Nilüfer Yanya Wrestles With Agency and Control on New Album 'Miss Universe'
The London musician discusses songwriting, doing good in the world and her tour with Sharon Van Etten
Published Mar 21, 2019"I'm not really interested in making a genre or a style of music," maintains London's Nilüfer Yanya about her new album, Miss Universe in an Exclaim! interview. An almost hour-long mix of jazz, groove, soul and pop, her debut is an ambitious affair that engages with themes of control, paranoia and self-reflection. For Yanya, songwriting comes before aesthetics.
"Different songs need different things in them and they kind of all go in different directions, and I'm more interested in seeing how far the song can go than being like, 'Uh, the album needs this sound,' or 'I need to create something that all sounds like this,' which is really cool when you get into it, but maybe I just haven't found what that is yet, as well. To me, it's more interesting to just write a song and see what happens," she laughs.
In order to string together the album's varied tracks, she conceived of the imaginary "We Worry About Your Health" (WWay Health): a large, sinister organization that seeks to guide individuals' choices and collect information about their lives. She has voiced these interludes with an air of detachment that is humorous yet unnerving.
"I wanted to find a way to bring the songs together, sort of, so I wanted it to be kind of funny and not so serious, but kind of serious at the same time," she laughs. "We're gonna do it at shows, maybe all the lights will go down and you can hear the voice come out of the speaker and maybe a little film. We'll definitely incorporate it somehow."
On previous releases, such as her debut song, "Small Crimes," Yanya adopted personas and wrote from the point of view of different characters. This has continued as her writing progresses, with songs whose meanings possess the ability to shift and change.
"There are definitely characters in my head and the songs that have their own... I don't know if it was maybe just me or like I'm developing their stream of consciousness or I'm them. I can imagine an image of who the song is about and it's not about me, it could be about someone else — it depends when I'm playing it. Sometimes it's hard to write about yourself. [But] as you develop, your own identity develops, so there's always stuff to write about on the way."
Miss Universe pairs immediate, propulsive tracks with more introspective and detailed guitar work. Her more upfront, aggressive material is reflected in the fearfulness imbued by songs like "In Your Head," which Yanya describes as being about agency.
"When you're always watching other people but also there's always people watching you, and you're like, 'Yeah, this is fine, this is fine,' and suddenly you're like, 'Wait, this is really — for some reason it's creeping me out,' and you don't know why, or like, how that's happened. Sometimes you think you're making your own mind up for things, but then you're like, actually, I need to decide this because of that and because of that, so really I didn't make my own mind up about this. Like, who's really in control?"
The preceding track, "WWAY HEALTH™," introduces the theme. As the narrator, Yanya calmly yet robotically asks listeners to "Please choose from one of the following descriptions: there is a sense of being watched; there is a sense of being followed; I often feel alone and in deep paranoia; I often search for validation in others."
Elsewhere, "Paradise" finds Yanya worrying even in the face of stability and happiness.
"If things turn out well, then it also means they might, at some point, stop turning out well," she laughs. "And if it's going to be great, it's likely going to be terrible, but you just want it to be good."
The album, Yanya says, is "reflective of how [she is] as a person and how [she approaches] things.
"Sometimes it's not always maybe as I should be, but that's just who I kind of am. This is where I am in my life, and how I view things and do things and think about things."
Yanya engaged in more co-writing for the album than she initially thought she would; she spent time working on it in Los Angeles, the bulk of the album was made in London, where she worked with former classmates, Jazzi Bobbi and Luke Bower, as well as the Invisible's Dave Okumu, her former guitar teacher. Initially, that felt jarring.
"It was weird, 'cause it's the opposite way from how I was working before. I think it made me feel weirded out from how it turned out, basically. But now that I understand why I feel like that, I don't feel so bad about it anymore. It's still my work, it's just come out a different way. Now I'm just thinking about what an album even is," she laughs.
"Touring encourages you in that aspect. Whenever I choose songs to perform live, it's a totally different experience to listening to that song — the recorded version. Even seeing what Sharon [Van Etten, her most recent tour mate] plays every night, it's like whoa. It's so powerful."
Alongside her work as a musician, Yanya makes time to travel to Greece in order to work with refugees through an organization she formed with her older sister, Molly Daniel. Artists in Transit facilitates creative projects for asylum seekers and assists with the provision of essential goods, such as medicine and clothing.
"There are so many fucked up things happening and it's so easy to just be like, 'Oh yeah, it's so bad, but there's nothing I can do,'" Yanya says of the initiative. "But there is. Even though there's a limit to how much change you can do as one person, it's still worth it. There will always be issues [in the world]."
Miss Universe comes out March 22 on ATO Records.