Lifelong Londoner Nilüfer Yanya has emphasized that there’s no such thing as a waste of time — not when you’re always in the process of becoming. And what became of her pandemic years, after she released her acclaimed 2019 debut record Miss Universe, was ample rest, but also a stirring, new sophomore LP, PAINLESS, our WNXP #RecordoftheWeek.
The frenetic lead single “stabilise” that we began playing in the fall of 2021 may have indicated more dance tracks were on deck, and that turned out to be true. But PAINLESS is about the vulnerability of romantic love, and the full album holds many of those associated dynamics — hurt, escape, lust, exhaustion — in tension.
Where the brisk opener “the dealer” is more akin to “stabilise” in tempo, track 2, “L/R,” slows down the drums and shows Yanya humbling herself for a partner (“Whatever makes you happy”). Again, during “trouble,” she splits her heart open and begs rhetorically:
If there’s a little time, I’ll wait.“trouble”
If there’s a reason why, I’ll stay…
I bet this hurts now, but it’s good for me.
Is it difficult?
Is it temporary?
One could be misled by fixating on the futuristic sounds of synthetic beats, plus Yanya stacking her vocals to eerie, often heavenly, effect. Is she R&B (“shameless”), or pop (“the mystic,” “anotherlife”), or something else besides? As a singer, she smolders and shimmers, typically low-pitched through verses but reaching her higher registers in a chorus.
Miss Universe collaborator Wilma Archer returned on PAINLESS as producer and co-creator of guitar parts that can drape a tune with ’90s grunge/alternative textures (“midnight sun” suggests OK Computer-era Radiohead, and I hear bare-bones Nirvana on “company”) or plinky, plucky sex appeal (“try”) just minutes apart. And it all fits.
Despite the high energy pulsating through most of her new record, and the emotional gravity of her lyrics, Yanya seemed cool as a cuke when connecting with me via Zoom just days into her months-long world tour (which stops through Nashville on April 28). The 26-year-old is relaxed, confident and patient for her life to unfold just as it should, as part of the process.
Read below for our full chat about PAINLESS and the direct influence of Yanya’s big sister on her love of riffs.
On the Record: A Q&A With Nilüfer Yanya
Celia Gregory: You’re already traveling, right? Are you in Scotland?
Nilufer Yanya: We’re in Belfast today, and yesterday we were in Glasgow. It’s so nice. I just made the mistake of going out last night, because my friend who moved to that city was there and I haven’t seen her in so long, but I really under-slept. So I’m very tired today. But I’m very grateful to be there and back to tour life again, and it’s a really cool experience.
CG: Yeah, and so soon after the album was released. PAINLESS is our Record of the Week here on WNXP in Nashville, where you’re coming really soon. It’ll be here before we know it, your April date at the Basement East. Have you been to Nashville before?
NY: No, andI’m so excited!
CG: Just about two years ago, a tornado ripped through that venue that you’re playing, and it’s really special to the city. After the tornado then the pandemic, for live music to be back in that space is doubly special.
I want to ask about how [PAINLESS] starts. You kick it off super rhythmic with “the dealer,” which is really intense. But then you sing in the song about “the kind of patience that breaks your heart.” Can you speak to the virtue of patience in your life and how that comes through, maybe artistically or even in relationship with other people?
NY: I guess for me, it speaks to me that patience is a process. That song was about transience and not being able to ever revisit a place again. But I guess within that is also that you can always be moving forward and be better and do better. So, it’s OK to be patient. It’s OK if things aren’t going the way you plan or expect them to. Because it’s all part of this bigger process.
CG: You’ve played music for a while now, and so I imagine you’ve been pretty driven to accomplish and release this music, but everybody had to employ patience in the last couple of years. We weren’t on any of our own time clocks, right?
NY: Yeah, and it went by so quick! I don’t know about the last two years, but I definitely lost one year, because I don’t even remember what happened in that first year. Beginning it, I was 24 and I’m now 26; I’m going to be 27 soon. It’s just like, “What?! Where did that time go?” You get this kind of panicky feeling, like, “What’s going on? I’ve wasted all this time.” But there isn’t really any waste. I mean, I got to make an album. And even without that, you’re moving closer towards your goals anyway. You don’t always have to be doing something or be seen doing something.
