For Nilüfer Yanya, making her new album ‘PAINLESS’ was a trust exercise
At 26, Nilüfer Yanya is feeling time more than she used to. Prior to the events of the past two years, the London rock artist was often so consumed in her work that the days slipped by. Now that she’s nearing 30, however, Yanya has been contemplating how to slow down and make each part of her life more meaningful. By recognizing that her time is finite, she’s using it as a catalyst to become more focused and organized this year.
“Now that I’ve had a bit of time to reflect, it’s like each day really counts, and what I want to do with each day, and each part of my life really counts," she explains. "I can’t just think about it in terms of, 'Oh, in a couple of years or in a few years.' You never know what’s gonna happen."
Safe to say, Yanya has been undergoing plenty of change since releasing her mesmeric debut album, Miss Universe. Where that release employed exuberant anthems, her second, PAINLESS, is a quieter retreat, with Yanya embracing more ashen tones overtop post-punk groove. “[It’s] like stony shades, like a pebbly beach, with maybe some grass around the edges and a cold blue sea,” she says of the album’s overall feel, laughing.
With a new record arriving this Friday (March 4) — along with a world tour where she’ll trek across Europe and North America — Yanya is proving that while she can always rip on guitar, the softer moments command just as much attention. Duality, after all, is the mark of any great storyteller.
During your debut album run, I read that you experienced impostor syndrome. Now that you’re entering this new era, are you feeling more confident about what you’re making?
I think I was confident about what I was making, but the more you have to talk about it, it makes you start to feel disconnected from it. It’s hard. When you’re releasing a record, the whole process is strange. It’s like you’re planning a big event constantly, and then you forget you’re actually releasing your music, and it’s something you really care about.
When I was listening to this new album, it felt more direct because your last one had all these eerie interludes. In your mind, what were you trying to achieve with the new record?
I was just trying to write something, to be honest. During lockdown, I didn’t feel very creative. So, I was just relieved to be making music again. I was just trying to make something that made sense together. I wasn’t thinking about the idea behind it too much. Most of the songs, we started writing them in April, March even, and then there were a few I’d kind of written [in 2020].
It was a different process as well because I was working a lot with Wilma Archer on this, too, who I also did quite a bit with on the last record. But this was a lot more like co-writing, so we were splitting the workloads in a way. I’ve never really trusted someone as much with the music. A lot of the songs, he wrote the instrumental parts for, and then I wrote the vocals, melody and structure, things like that.
What was it like to have that type of trust in someone?
It’s quite amazing — something I looked down on before, I guess. I was like, “Oh, I want to be able to do everything myself.” Like I was saying, I didn’t really feel too creative during lockdown, so I was just really relieved to be able to write something. I’m really honored, basically, that we have that crazy friendship and it got to that place where we could make so much music.
One track that I wasn’t prepared for at all was “trouble.” There are points where you sounded like you were about to break with this whispery delivery, and then the instrumental passage at the end felt like this wave that was cutting through everything in its path. How did you come up with that?
That was just built off a loop. Then the melody was there straight away. Most of the words came with it, but the verses were actually very difficult to write and to sing. Because you picked up on how they’re really softly spoken, but you still need a lot of energy in there. It was really fun to write that song, to be honest. As soon as we did the demo, it was really obvious what we’d need to do next.
Yeah, you’re not singing out as much, and it feels more controlled. Could you tell me more about that decision?
When we were doing the vocals, a lot of it just needed to have that soft... I mean, I tried singing it more out and more big, but it just didn’t sound as good. It sounded forced. It sounded kind of ugly. They just needed to be whispered, so I was singing really quietly for most of it. There’s a couple bits where I’m [more energetic], but most of it is really soft.
Did that require quite a few takes?
We did too many takes, way too many takes. [Laughs.] I think it’s because we were writing as well as making it at the same time. I think in the past, I would have come to studio with a finished song, more or less. We’re constantly redoing tapes, constantly redoing vocals, so there’s a lot more. You think about them in a different way because you’ve had time to listen back to it.
There’s also this idea of, “You can’t save me” that appears in different songs on the album. I feel like these past two years have forced people to confront themselves, whether that’s going to therapy or establishing more daily routines. When did you come to the realization that only you can save yourself?
I guess getting older and just having to take responsibility for yourself. I think at the beginning of the whole pandemic, I was 24, and now I’m 26. I’m turning 30 at some point, whereas before I wasn’t thinking [about it]. I’ve lost so much time, and my perspective is trying to shift. Also, before the pandemic, I was working a lot. You get swept up in your work, and you’re not really thinking about each day so much. You’re more thinking about months and weeks and even years. Now that I’ve had a bit of time to reflect, it’s like each day really counts, and what I want to do with each day, and each part of my life really counts. I can’t just think about it in terms of, "Oh, in a couple of years or in a few years." You never know what’s gonna happen.
What are some of your goals and resolutions for this year then?
I really want to be more organized. That’s a big thing for me right now. I think it goes in hand with what I was saying about time and realizing that I’m responsible for everything that I do, so I need to get on top of things in a way and stay focused, stay organized. But then also not worry too much. I think being creative is always a goal of mine because the second something becomes work, it’s hard to stay really creative without other things informing your decisions.
This interview first appeared in issue #402 (22 for ’22), available here.