If we told you Nilüfer Yanya, the 23-year-old Londoner known for her minimal, plucky guitar tunes, had made her debut album a sort of post-apocalyptic sci-fi record, would you be shocked?
Well, that’s what it is. ‘Miss Universe’ centres around a fictional health company ‘WWAY HEALTH” (think Black Mirror meets Flat Tummy Tea Co), with their phone service, narrated by ‘Miss Universe’, greeting the listener when they hit play.
“I had the WWAY Health idea for it to be this fictional health company within the album, while I was writing, and I approached that like you would writing a story,” she says. “I wasn’t sure if it was going to be a phone line at first, but it ended up being the phone line. It’s like you’re the person on the phone, so it kind of automatically puts you in the album, which I guess sort of makes it attack.”
‘Miss Universe’ wasn’t meant to be a concept album (and Nilüfer still might not think it is), but it’s definitely a different direction for her. If you got to know her as a minimalistic singer-songwriter type, there’s far more to her first full-length than just a girl and her guitar.
Experimenting with different instrumentation was on the album checklist – and it gets pretty diverse. There’s a classic emo vibe on ‘Heavyweight Champion Of The Year’, pop punk-ish guitar on ‘Angels’, Florence-sized drama on ‘Baby Blu’, as well as some sparkly, psychy pop on ‘Safety Net’ and ‘Heat Rises’.
“The songs are just songs, right? But the production kind of really makes the songs sound like something. So some of them are very much in the pop direction, we were listening to a lot of pop music. I think a lot of it is like an amalgamation of my music tastes; I think that comes through.
“I always knew I was gonna be more expressive and I was gonna try and push myself a bit more with the sound. Otherwise, you can get stuck in a particular sound world, and not let yourself out of that, and you’ll be like ‘nooo that’s not my sound, I don’t want that’. I was tryna be less precious about that kind of thing, and be more like ‘well what if that was part of this’.”
But the WWAY HEALTH narrative (now complete with its own website) came more naturally. She says that, originally, it was just supposed to be a load of songs together (like a normal album, duh), but stringing it together with a storyline helps her understand her own work.
“I think I put the songs in that order so they make sense, but also the interludes are in place so you pick up on different themes within the album. So hopefully it helps people understand what I was trying to get at in each section. I mean I didn’t write them knowing that that was going to be the case, I just kind of put them in context afterwards.”
Whether intentional or not, the idea is genius, and the interludes in question are fantastically witty. Splitting an album up with tracks titled ‘Warning’, ‘Experience?’, ‘Give Up Function’ and ‘”Sparkle” GOD HELP ME’? So brilliant.
“I guess I’m like opening up my ideas, putting more of my mind into the whole thing. In a way, it’s less personal though, because it’s not really about me anymore. It could be you or anyone, but I’m trying to be more open about the way I think.”
On her debut single ‘Small Crimes’, Nilüfer plays the part of a thief, so she’s no stranger to adopting another persona in her lyrics. And don’t just expect to hear from Miss Universe on the album, or Nilüfer for that matter. She’s a great storyteller (again, she doesn’t think she is, though).
“I never thought of myself as a storyteller. I dunno, I don’t think it’s what I’m doing, but it is I guess. I always liked the idea of characters being involved – I don’t really know what I meant by character, but I definitely like having people in the songs who aren’t me. Some of them are, but some of them aren’t, or just like [writing about] things you haven’t done, or things you could’ve done; it’s kind of made up. It’s not just facts; it’s like ‘what if this happened’.”
Nilüfer grew up in a pretty artistic household and was initially encouraged to ‘do’ music by her uncle, who she still writes and records with. “I hope we get to keep writing together.” Is it weird though? “Not really. I guess you quickly forget that they’re your family. It just ends up being two people working together, and I guess if they’re not your family you’re more aware of their presence, you’re more aware you’re working with someone.
“When you know someone, you’re not really aware you’re working, you’re just making music. It guess it’s unusual but not as weird as you might think it’d be. I mean it’d be hard to write a song with my mum, but that’s because she’s not a musician, y’know. I dunno she’d probably be pretty helpful really, with lyrics or something.”
And her sister makes the music videos! “She directs all my videos, and we work pretty closely together on all those things. I mean she’s heard the songs from when they were demos, so there’s a whole process. It’s like a project.” An endlessly talented bunch.
Keeping it familiar in every way, most of the album was recorded in London – and a little bit in her uncle’s studio in Cornwall – and she’ll be returning to London for her biggest show yet later this year, bringing the Miss Universe idea to life.
“I think for the London show, we could do something cool. It’s gonna be like the longest tour I’ve done, but it’s gonna be interesting. It’ll be good because last year everything felt less complete, I feel like now I’ve got more of a plan and a load of songs to recreate live and that’s gonna be some task.”
Taken from the April issue of Dork, out now. Nilüfer Yanya’s debut album ‘Miss Universe’ is out 22nd March.
Words: Abigail Firth