Nilüfer Yanya has tried to be less precious.
“It’s easy to start writing something and say, ‘This isn’t good, I’m not going to carry on with it,” she says one unusually balmy afternoon in February at New York’s Marlton Hotel, sipping a matcha tea as she holds back her golden-brown Botticelli curls. “You need to do that to some extent, but [then] you never make anything because you’re too good for your own work.”
For the past few years, a precious approach to music has served 23-year-old Yanya well. Since releasing her first EP in 2016, she’s been one of the more exciting young singer-songwriters to come out of London; the BBC nominated her for their “Sound Of 2018" list. Her songs, defined by her raspy, soulful vocals and jazz guitar, evoke a bedroom mash-up of Amy Winehouse and early Tracey Thorn. Though she has only three short EPs to her name, each of her critically acclaimed songs bubble with confrontation; “Do you like pain?” she asks, again and again, in the chorus of her 2018 song “Baby Luv.”
After Yanya signed with ATO records in 2017, she knew it was time to release a full-length record. “Everyone was like, ‘Album, album, album,’” and I was like, “Yeah, cool,” she says. What she admittedly did not realize, she says, is that the slow and steady, individualistic approach to her first three EPs might not suit the process of recording a full album.
“I knew people spent a lot of time on their albums, but I was like, yeah, I could do an album in six months,” she says, laughing. “I don’t know why I decided to put that kind of pressure on myself to complete an album in a year. Who does that? I would have done it totally differently now.”
The resulting debut album is Miss Universe (out March 22) an impressive collection of tough, simple pop-rock songs that build significantly on Yanya’s minimalist oeuvre; it’s a debut that seems designed to showcase her range as a rising artist. There are big blow-out rock songs, like the shred-heavy beginning of “In Your Head,” and quiet, synth-pop tracks like “Heat Rises,” but throughout it all, her voice, which possesses a detached coolness, unifies it all. “I bet your brain cells won’t last,” she says, smugly, over jazz saxophone on her song “Melt.”
The bare bones of Miss Universe’s sound, the gritty, hand-picked guitar melodies, grasping choruses that slip between love and disdain knowing the two can so often exist in the same fevered breath, are pure Yanya. But there are moments of experimentation for her: light synths and drum machines, plus cheeky interludes for a fake wellness company sprinkled throughout the album that have Yanya serving as a telemarketer. A close look at the writing credits also reveals a new contributor: American producer John Congleton, who’s worked closely with St. Vincent and The War On Drugs, to name a few. In addition to her longtime collaborator Jazzi Bobby, there are other contributors like professional producers and writers Oli Barton-Wood, Bastian Laengbaek, and Wilma Archer.
Getting a young indie songwriter into the studio with other songwriters to aid the process isn’t unusual, but it wasn’t what Yanya, who has already established her voice as a songwriter, envisioned for her debut. “I’ve always worked with lots of different producers. What I haven’t done as much is writing with so many different people, that was never part of the plan,” she says. “I thought, I’ll go write the album, then I’ll pick someone to record it with or to produce it with. Ideally, I was going to just work with Jazzi [Bobby] and Luke [Bower]. It just didn’t work out like that. I ended up being like, oh, shit, I need to do something, I need to finish this. Okay, I’ve got a session now. Okay, let’s do that.’”
Is she happy with the fact that she and Bobby didn’t write the whole thing? “No, I’m not happy,” she says, shaking her head. “I would have liked to work with them more, but it would have taken us a long time because it took us like six months to do like one track.”
Everyone in the recording process was supportive, she says, but she had to be aware of all her personal choices in the studio. Next time around, she would like to record and produce her own music, an important goal of hers that she says got lost in creating this album. “I sort of just had to let go of that being a possibility this time around, to the extent that I wanted it to be,” she says. “This time I was like, okay, I think it’s cool, let’s move on, instead of being a bit more precious about it. I’d like to develop that side of my music.”
If there is one thing Yanya values, it is time and space to hone her skills as an artist. The daughter of two artist parents (her father is the Turkish painter Ali Yanya; her mother is the print-maker Sandra Daniel), Yanya was taught to value the process of making art as much as the endpoint hanging on the wall. “They spend so long on their skills,” she says. “They’re both totally different artists, but I think they value the same things; the work, the time, and the thinking around it.”
There is a lot of pressure attached to the idea of a debut album, especially for someone like Yanya who seems better attuned to perfecting and working on two to three songs a year. But it’s clear that the process of creating Miss Universe didn’t seem to live up to Yanya’s standards. When asked what about this album felt new for her, she replied: “I think not stopping people, being more open musically and in writing.”
“But it kind of scares me because it’s like, was I just being open because I felt like I needed to finish an album?” she adds. “That kind of makes me angry because I should have been like, no, I’m going to spend more time on this. I really want this to be different, I really want this to better.”
Navigating that line between being precious and authoritative can traditionally be a minefield for young women artists in the studio; draw hard lines about what you want and you risk being too difficult or, perhaps, too “precious.”
“I just need to tour the album, which’ll be fun and I’ll find a new life in the music,” says Yanya. “The songs will become mine again, because I’m just feeling a bit detached from them. I feel like I just recorded a bunch of things and I haven’t really felt connected.”
“When I finished it, I was like, ‘I don’t know how I’m meant to feel, but this doesn’t feel like I’ve just completed an album,’” she says. “I just felt like I’d handed in a piece of work or something. I didn’t feel like, wow! Good for me!”
What was she expecting to feel? “Happy, like, yay! I’ve done an album,” she replies. “It was more like, ‘I don’t want to show anyone, I don’t want to show my friends, no one’s going to like it.’”
Perhaps the pressure was just too much? “Yeah!” she says. “[From] so many different people, and so many people whose opinions you respect. But at the end of the day I know what I want to do. I know what is kind of true in my music.”