FACT Rated is our series digging into the sounds and stories of the most vital breaking artists around right now. This week, London singer-songwriter Nilüfer Yanya takes us inside her sparse, guitar-driven R&B pop. Her songs’ stories may be hard to grasp but the most affecting ones always are, she tells Al Horner.
Name: Nilüfer Yanya
Must-hear: ‘Baby Luv’ (2017)
For Fans Of: The xx, King Krule
Love is a cult in Nilüfer Yanya’s new video. “It’s kinda The Handmaid’s Tale meets Pulp Fiction,” she says of ‘Thanks 4 Nothing’, the much-hyped Londoner’s latest Kool Aid-fresh serving of soulful, guitar-driven indie. The song is about escaping from a broken romance into which you completely disappeared; that feeling when “you’re able to look back and see the warning signs with this weird detached feeling.” The religious sect storyline of its video is that power struggle pushed to extremes. “It’s never quite clear if I’m part of that cult or its leader, someone calling the shots. But I don’t want to go too far. I don’t want to drink the poison. It’s meant to symbolize relationships, which can be like that.”
In the last year, the 22-year-old – who was taught guitar by The Invisible’s Dave Okumu and has Turkish, Irish and Bajan heritage – has amassed a cult following of her own. 2017 saw her surpass five million Spotify streams, win a place on the BBC Sound Of 2018 list and share stages with the likes of The xx, Broken Social Scene and Mitski. A lot of that’s down to ‘Baby Luv’ – her raw, alluring breakout single that like much of her music, alludes to a story you can never quite grasp. “All my favorite music is elusive like that,” she says. “I like songs that have stories and situations that you can almost catch, but you can’t quite ever catch properly. It’s more a vibe… a feeling.”
Written about a toxic partner who was bad with money, ‘Baby Luv’ pivoted on questions like “what is money? How much do I cost? How much does life cost?” according to Yanya. But the song played out in opaque poetry (“light blue ferrera, I bet you’ll never call me sometime”) over stop-start guitar jangles, and featured a video that – like ‘Thanks 4 Nothing’ – was shot by Energy Force, a duo comprising Yanya’s sister, Molly, and her boyfriend. Their close creative partnership means the Londoner can create her own artwork and have a strong hand in the making of her own videos. “I can’t imagine doing it any other way. I like total control.”
It’s with Molly that Yanya runs Artists In Transit when not touring or writing music, an Athens-based refugee aid initiative that organizes art workshops for displaced men, women and children. Their efforts in sewing, doll-making, painting, photography and drawing were documented in My Friends, the organization’s first zine, proceeds from which went towards further workshops. “Doing that definitely broadens my horizons,” says Yanya.
Though her charity work and frantic tour schedule means she’s traveling more and more, her heart remains in West London, where she spent her childhood dragging her artist parents around the many galleries of her native Chelsea, an area she describes as “a bit of a bubble.” Here, Yanya filled her time with Harry Potter books, Now That’s What I Call Music! CDs borrowed from her sister and classical piano and cello lessons until her teenage years, when a love affair with indie-rock bands like The Libertines and The Strokes inspired her to pick up guitar.
After expanding her tastes (Nina Simone and Jeff Buckley are her main inspirations now) and her talent, Yanya put her first track ‘Waves’ on SoundCloud aged 18, followed by her first proper release, the Small Crimes EP. 2017 saw her drop another EP, Plant Feed, which cemented her blossoming reputation as an artist going places and going there fast. She was working a part-time job in a fancy dress shop in Hammersmith the first time she heard her music on national radio. “I heard it on my phone, while customers were trying to talk to me. I was like, ‘shhhh! That’s me!’ It was kinda mad.”
Now, having just announced a headline EU and UK tour, with performances at SXSW also on the horizon, Yanya’s gearing up for a busy 2018 that will also see her work on an eagerly awaited debut album. “It’s really scary,” she laughs of an upcoming hometown show at London’s Village Underground. “Hopefully it’ll be alright and people turn up.” The 22-year-old doesn’t need to worry about that. The cult of Nilüfer Yanya is just getting started.
Al Horner is Editor-in-Chief of FACT. Find him on Twitter