Nilüfer Yanya Finds the Balance

Nilufer Yanya standing outside by a tree
Photograph by Molly Daniel

Moving around is a crucial aspect of the indie musician Nilüfer Yanya’s process. On any given morning, the 27-year-old can be found doing yoga, swimming (she recently did some laps in a lake near Annapolis, Maryland while on tour—much to the chagrin of her manager, who thought the water might be too cold), working out with her cousin, or riding her bike in London’s Richmond Park, winding down the River Thames. It’s the only way to keep her energy up, she says, while also knocking out the cobwebs that can spread when she’s struggling to get some work done.

“Cycling helps me come up with lyrics a lot,” Yanya tells me, seated backstage at Webster Hall in New York City, just a few hours before she’s due to perform. The artist is in the middle of a months-long tour that has taken her from Coachella to the cold-water lakes of Annapolis, giving her the first opportunity in almost three years to perform live—singing songs off her brand-new, critically acclaimed album, Painless. “I always find myself singing in my head when I’m cycling just to get around. It’s a fun time to come up with lyrics.”

Although the artist somewhat reluctantly admits it, moving around on a worldwide tour for more than half the year has been good for her process, too. As lockdown regulations lift globally, most musicians—many of whom recorded new music in quarantine—have thrown themselves back into touring, concerts, and live shows. Yanya, who still lives near her hometown of West London, is no different. “But you can’t write while you’re on tour,” she explains. “They’re two separate things. This tour is very much focused on getting to the next show, doing it, packing down, and then going to the next place. Everything’s very tight. It would be nice to do less, but you have to work,” she adds with a laugh and a shrug.

Photograph by Molly Daniels

It is perhaps this pragmatic attitude toward nonstop motion that has taken Yanya as far as she’s come in her career. Painless is the artist’s fourth project—her first EP, Small Crimes, was released back in 2016, followed by two more EPs, Plant Feed, and Do You Like Pain? Her debut studio album, Miss Universe, was met with rave reviews back in 2019 when she released it, with critics mesmerized by her expressive, baritone vocals and her seamless combination of genres—from indie rock to jazz and soul, and even trip hop.

Such varied inspiration makes sense, given Yanya’s background: her mother and father, both visual artists, are of Irish-Bajan and Turkish descent, respectively (mom is a textile designer and painter who, at one time, designed for Paul Smith, while dad moved from Istanbul to London after winning a scholarship to the Royal College of Art; his prints have shown at the British Museum). Growing up, she heard her father’s Turkish favorites, or classical music that her mom would play on the piano. Her uncle, a producer, was the first person to demonstrate that being a musician was a viable career, after building a studio in his Cornwall home and hosting dozens of artists there over the years. Yanya began composing songs in her head around six years old—but it wasn’t until her preteen years when shes heard the guitar, and truly fell in love. At 12, she started listening to whatever her sister was playing: Fallout Boy, The Strokes, The Cure. She learned the instrument and took up performing, playing some open mic nights while uploading her demos to SoundCloud. Louis Tomlinson of One Direction even took notice, offering Yanya the chance to join a girl group he was putting together. (She declined, opting to focus on her own music instead, and Tomlinson reportedly canceled the project after one year.)

Throughout our conversation, Yanya brings up her relatives nonstop. Her younger sister has lent her backup vocals on a few of her songs, while her older sister—who’s also on tour with her and ducks in and out of the backstage area while we chat, making a cup of Earl Grey tea—does all of her art direction. The musician’s family involvement makes the slog of hard work a bit easier, especially while Yanya is in the throes of promoting the album. “It’s like 2019 all over again,” she says with a wide smile, referring to the period when she’d just released Miss Universe and traveled to perform lots of shows.

When Covid-19 hit one year later, Yanya had a bit of a break, which allowed her to work on material for another album. She wrote the majority of Painless at home, traveling to Cornwall here and there to write at her uncle’s studio. The album was born during a time when Yanya was taking a more critical look at her family’s history. Following the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, Yanya’s aunt plunged into research about her mother’s side of the family, whose ancestors were enslaved. The musician was deeply affected by the revelation that so many of her family members were controlled by the country in which she now lives. Being of a mixed racial background, she’d always felt like she was floating between two worlds. But suddenly, she had to face just how tied her bloodline was to the painful history of England. “It’s been weighing on my mind,” she sings on the outstanding Painless track, “The Dealer.” “Seems to be with me all the time... I need some time to work out who this is. I need to know now who I’m dealing with.”

The grind of 2019 and the subsequent lull of the pandemic also ended up inspiring Yanya to find balance in her life. The hard work she put out while promoting Miss Universe was absolutely worth it, she says, but “I tried to retain and pull back a little bit since then. I remind myself, you are only really busy for a certain number of months, and then it dies down.

“I’m in the mindset of less is more,” Yanya adds. “Not that touring and concerts aren’t all amazing experiences—they are—but if you’re not in the right headspace to really put yourself into it totally or enjoy it, or get something out of it, then there’s no point.” Performing shows has also allowed her to spend more time with her extended family in Turkey, where she traveled during the European leg of her tour. "It’s a double excuse to go hang out,” she says brightly.

But her experience in America has been one for the books: playing sold-out shows in Cambridge, Massachusetts; San Francisco, and Austin, where the crowd was the loudest she’d heard yet. “There was one guy the whole time, yelling at the front, screaming,” she says. “He was singing all the lyrics. And there were two lads at the front who somehow knew what every song was going to be. Maybe they’d been to another show, because they’d memorized the setlist.”

“That’s when you really know you’ve made it,” I tell her.

“I guess, yeah!,” she replies, laughing.