London Songwriter Nilüfer Yanya’s Debut ‘Miss Universe’ Is One Of 2019’s Most Fascinating Breakouts

Pop Music Critic
03.29.19

Philip Cosores/Uproxx Studios

 

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Nilüfer Yanya has a name like a puzzle. I coax her to say it aloud several times when we met earlier this month at a Los Feliz coffee shop, trying to mimic her London accent’s pronunciation of the Turkish word, which has, itself, come by way of Persia. Ni-leh-fur, she lilts, pulling off a subtle, slight uptick in the middle without stopping the flow, a feat that my American tongue can’t quite master. No matter, none of my fumbling can dim the shine that comes off Yanya, a quiet, simmering glow that will make sense to anyone who’s heard her frankly astonishing debut album, Miss Universe, a seventeen-track concept album anchored by her slippery, rumbling alto that continuously unfolds as more clever and more strange upon each listen.

Influenced by her parents, who were artists in their own right, Nilüfer began playing guitar around age 12, and influenced by her uncle, who encouraged her to perform her own songs instead of passing them off to friends, she began singing around age 14. The result is that now, at just 23, Yanya has the confidence and experience of a seasoned musician. Add to that a band she’s been playing with for the last couple years, input and interest from super producer John Congleton, and a tour opening for Sharon Van Etten, the poise of Miss Universe is easier to understand. Collaborators and co-signs aside, the perfect synthesis of rock, blues, and pop isn’t the work of anyone but Yanya, and even after spending an afternoon talking, her ever-changing voice and chameleon lyrical style still feel unknowable.

As this first full-length contains songs, snippets, and ideas spread across almost the last decade or so, Nilüfer explained her desire for a fresh new throughline to tie it all together. Enter the concept album stylization, or rather a string of spoken word vignettes that compose messages from a fictional company called WWAY Health. “For me the album didn’t make much sense,” she laughed. “I wanted a story to weave songs together, and I had this slogan ‘Worry About Your Health’ in my head. The music is like you’re on hold for a phone line.” Yanya pulls off the concept beautifully, elevating her indie rock musings to include tongue-in-cheek commentary on some of our culture’s most pressing, ongoing issues like mental health, lack of healthcare for the poor, and the addictive powers of technology.

As a multi-racial woman who grew up in one of the most international cities in the world, Yanya stands as a fascinating example of what a post-genre, post-cultural world is going to look, sound, and feel like. After brief EP and single releases in 2016, 2017, and 2018 respectively, Miss Universe is Yanya’s initial full-fledged statement of purpose and one of the best debuts by an artist in 2019 so far. We talked about how her background influences her artistic intuition, the important early co-sign of the London-based label Blue Flowers, and what her lofty album title is meant to convey. Read a condensed, edited version of our conversation below.

Your name is so singular, it’s the first thing that people fix on. Do you mind pronouncing it for me?

It’s a Turkish name. They say Nilüfer, with the two dots above “u,” it’s called umlaut. I hear the name’s originally Persian, and this is the Turkish version of it. It means “water lily.” When I was a teenager, obviously I wanted to be in a band, but I didn’t want to use my name because I was cringing. No one uses their name and no one likes the sound of their own name. But as soon as I started performing as myself I was like, ‘I’d better just use my name.’ Maybe once people were like, ‘oh you should change your name to something more accessible,’ but that’s it. And, I didn’t.

You brought up your background a bit already, but I wanted to ask if you’ve sensed how that might influence your artistic intuition?

I was born in London. My dad’s from Istanbul and he moved to London. My mom, she’s from London, but her mom’s from Ireland and her dad’s from Barbados. So she’s very London, a typical London person. As a very mixed person, I feel like I approach life differently because I always want things to work together; I’m not always trying to separate things, I’m always trying to make sense of who I am as a person. I feel like in my music I’m trying to do that with my influences too, bringing them together in a way that makes sense.

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