Lessons From The Road with Nilüfer Yanya

Nilüfer Yanya released her genre-bending debut LP Miss Universe in late March 2019, and the month prior she set out for a whole year’s worth of touring, too. What stands out most about the London-based songwriter’s album is the feeling of total sonic freedom. From immense moments of punk shredding and intimate moments of solo guitar, it feels as though there is no limit to what Yanya considers artistically when she is writing a song. “In Your Head” begins the album by harkening back to the sounds of early-2000’s garage rock; a few tracks later, “Paradise” beautifully incorporates elements from easy-listening; in “Baby Blu,” Yanya’s vocal melody evokes bossa nova, even amid  escalating synthesizer riffs that would be comfortable in a trip-hop song; the list goes on and on. Finally, Miss Universe’s eclectic quilt is held together by a series of darkly comedic “sketches” (or spoken tracks) delivered by a robotic voice representing a dystopian healthcare provider.

Given this, it makes sense that the way Yanya speaks is also wide-open to possibilities: when I ask her a question, she carefully weighs several different thoughts and gives each of them a fair shake before choosing her favorite, usually the most selfless one. Our conversation reminded me that there is a certain power in admitting that you’re figuring things out as you go–especially when the final product is defined by such a multi-faceted and confident artistic voice.

Amidst the Fall 2019 stretch of the Miss Universe tour, Yanya spoke with FRONTRUNNER about her collaborative, “loose” songwriting style, as well as the rewarding, thought-provoking experience of moving her songs from studio to the stage. But first, she told us about what it was like to grow up in a family where everyone makes art.

You have a very artistic family. What did it look like to grow up in an environment where art was just part of what people do? What kind of art did you make growing up? 

So, my parents are visual artists. My mom has a background in textiles. She mainly does printmaking now, but also paintings. They’re definitely abstract. My dad has a more traditional background in fine arts, and he makes a lot of figuratures, like paintings and prints and all sorts. So yeah, every weekend, or when we came home, we were always drawing or painting or making things. When we weren’t doing that, I remember going to a lot of exhibitions and galleries when I was younger. So [there was] an early interest in art, for my whole life.

So, experiencing art by other people, too–not just making it yourself.

Yeah, exactly. Just being comfortable in that space. Knowing you were allowed to go there, and it’s not for, like, a special kind of person. And now, I’m not really into the idea of other people creating artwork for me, or even my comms that much. I wouldn’t want to give that up to a designer, in a way. I definitely have the ability to design whatever–the other side of the music. 

Anyway – my sister is a filmmaker, director, photographer, so I work a lot with her. She’s done all my videos up to this point. She would do all the photos for the album. So it’s pretty fun working with her.

You got a guitar when you were twelve. How far does the material go back on Miss Universe? Are there parts of it, like even riffs, that you wrote a decade ago? Or was it all written more recently?

Everything was pretty much done within the last year [before the release], apart from “Baby Blu,” which I started writing a few years before, and then “Heat Rises” I wrote maybe one or two years before. And then “Monsters Under The Bed,” I wrote when I was 15… That’s really odd! I didn’t expect to put that on the album. It’s one of the first songs I wrote properly, and I’ve always picked it up and put it back down. Over the years I’ve played it, [then] not played it, then played it. And now it’s on the album!

Photo credit: Mariam Gomez

So, you’ve already had a long-term relationship with that song, “Monsters Under The Bed.” Do you find that you understand your songs better after you tour them than when you first wrote them in the studio? Or that you’re still learning how you want them to sound as you tour?

Yeah, definitely. I find that. Because a lot of the album was new material that I wrote in the studio. When you write something in the studio, it’s really developed in one sense, but the live aspect of it hasn’t had a chance to develop at all. When we do work on a live arrangement or just play it out live, trying things out, it takes on a completely different life. But I really like that. I find that, really, that to me is the most interesting thing about doing shows. The fact that you get to do it and see how people react straightaway is really rewarding. 

There’s still a couple songs on the album that we haven’t actually managed to play live yet, just because we haven’t wrapped our head around it. I like how that develops. You know, like if a song’s actually good or not. [laughs] 

One of the things I like most about Miss Universe is that there are so many intricate little pieces in each song. Have you known your bandmates for a while? How did you meet?

