Can you separate the art from the artist’s parents?
Freud would probably say no. English indie rock (and then some) singer-songwriter Nilüfer Yanya might too, albeit for different reasons.
Raised in the London borough of Chelsea by parents with Irish, Bajan, and Turkish heritage, Yanya and her two siblings received a thorough creative education at home. Her mother is a textile designer and painter; her father emigrated from Turkey to attend the Royal College of Art and has exhibited work in the British Museum. Together, they whisked their children to the nearby world-class museums and galleries and provided sketchbooks for drawing in the parks. At a secondary school noted for its excellent music department, Yanya studied classical piano. Oh, and her guitar teacher? Dave Okumu, frontman of Mercury Prize-nominated neo-soul-art-rock amoeba The Invisible.
Pile on early-enough exposure to The Cure, Pixies, Jeff Buckley, and Nina Simone, and Yanya embarking upon a musical career begins to feel all but preordained. (Said artistic upbringing also rubbed off on her sister Molly, now a filmmaker and close collaborator who has directed several of Yanya’s videos.)
“I like to think I would’ve done music anyway, but you never know. That’s how I was brought up. I have to give a lot of credit to my parents for being crazy people and being open to [creativity] and allowing me to think in that way,” Yanya says. “It’s not always like that. In the working world, you don’t really get chances to think purely creatively.”
But it was like that in 2014, when Yanya uploaded her first demos to Soundcloud.
“I wasn’t expecting anything to happen with those particular demos but I intended on making it my career so it felt like good practice,” she says.
The demos did indeed go somewhere, and more importantly, so did her one-two punch of breakout EPs, 2016’s Small Crimes and 2017’s Plant Feed.
The pint-sized two-song offerings had an irresistible mercurial quality; her songwriting and delivery thrived within the postmodern slippage between indie rock, jazz, classic soul, and pop, spun together without losing its sharpness or sparse and spacious quality. Comparisons to fellow Londoner King Krule abound partially because of that sparseness, and partially because, as noted by Vice’s Niloufar Haidari, the two musicians’ relative youth belies the soulful-beyond-their-years depth of their singing.
One place Yanya’s early uploads definitely landed? On the desk of a music executive who imagined her as part of a girl group being assembled by former One Direction member Louis Tomlinson. When asked, Yanya unequivocally declined.
“It’s just a funny story. It was never an option in my head,” she says. “It wasn’t like [my current career] or a girl group. It was this weird offer I got at the time, which obviously wouldn’t have been the right thing to do. I didn’t really think about it.”
Practically speaking, Yanya was right to pass up on the offer, seeing as the girl group never materialized. But in hindsight, her of-course-not brush-off points to the self-possession and determination that defines her approach to art and her unflaggingly left-of-center songwriting.
That self-possession can be found on her debut album and world unto itself, Miss Universe, released earlier this year. She makes use of the ample album-length space, stacking saxophones on top of each other, plunking out rhythms that echo like metronomes in empty rooms, building slick early-2000s Strokes-ish guitar riffs that crescendo to cathartic heights, all the while plunging the depths of her own anxieties and paranoias with her rich alto. And she thrives in sonic contradictions: superimposing her darkest lyrics on jazzy lounge pop and gauzy synth lines, imbuing the record with a layered and conflicted emotional heft in the process.
Yanya recorded Miss Universe across multiple sessions in multiple studios — not that anyone would ever guess, seeing as the record is interwoven by a series of unsettling interludes in which Yanya (doing her best impression of that unmistakably chilling, disembodied voice of artificial intelligence programs) guides the listener through a fake self-care program called WWAY Health. Inspired by ’80s computer manuals and Jan Larkey’s 1987 slimming style handbook Flatter Your Figure she found while perusing Los Angeles thrift shops, Yanya conceptualized WWAY Health and recorded the interludes at the last minute — “Like one month before it was due to be mastered,” she admits — but the end result reflects a measured distrust of the self-improvement culture that has dominated Western culture for decades and become inescapable online.
“What attracted me to the idea is the language is the same for improving a structure or a product that it is for improving a person. I’m against improving things for the sake of it, or just because you can. I do feel like being told all the time by our culture that we need to be better and faster and happier is a waste of everyone’s time,” she says. “Those are things you should just be able to work out for yourself over your life, not goals that need to be met or else there will be consequences.”
Such self-possession feels increasingly rare, and Yanya, true to her word, is working on herself and her art on her own timeline. Miss Universe may have catapulted her to a significantly higher-profile career and thus a cramped schedule (including a recent performance at New York Fashion Week), but she’s already thinking about what’s next.
“We’ve been onto the next thing, onto the next thing, onto the next thing, so I haven’t had much reflective time,” she says. “But that’s okay! Maybe at the end of the year. I just want to get back to writing music.”
with Hanna Vu and Jazzi Bobbi, Tuesday, Oct. 1, 8 p.m., at the Independent, 628 Divisadero. $18-$20, theindependentsf.com