” Then they put in a deadline. Instantly, I thought I needed more time, but by that point it was too late. 

Can you tell me about the WWAY HEALTH concept that runs through the LP?

The first working title for the album was “We Worry About Your Health,” which felt too convoluted to use as the title, but I still wanted to keep it in somehow. So I came up with its anagram, WWAY HEALTH, and imagined this story of a health company that only exists as something that wants to sell you things: a healthier, better, happier you. Basically, what we’re used to seeing around us all the time. I thought it would be funny to disguise the album as a self-help guide or product. Something you could buy instead of just the music, but I didn't mean it to be super serious. 

There’s a lot of mention of angels, heaven, and paradise in the album – mixing the metaphysical with very earthly things. How did that come about?

When it comes to language in songs, I’m really interested in otherworldly, supernatural things, like the concept of paradise, especially when placed within a mundane context. If you look back a hundred years or so, it was much more ingrained in people’s everyday lives. Things like, “I saw a ghost.” People were much more superstitious. In the modern Western world, it feels like a lot of that isn’t really spoken about much. But it still exists, even if just in our heads, language, or pop culture.

Which films or books have influenced your thinking in your work? 

One of the poems that inspired my song “Angels” was by Edgar Allan Poe, who wrote a piece called “Annabel Lee” (1849). It's about two lovers who are so in love, that even the angels grow jealous of them because their love is so pure. So, the angels send horrible weather, and one of the lovers dies. The final thoughts in the poem stress how  the angels will never be able to kill the love between the couple in the end. That was really beautiful, and it was also interesting to read about angels being evil.

What does paradise mean to you?

I mean, I still don’t know what it is [laughs]. Does it exist? I feel like it definitely exists more in your past and future than in the present. It's hard to accept when something really good is happening in the moment itself. I definitely think paradise is real, just not very tangible. It’s more an idea. When I was writing the song “Paradise,” and I was thinking about the idea of paradise, I imagined it as something where everything just flows and works together seamlessly. Everything just moves together harmoniously, and you’re happy.

Now that you’ve been touring the album, have you had any unexpected reactions from the crowd?

Some of the quieter song on the album go down the best live, which you wouldn't necessarily think.

Have you found that you're experimenting more with certain sounds, like electronics for example? 

Yeah, I didn't really have a set sound in my head, and I think that helped. I always knew what my music sounded like and where it sits, but I never wanted to limit it to music that just sounded like a band. That’ll get really boring. A lot of it comes down to how open you are, how willing you are to push yourself in another direction. It’s scary because sometimes, I’ll make a track and think, “This sounds really pop, but I’m not pop!” It’s just about experimenting, and pushing your own boundaries, really.

How much do you share with your family during the writing process?

It's mixed. “Paradise” and “Angels” were recorded in my uncle’s studio in Cornwall. He’s a producer, so he’s one of the first people I started recording with. He’s very inspiring to be around. There’s always stuff you want to show your family, and then other things that you don’t feel comfortable sharing, but I’m relaxed with it now. I’ve gotten to that point where if my family comes to a show, I’m really happy to see them. Before, I’d be way more nervous. 

Together with your sister, you have a project called Artists in Transit. Can you explain a little about what that is?

It’s a non-profit arts collaborative project started by my sister and I, where we bring art workshops to refugees in Athens. There’s a large refugee population in Greece, and when we started it there, we made a lot of good connections, so we go back a lot. We definitely do want to visit other places as well, like Palestine, France, Germany … and we want to do more things in London.

So it’s still ongoing?

Yes, we’re doing a zine launch in November, which we’re really excited about. Hopefully we’ll get to make it a bit more clear as to what we’re set out to do and see people’s responses to that. We want to make it permanent, and keep it at a very grassroots level, so that it’s more open to people.

How do you see your sound or music developing along all of your projects in the future?

At the moment, I just want to go back and learn more about music – play, sing, all those things. My main goal is to write more music. I used to write all the time, every day, but it’s dipped a little now. It’s because I’m touring more and juggling other commitments, but I want to remember to stay rooted to the music side of things. I want to look back on this time and think, “I made a ton of music back then.” So for me, it’ll be about going back to basics.

WIP magazine issue 04 is now available at Carhartt WIP stores and select retailers.

Words: Morna Fraser
Images: Jennifer Cheng
Styling: Aya Takeshima
Photo assistant: Neil Payne
Make up: Anna Inglis Hall
Hair: Rebecca Chang