CG: We’ve been playing “stabilise” for a long time, and it’s similar to “the dealer,” with chaotic, almost trap-like drums. But your vocals are really standout and in the center, with great rhythm and guitar accompaniment. I want to hear about how you recorded the vocals. Are you stacking your harmonies on yourself or did you have guest vocalists in the studio with you?
NY: Yeah, there’s a lot more vocal focus, partially because me and the main producer on this record [Wilma “Will” Archer] were also writing together. So he was doing a lot of music, a lot of the guitars, and I was doing the vocals, the lyrics, and I was really focusing on that. And we gave a lot of time to the recording of it. We basically had the demo up to the best kind of quality it could be, had all the feeling right, and we needed to record them in a nicer studio to get the quality that we wanted.
CG: Was it a method like, “OK, this sounds really cool. Let’s quadruple this. OK, no, that’s too much. Let’s take it away”?
You have quite the range. Sometimes it’s a moan or a whisper and then other times you’re in a higher register. Even with the more stripped-down tracks like “chase me” or “company,” it’s your vocal front and center, and I think that’s core to the album.
NY: Thank you. Will did a bit of atmospheric vocals, but I don’t think he was singing on any of the main parts. There are so many layers, like so much stacking, which is really, really fun. I love working like that.
CG: We’re still in the winter here and so it was hard to watch your video for “anotherlife” set in Sri Lanka, because it’s so colorful and beautiful and looked like a blast. But I know that you’ve worked with your sister [Molly Daniel] a lot creatively and she directed that video. Your whole career she’s supported your visual artistry, right?
NY: Yes, she’s directed all the videos and she’s done a lot of photography, which I’ve used in the artworks. So she has big part in the visual side of things.
CG: It seems like you’re really close and both, as creatives, able to accomplish a lot together, like if you have an idea, you can throw it to her, and vice versa, to maximize your efforts. Did she influence your musical taste when you were growing up?
NY: Yeah, definitely. I mean, everyone in my family loves music. She had all these CDs that I thought were really cool and it was, like, Blink-182, and that was the first time I heard guitars that way. And I think that’s why I got really into the idea of playing guitar. And I wanted to be in a band because she liked bands. So it’s all because of her, basically. It’s crazy.
CG: Were you just listening to more straightforward popular music and less rock at the time?
NY: I was really young. I’m thinking, like, when I was six and seven. My parents loved music, but they didn’t really play a lot at home because they were spending a lot of time on their art, I guess. And we didn’t have a lot of channels. I didn’t get to listen to MTV and catch up with all the latest pop tunes. So I feel like her CD collection was my only source of music for a while. I was learning piano at the time, but it was a very different kind of music, and I didn’t really even connect the two. It’s cool, but you’re not thinking, “This is a cool song.” It’s more just like learning things.
CG: With the track “midnight sun,” I know Hazel Cills at NPR Music said your guitar melodies sort of remind her of either/or era Elliott Smith, which seems before your time. OK Computer, too; I’m also getting those vibes on that song. And so it’s clear that you love the guitar. I wondered, are you a gearhead? Like, have you gotten more and more into how to play guitar to fit the songwriting that you’re doing? Or do you still mostly focus on your vocal styles first?
NY: Oh, guitar always comes first when I’m writing like that. That’s the first thing. Will wrote that guitar part [on “midnight sun”]. But even we’re working together, the music comes first and then I’ll come up something to bounce off. I like singing, just humming and making noises. But I’m not really just a singer. The idea of writing a song is what’s appealing to me when I’m singing. It’s just a sound otherwise.
I love Elliott Smith, so I think we have that in common.
CG: You said that on this album you’re unafraid to admit your feelings. So I hope it’s cathartic sing these songs and play these songs to people, and also a safe touring experience for you and your band.
NY: Thank you so much. It’s very nice to speak to you.