It’s late in the afternoon at the end of July and people are shuffling in and out of the A.Side office in Toronto, but Nilüfer Yanya is not phased by these interruptions. Not one bit. During our late afternoon talk with the London-based artist, a steady stream of visitors passed through our interview location, often continuing their conversation. It was a scene that could have easily been ripped from a mockumentary. But this is far from the strangest experience she’s had since blowing up 3 years ago. Someone approaching her with a glossy print of her portrait takes the prize. (“That was kind of creepy,” she says with a wry grin.)
Yanya’s ability to remain calm in the center of a storm (or a crowded room) is unsurprising. Earlier that week, she began her opening act for Seattle folk mainstays Fleet Foxes at the Sony Centre of Performing Arts in Toronto alone onstage with her guitar before being joined by her bandmates, a picture of quiet tenacity. Her set, and light banter in-between songs, was a much needed remedy for the evening which saw audience members drying off inside the auditorium following a flash downpour just half an hour prior. It was also an apt introduction to anyone who’s ever wanted a glimpse of the artist behind the music.
In case you do need an introduction, here’s a crash course on Nilüfer Yanya: she made it onto BBC’s Sound of 2018 list along with Khalid and Billie Eilish, opened for Broken Social Scene back in 2017, and played at the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago this summer. There’s been an exponential rise of guitar-toting women on the music front as of late, such as Mitski, Julien Baker, Soccer Mommy—and you can count Nilüfer Yanya as a part of that milieu. But well before the 23 year-old artist was on course to become one of our generation’s guitar greats, she started gaining buzz for her introspective, lo-fi, and brazen tunes about reckless youth and heartbreak, made all the more punchy by her trademarked driving riffs such as “Small Crimes” (“I was supposed to/ Set an example/ But I am a vandal.”) and “The Florist.” She didn’t stop there. After spending most of 2017 recording, she released her most recent EP, Do You Like Pain? earlier this year which debuted a heavier, more confrontational sound than her previous work.
“I think as I get older, my taste changes in between phases,” she remarks of the shift. Naming Jeff Buckley, Nina Simone, The Cure, and her former teacher and mentor David Okumu of The Invisible (a Mercury prize-nominated experimental band based in London) as influences to her music, Yanya describes her work as a musician as an extension of her artistry. And it shows in not just the songs, but her involvement in the art direction of her music videos, which pulls inspiration from films like the German one-take thriller Victoria, or the polaroid-esque “Baby Luv” which feels like a peek into her personal photo album. Yanya shares that her creative approach is often collaborative in nature and she counts her sister as a creative partner.
With all of the hype surrounding her yet-to-be titled first album Yanya keeps herself grounded by sticking to deadlines. (Yes, that’s right: Sticking to deadlines.) While Yanya worked on her previous EPs and songs on her own schedule, her upcoming album had a strict date to adhere to due to her work on demand. Her advice to getting shit done? “Doing everything at the same time,” she deadpans. Even though the condensed time has made things official for her career-wise, she’s still determined to experiment with new sounds for her debut. Think of her already released music, but bolder and confidently brash. “I think [the album] is more expressive. In some of the songs it’s got a full band, and other songs, it’s got less.”
It’s real knowing that part of your childhood is over.
Online spaces may help people discover a musician or band, and skyrocket them to virality at the speed of a click, but it’s not virality that Yanya wants. She makes music to create a connection amongst people. She co-runs a volunteer-based, grassroots arts project in Greece called Artists in Transit, which aims to provide solidarity and space for refugees to participate in creative workshops.
Along with her activism, Yanya is determined to use her tours to engage with an audience, to solidify the intimacy her songs have on listeners, all while also giving her room to grow as a vocalist. This tour with the Fleet Foxes was Yanya’s first time performing outside of the United Kingdom, and it’s a big deal. “Generally it’s been a lot nicer because you get to play more massive venues. It’s kind of more fun… It’s been really nice touring in the U.S. as well,” she says. Playing outside of Europe hasn’t been her only marker of transition: she finally moved out of her parents house this year. “It’s real knowing that part of your childhood is over,” she muses. But despite everything looming in the horizon, Yanya is adamant about remaining grounded. “It’s exciting… but I guess I have to keep detaching myself from that. I don’t want to make it a job,” she says. Deadlines, tours, and moving out—even rock stars grow up, too.