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

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.

It does feel like that in your music — there’s tons of rock in there, indie, jazz, pop — and it’s interesting to hear that mix. What are some specific influences on your sonic style?

One of the artists I was really influenced by is Kelis. I was listening to a lot of Blood Orange, his new album is amazing. And then there’s also rockier stuff. When I was younger I used to listen to indie rock all the time, so that kind of pop-punk sound is in there, but I tried to make it a bit more tasteful. It’s just fun to write like that. You’re having fun, but I’m trying to make it sound interesting so I don’t get bored of it straight away. We did a Cure cover, too — I love The Cure.

Philip Cosores

It seems like your uncle was a pretty big influence on your decision to go into music, can you talk a little bit about that relationship?

So he’s a producer, songwriter, and musician. He’s not actually blood-related, he’s my aunt’s partner. They’ve been together the whole time since I was born, so I don’t remember him not being there. And he always had music, records, instruments, and was always playing something. As I grew more interested in guitar, he was one of the people that was generous with their time. He was like, ‘here’s how you play this,’ or ‘here’s how you do that.’ He was very willing to talk about music because it was his passion. When I started playing guitar I also started writing, and he was like, ‘Oh, do you write songs? You should sing your own songs.’ Because at the time I was getting my friends to sing them and I hadn’t sung ever by myself. And he was like, ‘You should do it! Because if I had gone back in time, I’d do my own.’

That’s such an impactful thing for someone older to say ‘I regret not doing this.’

Yeah, he’s doing it now, but he’s like ‘I wish I started my own music earlier.’

Is that when you began singing? You have such a unique voice, too. How did you work on your range and your phrasing?

Yeah, I think I was like 14. It took me a while to actually start. But I didn’t really work on it. Here’s the thing: I think so many people have unique voices and we just don’t hear them because everyone still thinks, ‘Oh no, I can’t sing. Or singing sounds like that. Singing sounds like this person.’ And that’s what I thought. I thought, ‘Well, no one wants to hear me sing.’ But I think when I started singing I just enjoyed it so much that I didn’t really care, and it sounded good to me, so.

Exactly, that’s the most important thing. You recently signed to ATO Records, who released your debut album, but tell me about London label that you were working with before, Blue Flowers? I’m not really that familiar with them.

Blue Flowers was just turning into a label when I started working with them. More than that, they were a club night every couple of months. They did special music events. The founder, Chris [Pearson], is really into discovering new music, and everyone who has played there who has come out in the UK has done well. Like Adele played there, Florence And The Machine played there. So many people who are massive. I think they’ve been running for ten or fifteen years? And now it’s a label.

And how did you get connected with the ATO folks?

I was speaking to different labels, people based in London and the UK, but we just got talking and ATO flew me out to New York. So it was very much a fantasy, like ‘Ah! I’m in New York!’ I had never been to America before. It was like your dream as a kid: Go to New York and someone’s talking to you about a record deal. But, we thought about it and it also seemed like it was the best route to take. I’m a big fan of Nick Hakim and all my friends were crazy about his music so I was like, oh cool! And the other acts in there like Alabama Shakes and I guess more established acts. They have such a big roster and I think that’s what so exciting. I don’t think they’re scared about signing things.

For sure. Let’s talk about your band, too, because I feel like the full band sound is really present on the album. Who are they and who is involved?

So there’s Jazzi Bobbi, she’s a saxophonist who you hear on the album. She also produced “Heavyweight Champion Of The Year” with Luke Bower, who’s the bassist, and also he’s playing some guitar on the album, too. Jazzi I’ve known 10 years now. We met on a music tour at school and we were like good friends, then we didn’t see each other for a while and then we bumped into each other. I was recording something and asked ‘oh, do you want to play sax?’ And then we just kept playing together and it’s been years. And Luke, we met at school as well, so we’re all just friends from school.

I want to talk about the spoken word concept, the WWay Health phone line, why did you want to include that in with the songs?

I had this slogan ‘Worry About Your Health’ in my head, and then I guess the whole phone line concert came up. My friend Will Archer, who edited “Paradise” and “The Unordained,” he had all these beats he sent me earlier in the year. He said if I ever have any ideas for them, I could use them. And then, when I was wrapping up the album, I was like, ‘Okay. I can fit this, I can fit the story in’ — how the music is like you’re on hold for the phone line. I can fit it in everywhere. I thought it would be fun and another topic to draw the songs together with other than just me.

Philip Cosores

And how does that fit in with the title, Miss Universe? Do you feel like they’re related?

Somehow it is related, because Miss Universe is a thing that doesn’t really exist, you kind of imagine a person, and then think well, what if she wasn’t even a woman? Maybe it was a man pretending to be a woman. And then it’s like, what if it’s not even about the person, it’s just a voice that we listen to without realizing? And always, it’s like a very light suggestion that we’re always being suggested of what we do instead of actually thinking for ourselves. And I think everyone needs to work out their own version of their own reality instead of just bouncing into each other in time. It’s possible to know where you are, who you are, what you are doing.

On that same note, the first song that I heard of yours was “Heavyweight Champion Of The Year,” which I loved immediately. It felt like, sort of, triumphant to me, which obviously the title’s tied into that, too. That admission of losing felt like freedom.

Yes, essentially it was like a triumphant loss, because the heavyweight champion of the year had been… the song was like you’re losing things and you’re giving up things. I think when you realize you don’t have to finish everything, and be good at everything, and be the best, or do the best for yourself or whatever it means to succeed, whatever those things mean. Or if you’re in a relationship and you’re trying to make it work, and it doesn’t have to work. But, that was one of the songs I wrote and straightway, and was like ‘this is sh*t. I just wrote sh*t.’ I didn’t like it. I know it’s kind of cool, and I worked along with Jazzi and Luke and they produced it. And it took a while because we were touring and everything. It took like six months, but I’m really glad it did.

Do you have a personal favorite song on the album? I feel like it is very eclectic, so what’s resonating with you currently?

Currently, “Safety Net.” We’ve been playing it on this tour, and it’s one of the newer ones, we’d already been already playing “Heavyweight Champion,” “Angels,” and “In My Head,” so audiences knew those. But I was feeling really disconnected from most of the songs on the album, which is weird because normally I’ll practice, and play a song live, and then I’ll go to the studio. But I was feeling like I was just doing karaoke of my own music, which felt really fake. I didn’t like it. But then “Safety Net” on this tour has really just grown. And it sounds really cool and it’s really fun to play and every time I sing it, it’s like I can sing it differently. And again same as “Heavyweight,” it’s the idea that, while I want to be a winner, it’s okay to be a failure sometimes. Sometimes, it’s kind of nice.

Miss Universe is out now via ATO Records. Get it here.