This interview originally appeared as an article in Issue 17 of She Shreds Magazine which was released in April 2019.
Nilüfer Yanya’s intriguing debut album, Miss Universe, opens with the serenely creepy spoken-word track, “WWAY HEALTH.” “Welcome to We Worry About Your Health, a 24/7 care program,” a robotic voice tells the listener, evoking a customer service center. “We are here for you. We care for you. We worry about you, so you don’t have to,” the voice continues, perhaps vocalizing the unconscious desires of a generation that’s lost its faith in government, the financial system, and the goodness of others. A minute after lulling listeners into a state of bureaucratic calm, Yanya switches to fuzzy guitars on “In Your Head,” where she sings, “Swear I’m telling the truth / but down here I’m dark and confused / I cannot tell if I’m paranoid / Or it’s all in my head / It’s all in my head.”
Over the 17-track album, released on ATO Records in March, Yanya uses a wide range of sonic palettes, from the reverb-soaked guitars on “Safety Net” to the percussive jazz beat underpinning “Baby Blu,” which erupts into a subtly reverent chorus. While Miss Universe is her most lyrically sophisticated and stylistically varied record to date, it is not completely unexpected: Yanya’s Small Crimes EP (2016) and Plant Feed and Do You Like Pain? (2017) are filled with commentary and erupting brass sections.
She Shreds spoke with Yanya about her new album, the creative arts organization she started with her sister, and working with friends.
She Shreds: There’s a section in your biography that says you were influenced by the work of Edgar Allan Poe and Malorie Blackman. What is your relationship to literature and how does it influence your music?
I love reading, but at the moment I don’t have a lot of time for that. Growing up, I spent so much time at the library. I sought out specific books to tell me about my own experience.
I’ve never written a book, which is something I’ve wanted to do. I’ve never gotten a chance to tell my own story [that way], and so with an album I saw a chance to tell a narrative.
What did you want to express in the narrative of Miss Universe?
I was trying to express the ways we all have to make up our own realities. For me, it’s a way to play with possibility. I think a lot of it comes from living in a city where there’s constant interruptions and advertising. It’s kind of about that.
On the album, you created a fictional organization called We Worry About Your Health that is referenced during spoken word interludes. I’ve heard you are planning to build a website that expands on this, and I would love to know the genesis of the idea.
I actually wanted to call the album We Worry About Your Health, but I thought maybe it was too unrelated to the music.
I was shooting videos in Los Angeles and Las Vegas and found a ton of books about computing in the 1980s, as well as lighting technician guides. I wanted to use the language of those books and make a website to expand on We Worry About Your Health. That way, it would become a real fictional thing, which isn’t really real, but then again, it is, as long as we decide for ourselves.
In the past you’ve spoken about your passion for art, and you’re known for being visually inclined. Could you tell me about the cover art for Miss Universe and what inspired the design?
The photos were taken by my sister [Molly Daniel] when we shot the videos in Vegas. I was stuck for a while when deciding what to do with the cover. I went to the British Museum in London—my dad’s print work was actually being shown there—and I liked how the prints were displayed. This one print was quite old, probably from the Renaissance, and it had two squares. I thought it would be cool to have two photos facing one another, [showing how] there’s two sides of something.
Could you tell me about Artists in Transit, the project you set up with your sister Molly in Athens, that brings art and music workshops to displaced people as a way to promote solidarity and skill sharing?
My sister came up with the idea after she volunteered on one of the Greek Islands. She wanted to go back to the Islands, but actually be able to bring something that people and children could do. So, for example, she wanted to interact instead of just talk with them; it’s a good ice-breaker. So for the next trip, we went to the squats in Athens and set up our workshops. People build proper communities there and are in charge of [things], even when they’re really not supposed to be [in the squats].
There’s been a positive responsive [to Artists in Transit] from the community and we’re going to keep doing it. Last year we went four times. We go for about two weeks at a time and we bring different activities, materials, and fundraise throughout the year.
To shift gears a little bit, I saw that you worked with John Congleton on this record. What was your recording process like?
It was really all over the place. I didn’t have a plan. I had a deadline, and I worked around that. It was difficult because I had just signed to ATO and they were pushing everything. I had live shows [in addition to the recording] and it was hard to do both. I didn’t really make the record the way I thought I was going to. I didn’t have a lot of space for perfection. People sit back and go, “Oh, I don’t like it!” but I didn’t have that. It was more like, “It’s done. Let’s mix it.” I thought it was going to have a lot more guitar, because that’s where my songwriting is at its best, when there’s not too much going on [with additional instrumentation]. I find it really hard to write on anything else, to be honest. The process of making the record taught me that I don’t need the guitar as much as I thought. I ended up working with different people and experimenting. This record has so many sounds and styles, but I can see that it’s still mine, even if it doesn’t have guitar everywhere. But it’s still the instrument I want to write on the most.
Speaking of guitars, I’d love to know what you used to make the record and what you’re planning to gig with.
I don’t have a ton of gear. I have a Jazz Chorus Roland amp, and I have a few pedals: a Blues Driver, a reverb pedal, a chorus pedal, and a standard reverb pedal. I’d like a distorted fuzzy pedal next.
I’ve heard you make an effort to work with your friends. Are you bringing your saxophonist Jazzi Bobbi and bassist Luke Bower on tour with you?
Yeah! I think it’s important to work with people you know. We’re all at this stage where we’re entering the adult part of our lives. It’s nice to have people around whose opinions you can trust. It keeps you sane. They’re on the same level. There are so many people that have their ideas about what music should sound like and what my music should sound like, and there are only so many people I actually trust.
How have you previously dealt with pressure to change your music?
When I was younger, [I did]. However, I had a very strong idea of what I wanted to sound like, so I wasn’t phased by that. Now it’s harder because there are so many different opinions. It’s hard to hear your own opinion in a way, because no one is really wrong—it’s almost like I have to ask myself what I think, because I can’t really hear what I’m thinking. It’s like, if someone asks me if I think something is cool, I don’t always know.
Do you find that talking to your friends helps you solidify your opinions?
Definitely. It must be something to do with our shared experiences growing up, or being the same age. There is a kind of universal experience between your peers, even if you live different lives. You understand the same things.
What do you do when a song isn’t working?
In the studio, there’s a pressure to see things through. There are also days when you start a song and think it works, and then listen to it later and it’s not working. That being said, most of my favorite songs started out with me thinking they were shit. [Laughs.]
Earlier you mentioned writing a book. Do you have an idea of what you’d want to write?
Oh wow, I really have no idea. Perhaps a bit of fantasy, some reality and non-reality. Maybe science fiction.
Yeah, I feel like that genre is underrated. You can read things from 40 years ago that describe the world today and a lot of people don’t highlight that.
Yeah! Like Brave New World. No one talks about it that much. It’s weird—really, really weird. It predicted the future.