Nilufer Yanya told David Hennessy about her new album, growing up as a ‘patchwork’ of different cultures, her late Dun Laoghaire granny and turning down Louis Tominson’s girl band.
With her mix of Irish, Barbadian and Turkish, Nilufer Yanya grew up in Chelsea as a ‘patchwork’ or different things.
wLauded for her debut album in 2019, the London indie pop artist has just returned with her second album, Painless.
Discovered at 20 years of age after uploading her acoustic demos to Soundcloud, Nilufer quickly made a name for herself.
She would soon be sharing the stage with artists such as Mitski, The xx, and Sharon Van Etten, and be recognised with accolades including being longlisted for BBC Sound of 2018.
Created at a time when Yanya was re-examining her family history and heritage, Painless contemplates topics like pain, identity and environment.
Nilufer told The Irish World: “A lot of songs were inspired by the fact I wasn’t feeling inspired.
“That’s a big theme, I would say, the way your environment affects you.
“That’s definitely like a pandemic or a lockdown thing, feeling like you have become part of the furniture or part of the road outside.
“There’s no escape and you can’t protect yourself.
“I think growing up in the city, living in the city, being like a city dweller, you start to realize it does do things to you that you maybe actually don’t want: Do I want to become this person? Do I want this life?
“We feel like we can’t leave because it’s such a good opportunity. Is it? I don’t know.
“I’m very grateful for London and the way I’ve grown up and I definitely do love it.
“But I think it’s good to question things.
“I do want to live in other places for a bit.
“I never really had that kind of hunger to actually do that before but now I’m like, ‘Definitely, I need to go live somewhere else and then go live somewhere else and then go live somewhere else’.”
26- year-old Nilufer grew up in Chelsea with heritage from Turkey, Ireland and Barbados.
“I’ve never even been to Barbados so that’s definitely a place to start.
“And I’d love to live in Turkey, have still got family there as well.
“My grandma, really want to hang out with her more.”
The acclaimed 2019 debut Miss Universe was a concept album that took a swipe at the health and wellness industry.
Why did she decide to name the new album Painless? “It was a mixture of things.
“I was thinking, ‘Do I want to tie in like a bigger story with this record?’
“And then I couldn’t come up with anything.
“This concept is that there’s no concept and the concept is just whatever people want it to be.
“I think Painless was interesting because it’s like when you’re saying something is painless, you’re also drawing attention to the topic of pain in general.
“I feel like I do talk about that in a lot of my songs: Pain, your approach to it and your relationship with it.
“The process, once I got going with the music- I did have a very uncreative year the year before- Once I did get into it, I did feel like everything was kind of flowing in a nice- I don’t want to say easy, but it felt lighter, like a lighter load.
“I think a lot of the time, people do have this fear that to create your best work or create something that you do have to always be constantly tormenting yourself or putting yourself through pain.
“That’s not really a realistic way of working, is it? It’s not really a realistic way of going about your life.
“But then pain is always in our lives. And at the same time trying to get rid of it and trying to kind of ignore it is just as ridiculous at the same time.
“And as we move more and more on with our lives to some kind of comfortable, pain free existence, we’re kind of just ignoring parts of the world and desensitizing ourselves to the obvious pain and suffering that’s going on.”
Did it feel different, perhaps more painless than her first album? “It does feel different. It’s not as new, I guess.
“The world is definitely a lot different.
“I definitely feel more much more grateful to be able to still do this. Yeah, much more grateful.
“I definitely feel like the uninspiration definitely inspired the album in the kind of topics.
“I’m not sure if it’s necessarily inspiring times that we’re living in.”
Perhaps Nilufer was always going to be an artist of some kind.
Her father is Turkish. Her mother is of Irish and Barbadian descent.
Both are visual artists.
Her mother is a textile designer and her father a painter whose work has been exhibited in the British Museum.
Yanya was inspired towards the creative from early on, first picking up the guitar at the age of 12.
“I always said when I was younger, ‘I want to be an artist’.
“We were always drawing stuff, painting stuff.
“They were also very strict ordinary parents at the same time who wanted us to do well at school as well as being creative.
“But it’s definitely great to have them.
“I do feel like a lot of people don’t get that at school.
“I mean because obviously not everyone could be an artist at home.
“I do feel like you definitely missed that in your general education sometimes.
“It definitely helped me feel like it was possible. Like my goals were achievable.”
And Nilufer is not the only creative child her parents have. Her older sister Molly is a filmmaker, photographer and creative director and has directed every one of Nilufer’s music videos.
The singer-songwriter also works with her younger sister, Elif, who is a visual artist and designer.
“Yeah, we do work together a lot. At the beginning, it was just like a ‘why not?’ kind of thing.
“And now we all enjoy working together and we get a lot out of it.
“And also, we’re really close so it feels like it is a shame to not be pushing those relationships and that creative thing.
“We’re not ready to settle down, have kids, live typical adult lives.
“We still want to make so many things together.
“Instead of moving away from each other, we’re moving towards each other, but also growing at the same time.
“It’s cool. A lot of it is stuff we did want to do anyways when we were younger, but now it’s like you actually have the resources and the opportunity to do it.”
Painless was preceded by the release of lead single, Stabilise.
Her most recent video anotherlife depicts Nilufer enjoying the beauty of Sri Lanka.
She describes getting to go there and make that video as ‘amazing’.
“I was planning to go there anyways and then threw a video into it because that’s always a good idea.
“I think that definitely highlights the hopeful aspects of the record.
“Sri Lanka, I wasn’t totally aware if it that but they only just kind of recently come out of Civil War.
“Every time you think you’re escaping, there’s no real escape.”
This is something Nilufer knows well.
Together with her sister Molly, she set up Artists in Transit, an arts collaborative group which holds creative workshops for refugee children.
