When you’re 23, all you want is to sound tough and smart. But not many 23-year-olds pull it off like Nilüfer Yanya.
Drawing on a mix of indie pop, blues and soul, the London-based debut album, “Miss Universe” is a fully realized suite of musical ideas. The tracks reflect a range of modern anxieties, under the cool control of a songwriter unrestrained by genre.
We caught her for a session at Type Foundry Studio, in the middle of her first U.S. national tour, opening for Sharon Van Etten. Yanya brought along her band, some of whom she’s known since her early teens.
The songs on “Miss Universe” — some straight-up rockers, some jazz-inflected, others drawing on electronic dance music — arrive linked together by a witty series of faux PSAs by an imaginary company called WWAY Health (“We Worry About Your Health”), whose slightly creepy Big Brother approach to wellness feels perfectly in touch with the angsty zeitgeist of 2019: Are we capable of feeling better right now? Should something as essential as health be commodified within an industry?
While Yanya says she wasn’t going through any trauma or feeling particular misgivings when she wrote the songs, she was coming to terms with some of her fears.
“I was becoming aware of what thoughts count as paranoid thoughts, and what thoughts I should actually trust,” she said.
On songs such as “Angels” and “Heavyweight Champion of the Year,” Yanya lets loose her rumination on dread and self-preservation against a musical canvas that feels effortlessly energetic and alive. She describes the latter song as an exploration of barriers — feel free to read it as personal or professional, as Yanya says the meaning varies for her each time she sings it.
This is the first collection of songs she’s released without giving the music some road experience.
“Some of them we’d already played on the road because I’d start writing them before,” Yanya said. “And one of them [in] particular I wrote when I was 15. So it’s like I’ve carried it with me. It’s gonna be nice to give them a new life” since she found them a bit more challenging to connect to.
Yanya is part of a tight-knit family of musicians and artists. When not touring, she’s helping out with Artists In Transit, a creative project her sisters started for Syrian refugees in Greece. What began as a trip to a refugee camp in Athens became a full-blown effort to bring art and expression to immigrant neighborhoods.
“We’ve become friends with a lot of families and young people, “ she said. “It’s really, I guess, alarming to think how much stress even one of those people is going through.” She added she was struck by how hard it was for the people she met to feel truly safe, despite having escaped the war at home.
But she also witnessed moments of joy, even in seemingly mundane aspects of life, like having friends over for dinner.
“We just want people to know we’re there for them. That seems like the most important thing you can do.”
Yanya will tour Europe and Turkey this summer, returning to the U.S. in July.