Yeah, I’ve known them a long time. I went to school with Jazzi and Luke, who both play synths, and then Jazzi [also] plays saxophone and Luke plays bass. So I’ve known them for over ten years now. And Ellis, our drummer, went to school with Luke. 

We never planned on being in a band with this lineup. It just kind of worked out. I started working with Jazzi, and we started doing a lot of duet stuff together for live shows, and then we got the other two involved. Really we’ve only been together for three years now, roughly. I give them a lot of credit because they really make the shows worthwhile, and actually good shows. I obviously write the song, but I don’t really [write] every single part. It’s a bit looser, it’s more open. Everyone kind of writes their own part, which is really cool. I’ve played around with the idea of having a musical director, but as much as I would like that, it’s also… I dunno! I am happy with the way things have panned out.

Everyone’s interested in working out different live arrangements–something that works and isn’t just playing on track.

It sounds empowering to be able to have your songs played however you want to, however it works in the given context. 

Yeah.

Photo credit: Mariam Gomez

Do you ever write parts for other instruments that you don’t play?

Kind of. It really depends. On the album, I worked with lots of different producers, so it would be very much a collaboration between me and them. Actually, Jazzi and Luke produced “Heavyweight Champion of the Year,” so we all wrote parts for each other on that. My drummer played on some of the tracks on the album, so he wrote some parts. The saxophone on the album is all Jazzi. But yeah, I’d just be like, “this line should be on this instrumental,” or “let’s have a line like this.” It’s nice to be able to do that and know that you have people who can play it. 

A lot of songwriters write on the guitar or piano alone and then bring the ideas to their band. But it sounds like you have a more global vision of the song in some cases. When you were younger, do you ever remember envisioning the different parts of the song, or trying to understand how the pieces interact? 

Yeah, I remember doing that when I was really young. I just found it interesting to imagine who was playing what. Even when I was young, writing my first songs–like when I was 12 or 13–I would imagine it with the whole band, kind of like hearing different parts. But I don’t know. I don’t want to control things like that, though. All these musicians, they know what sounds good as well. What’s in my head isn’t always the best idea. A lot of times I still don’t know what I’m asking for. I feel really lucky in that respect, that I’m among good musicians. 

What’s an example of a song that intrigued you artistically when you were younger?

I remember being really intrigued by the Pixies when I first heard their song, “Hey.” You can hear all kinds of lines. Like, interludes and themes show up. It’s almost a traditional format, but it’s not at the same time.

Yeah, I think they enjoyed messing with traditional formats and kind of pulling them apart.

Yeah, I think it’s very inventive. 

Tell me more about the spoken tracks–or sketches–on Miss Universe. There’s this dystopian healthcare thing going on. Where did that come from? 

So, the music [in the sketches] was made by Will Archer, who produced a couple of tracks on the album as well. We’ve become good friends. They were just old beats he had lying around, and he was like, “Here, if you have any use for them, you’re welcome to use them.” I’d already had the idea for the WWAY Health Organization, so I started drafting, but I didn’t know how to fit it into the album. I’d been thinking it’d be cool to have them like a series, almost like instructions how to operate machinery or something. But it could also have double meanings and link back to the songs. Then I kind of got carried away with it all and developed a whole system. There’s a health company that is selling themselves as something that’s good, but the audience know that they’re not really going to help you, that it’s not really all it’s made out to be. That’s kind of the premise.

Have you experimented with performing the spoken tracks in the live show?

We’ve tried a few things so far. We’ve had it played out a speaker, and I’ve made some videos that come up and have words and phrases on the screen behind us in between some of the songs, which has actually worked pretty well. We did that at some shows. I’m still playing around with it. I’d like to try to a surround-sound thing, like everything goes dark and then you hear some of the words, and you can hear it going throughout the crowd. That’s been hard to make a reality, but would be really fun. And then, we could actually play them live, as well.

Photo credit: Mariam Gomez

Was there any part of the Miss Universe tour that didn’t work as well at outdoor festivals? Or did you learn anything about how the songs work outside versus inside?