Before the pandemic, Nilufer and her sister were bringing art projects to migrant families in Greece, and in the past two years they’ve been focused on outreach in London.
The singer-songwriter describes it as ‘Molly’s idea’ but also something she is proud of.
“It is her initiative, I guess, as a way of connecting with other people and connecting with communities and because art is the only thing that we actually know how to do, or feel competent in doing, it just makes sense that we do art workshops or projects.
“It is rewarding because I think the fact that we get to go there and meet people and make things, that’s a privilege in itself.
“I think people really want to connect. I mean both sides.
“You become friends with people and you kind of build up a sense of trust.
“I think it means a lot in the current world where there isn’t much of that, I think, left anymore.
“If you haven’t got your own country anymore, you haven’t got your own home anymore, you’re kind of just constantly on the move- I think having those relationships are rewarding for everyone.
“And I think it’s also a shame because our government- They’re not going to say, ‘Don’t go, don’t go do these things’. But no one’s really encouraging you to do these things.
“You kind of just have to do them.”
Irish, Turkish and Barbadian is quite a mix. How have the different aspects come together in her upbringing? “I don’t know, it’s just my life.
“I think it’s normal in London as well. I don’t feel like I’m weird or anything.
“It’s more when you go other places, and then you start to realize you’re kind of like a patchwork of different things.
“And people are like, ‘Oh, where are you from? And you start explaining and they’re like, ‘You’re English then? You’re English’.
“And I’m like, ‘Yeah, I guess’.
“I guess it’s weird because like, obviously, I feel like I’m from London and from the UK, but then I don’t have any English ancestry so I don’t necessarily feel connected to England.
“It is more just like I’m part of the story of travel, colonialism? I don’t know. So many things are in there.”
Nilufer performs The Electric in Brixton on 16 March which means she has 17 March off.
“I’ve got St. Patrick’s Day off then. That’s nice.”
Nilufer has spent time visiting her family in Dun Laoghaire.
“My nan. She’s passed away now but she was buried in Dun Laoghaire and she was very Irish.
“We used to go in summer, got cousins over there.
“Have you ever been to Brittas Bay?
“I’ve got lots of memories of when I was younger in Ireland.”
Nilufer has played in Ireland including the Olympia supporting Interpol.
“I definitely do feel a connection because I was used to going there on the ferry when I was younger.
“I love going to places where you feel. ‘Oh, this is part of me as well’.
“I get that when I go to Turkey as well.
“We’ve done a couple shows.
“I do feel like people really like music in Ireland and it’s nice.”
Painless exhibits influences as wide ranging as Nirvana, Radiohead and Elliott Smith while Miss Universe boasted jazz-inflected guitar alongside noughties synth lines.
But how would Nilufer describe her very unique sound? “I’d say at the moment, it’s rock/ pop music. It definitely sits in that world.
“I guess the reason why it’s probably a bit harder as well is because my focus is always on the song writing.
“I don’t think I make every genre but it can kind of slide into different areas and genres because when you’re thinking about writing a song, you’re not necessarily thinking about what sound it is.
“Definitely when I perform live, it feels like it’s a rock kind of thing.
“And then if I do it myself maybe it’s a bit more like a singer-songwriter kind of grungy kind of thing.
“I’ll definitely say it’s there.”
Because of her bi-racial background, people in the industry often incorrectly assume that she produces R n B.
“I don’t know why people do that.
“I feel like it takes away from R n B music and it takes away from my music.
“And it’s not really fair on anyone.
“I feel like if they say that, I’m just taking up someone else’s space who is R n B.
“It’s silly really.
“I can see why you’d think, ‘Oh, maybe there’s influence’, because definitely there’s influences but the music I put out is definitely guitar based music and that kind of rock.”
Back in 2014, Nilufer made an impression when she uploaded her demos to Soundcloud.
She would turn down an offer to join a girl group produced by Louis Tomlinson of One Direction. The project was reportedly abandoned a year later.
“It was just a funny idea really.
“I did think about it but it’s just funny. It was like a test almost.
“Because I guess I was aware, growing up, everyone’s like, ‘Music industry’s dangerous, they’re gonna trick you…’
“You hear all these stories and then you grow up watching stuff like Pop Idol so you’re so aware of the sharks out there.
“But when they come to you you’re like, ‘Oh, is this an opportunity? Or is this one of those things?’
“I think what I find weird about it is I wasn’t really interested in the idea, because it’s not the kind of thing I was kind of working towards anyway.
“But lots of people are. Lots of people are kind of interested in those opportunities and wait for them to come along.
“What I found sad about it is in the end, it didn’t.
“I bumped into someone and they were like, ‘Oh, yeah, it didn’t work out because Louis got married and he just quit everything’.
“It was after they got the whole band together, after they started working on an album.
“I just find it quite sad, how they’re willing to take advantage of young people in that way and then drag them off for a ride and then just dump them somewhere.
“But I didn’t think about it seriously.
“It’s just tough because a lot of people would.
“They were looking for real musicians.
“They were like, ‘We want it to be a real band. We want it to be like Haim but English and we want it to be really good’.
“So they were trying to use the image of actual musicians and actual writers but then I was like, ‘Am I going to be writing songs?’
“And they were like, ‘You’ll be working with a team of people writing the songs.
“And I was like, ‘Oh…’”
Was it a surprise for Nilufer to even receive such an offer? “Yeah, I was surprised.
“And I guess you also feel a little bit flattered as well. You’re like, ‘Oh, people think I’m good’.
“But I was surprised. I was like, ‘Why did they think I’d be good for this?’
“Because I’d be so bad at it to be honest.
“I’d be so bad. I’d probably be kicked out regardless.”
The Dealer is out now.
Painless is out now.
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