Nilüfer Yanya: Heavyweight Champion of the Year

Nilüfer Yanya

August 12, 2019

2019 has already been a banner year for Nilüfer Yanya. Not only has the 23-year-old English songstress already released her debut album, Miss Universe, to critical acclaim following several buzzed-about EPs, she’s also been booked at festivals like Glastonbury, Latitude and Primavera Sound, toured with Sharon Van Etten earlier in the year, and made her U.S. late night television debut on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert in July — with even more shows planned for the rest of the year. Here’s our chat with Nilüfer soon after she’d completed her set at the 2019 Osheaga Music and Arts Festival in Montreal earlier this month.

Northern Transmissions: You just played at Osheaga. How’s your experience at the festival and in Montreal been for you so far?

Nilüfer Yanya: Well, I’ve only been in both for five hours, so I haven’t really experienced anything except for the golf carts!

NT: But you had a good time playing, though?

NY: Yeah, I think it was a good show! But I’m quite tired, so I’m probably a bit shaky. But the crowd was really nice.

NT: You played Glastonbury back in June, right?

NY: That was really good, yeah.

NT: What were your biggest takeaways from that whole experience?

NY: It’s too big of a festival, and it’s very badly managed! (laughs) But it was nice. We played on a Sunday, like today. It was chill.

NT: What’s been your most memorable festival experience to date?

NY: Maybe Primavera [Sound, in] Barcelona. That was really cool. There weren’t a lot of people at the start, and then literally as we were playing, there were swarms and swarms of people arriving. I couldn’t really hear anything in my in-ears — we had a really bad connection. But it was fun. I was like, “I don’t know what this sounds like,” but the crowd was really nice.

NT: You’ve said that it’s more interesting to just write a song and see what happens than go into it with some sort of plan beforehand for what it should sound like. With that, what’s an example of a song that came together in the most serendipitous way for you?

NY: “Heavyweight Champion of the Year”. I started it, and I was like, “Err, this isn’t very good.” But I kept going. Even when I finished it, I was like, “I don’t know if I like it.” Then, I kept rearranging it, and I just figured it out.

NT: Your album Miss Universe is your debut, though you’d released three EPs beforehand. Considering this was your first full-length, what mindset did you go into the process with when it started, and how did you end up feeling when it was ready to go?

NY: To be honest, I didn’t feel very present when I was making it. It was kind of the first year I was doing a lot of shows and touring, so I was trying to balance the two. It was really hard, and I don’t really recommend it. It didn’t feel like I was able to give my best to either. That’s why I feel glad that I’d already released music — I’d set my own mini-foundation of what my music sounds like, in a way. I guess with the album, I was trying to not worry about that so much, and just try and write my songs.

NT: Your album features interludes where you voice a Siri-type character for a company called “WWAY Health”, which sort of serves as a focus for the album itself. How did that concept come about?

NY: I had the title, “Worry About Your Health”. I had that slogan in my head when I was making the record. I wanted to call my album that, but… it’s a bit too complex, I think! (laughs) It might confuse people, I don’t know. I decided not to go with it, but I still wanted to include it somehow.

NT: Your album jumps between styles, from alt-rock to jazz to soul and other places in between. What were some of this album’s biggest reference points, whether musical or non-musical?

NY: I had this whole ‘90s vibe in my head for a lot of the songs. I don’t know exactly what it is… but I had that ‘90s pop/alt-rock [influence] in there, and maybe something a bit more current. I don’t really know exactly. Some of the songs were a bit older: one of them I wrote when I was 15, and a couple of them I’d started writing a year or two before.

NT: You’ve said that you’re not a “natural performer.” How do you feel like this has shaped the way you create music and perform live?

NY: I don’t know. I think the two feed into each other… but I don’t really know how. I don’t really like thinking about it too much, so I try not to think about it. I find that when I’m performing, it definitely helps when I have quite a rhythmical part [to play], and I think a lot of the main riffs of the songs are based upon something quite rhythmical and strong. I think I need something like that to make it feel like the song’s moving. When I’m writing in my head, I’m imagining the band already there, or something already there, behind it.

NT: How do you feel your comfort with performing has grown over time, especially with your debut out now and you being booked at major festivals?

NY: It’s a weird thing. It really depends on my mood. Today, I didn’t feel too worried, because I was just really tired, and you almost don’t care. You’re just like, “I’ve done this so many times.” When I was onstage, I could feel my body was very nervous — I wasn’t really comfortable. It’s a mixed feeling. Sometimes I really enjoy it, sometimes I’m like, “this is horrible, and I don’t want to perform ever again!” (laughs)

NT: You worked on this album with Dave Okumu, who was also your former guitar teacher. What was the dynamic like working with him in the context of creating music rather than learning from him?

NY: We did one song together, and it came out really well. But the dynamic didn’t really change that much. When he was teaching me at school, he was only there for a year or two. I didn’t really know who he was, but… he was such a wise guy, and he was so cool. Whenever he was talking about something, I’d be like, “Okay, focus. Try and pay attention.” But I couldn’t really, so I don’t know how much I learned! But it’s just so nice to be around people who are really good at what they do. They have that down, and they’re not worrying about if what they’re doing is good. They’re just doing it.

NT: You recently played on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. What was the experience like of playing late night American TV for the first time?

NY: It was actually pretty chill! My tour manager needed to get there at 8 a.m., or something ridiculous, to load in the stuff. We got there, we had to line check and record it, and that was it. Luckily, we didn’t have to do it for a live show. It was a lot more chill. I think if there was an audience there, we could only do it once. We got to do it three times.

NT: What’s on the agenda for you for the rest of 2019?

NY: I’m going to Miami tomorrow to play a show, and doing a festival afterwards on a cruise in Barcelona. We’ve got festivals in the summer still. I’m doing a west coast tour — we did east coast and midwest, and now we’re doing west coast in September and October. I have to go on a European tour in November — we’ve got a London headline show, which will be pretty scary. Then, I might go to Australia.

NT: Australia?

NY: Yeah, maybe. Southeast Asia, maybe.

NT: Do you know where in Southeast Asia?

NY: I don’t know. I’m hoping Japan. None of this is confirmed, but I’m telling you anyway. (laughs)

Words by Dave MacIntyre


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