I think everyone who’s in the band, we all agree that the bigger, louder, more fun songs work better at festivals. Obviously you want to have a mix in the set, and you want to end a certain way and build it up, which really works out. It’s kind of a tried and tested method. But there’s been some instances where… for example, I had to go play a festival in Belgium, solo, and I was in a really big tent, and it was just me, but it really worked! The songs were still really effective. Then there was another day we didn’t have our drummer, and that also worked, as well.

There were some quieter songs that, for festivals, we had thought, “oh yeah, maybe don’t play that one,” or people would be like, “play that one fast,” or “I’m a little bit here or there on the song,” and then those are the ones that turned out to be the most effective, again, or that feel really good to play.

It sounds like you kind of learn from the unplanned. 

Exactly, yeah.

What makes a live show really special and memorable to you? 

A lot of the time I’ll be like, “Oh, that wasn’t a good show,” and everyone is like, “No, that was really good,” or, “The crowd loved it.” But I will be like, “I didn’t even really enjoy that.” It sounds really selfish, but my favorite shows are the ones which I’ve enjoyed the most. It kind of doesn’t matter, in a way, what it sounded like. It’s more about the vibes on stage. 

…But I don’t know, it really does depend! There are some things which are guarantees. [We had a] New York show which was sold out and [a] London show which was sold out, and you’re like, “Well, this has to be a good show, it can’t go wrong.” [laughs] You get on stage and you’re excited because it’s packed out, and you know what you’re gonna play. But you’re scared, because you know how badly you can mess it up, in a way. But then when you do mess up it doesn’t really feel that bad, because everyone’s in it together. The big shows like that are always, I guess, winners. 

Then there’s always random ones. We played a show in Detroit and our manager was like, “This one hasn’t sold well, so we’re not expecting much.” But we had the best time. It was a really small venue with a really small stage, and everyone was a bit squished together but it was really fun. So, it changes. Variety is good! 

Photo credit: Mariam Gomez

What can affect the how the show feels in a negative way?

I’ve been using in-ears, so the quality of the in-ears really affects how I feel my performance went. We played Primavera recently and it was a massive stage, but in my in-ears I could hear the worst signal ever,  like khrrrrkh! I was like, “I don’t even know how this is going, I can barely hear myself play, I can barely hear myself sing. I kind of think I’m playing in time.” But everyone else is playing well, so you’re just like, “Ah, just keep going! I don’t really know what’s going on!” I guess it was a good show, even though it was kind of my idea of hell. 

At the moment it’s still–you never know what’s going to happen. I think you get more certain the longer you stick at it, the more guarantees you have. When you end up bringing your whole crew, your whole everything, and you’ve got everything down and sorted before you get up on stage. But until that point… honestly, I never know. Especially because, to me, I don’t really feel like performing is my thing. I’ll never be a “great performer.” But I’m still having to perform, being on stage and still having to try and be that person, which is a weird thing. I’ve definitely enjoyed it more than I thought I would have. But sometimes I really don’t enjoy it, like, “Why have I done this to myself?” [laughs]

Have you felt restless to start writing again during tour?

Yeah. Even before I’d finished the album. I hadn’t made it with enough time or enough music. I didn’t feel like I had a hundred songs to choose from. It felt like that’s all I had, and I had to go with it, which is quite stressful, when you’re handing something in and you’re not even sure if it’s your best work. So that was kind of a horrible feeling. In a way, it doesn’t really matter what I think. I mean, I don’t know. It’s my music so it does matter what I think. But if people are gonna listen to it anyway, well then, okay, it’s done! I’ll just make something else, afterwards. 

Yeah, but I’ve done a little bit of writing, a song here or there. It’s fun knowing that the crazy touring is coming to an end at the end of [2019], and then I can just really focus on making more music. 

Photo credit: Mariam Gomez

Are you going to take a little more time creating the next album? It sounds like you gave yourself a strict deadline last time, which didn’t feel as good.

Yeah, it didn’t feel great. It’s a lot of pressure to put on myself, which is unnecessary. It felt like I had to do a deadline, and that was probably wrong. But whatever, I’m fine now. [laughs] So yeah, I’m definitely gonna try to not put that much pressure on myself again. And we’ll see what happens.

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