Raw, deep, and soulful: Nilüfer Yanya’s voice is as soothing in conversation as it is on her records. The artist recently released her third EP, Do You Like Pain?, which features her effortless stripped-down pop. Accompanying her minimal guitar riffs and hand-clapped beats are dreamy lyrics that recall fragments of a relationship; visceral phrases repeated over and over to the point of no escape. At 22 years old, Nilüfer is currently writing her debut album and will embark on tour with Fleet Foxes (!) this summer.
I had an awesome conversation with Nilüfer at a record shop in Brooklyn. Together, we fawned over the post-punk bands that defined Nilüfer’s teenagehood, discussed the best parts of the music-making process, and championed creative collaboration with the people you love.
ALEX WESTFALL: Were there any songs that that defined your adolescence?
NILÜFER YANYA: Yeah, a lot of the Strokes. “Is This It?”—I loved that song so much. That album, too. Before that, it was Blink 182’s Enema of the State. And the Cure, I got into them quite late, I guess. I remember playing “Close to Me” with my rock band at school–[singing] da da da da!—that was my guitar line. I always had my headphones on during lunch breaks at school.
Whenever I think about those bands, all of these visions come up of teenage suburbia, of driving around, even though I never had those experiences.
Yeah! But you create that kind of experience in your head—like skipping school to hang out in the park. I get that.
Yeah! It’s funny, before you got here, I was flipping through this photo book of the Strokes during their first ten years, and in it is 20-year-old baby Julian Casablancas.
They were 20 when they started?
And look at you—you’re 22!
But like, I feel old at 22! When you’re younger, everything happens much slower. I was like, yeah, by 20, I’ll have an album. Easy. And now I’m 22, and I’m like…Where’s my album? [laughs] It’s overwhelming.
Did you have any mentors as a teenager?
I had really inspiring mentors in high school. My songwriting teacher was just one of those people who really empowers you when you’re young. When you trust someone’s opinion–especially when it’s someone outside family–that’s really powerful.
Institutions can be wonderful, but it’s always difficult to figure out how to be a creative person within those confines. Could you talk about your decision not to go to university?
It was a weird one. For a while, I wanted to go and study popular music production at university–I thought that it would be a good way to network with people. I applied to school and didn’t get into the course I wanted to, and everyone was like, “Oh, you must be so sad!” I was realizing, though, that I was gonna make music anyway. When you want to do something, you just have to do it. If I’m working in a big group of people, it’s easy for me to shrink and accommodate others instead of being honest with myself. I think I’ve made the right decision. Creativity is all about timing–whatever you do, it’ll be fine.
Can you talk about your songwriting process?
Generally I start with guitar, and then fill out the melody and words. I’ll record something on my phone and then take it from there. My lyrics are about observing something. I wouldn’t say I am a storyteller in that sense; I stray from classical singer-songwriter stuff.
I think you recently mentioned how you still don’t know what your song “Baby Luv” is about. And I think that’s so cool–you don’t have to ascribe an answer to everything.
That’s most songs! Writing is like anything creative–you don’t really think about what you’re making, you just make it! The process is just for you–it’s why people make music. The finished product should never be in mind. It’s much more interesting when people just make whatever they want and then you can talk about it afterwards and think about what it means.
What have you been listening to?
I gravitate towards natural sounds; tracks with minimal production. I love the Egyptian singer Maryam Saleh. There’s Jazmine Sullivan, too. She’s an American rapper–her stuff is so good and underrated. I love Nick Hakim, and also just saw Kelela live–that was wicked. I would have loved to be a fly on the wall when Elliott Smith, Nina Simone, or Jeff Buckley were writing, just to see how they did things. There’s loads of amazing people!
Do you think that now, with all these young artists, there’s more pressure to “make it” creatively?
I think the pressure is always there, especially with social media and popular culture. “Established” people are just getting younger and younger. I think it’s silly, because you’re not going to create your best work when you’re young. When you really stick with it, you’re only gonna get better with time.
There’s also this idea that an artist has to stick to her initial style throughout her entire life. And it’s just like, why aren’t people allowed to change?
Yeah! Everyone gets angry when someone puts out an album that’s different. Especially if you’re a woman, it’s a lot harder. Because if it’s not enough of “this,” then there’s one problem, and if it’s not enough of “that,” a different problem arises. We’re a lot more forgiving of male artists in our society.
What do you do to get yourself out of a creative block?
I try not to think about it. It’s hard–especially you don’t know what is causing it. Generally it’s good to just do something else and forget about it for a bit. You take the pressure off your mind. If anything you are writing isn’t good enough, that’s okay. You just work through it all. Sometimes some really good things come out of creative blocks. You just end up abandoning all of the rules in your head and you make something really good!
Have you developed a philosophy of love through your songwriting process?
A lot of it is subconscious writing, things that I’ll sit down and think about later on. I’ll be like, Oh yeah, I was right, I should do what I said in the song. It makes me more certain about my own beliefs. I am empowered when I see words I wrote about something else and I’m like, “Wow, this idea could also apply to this other situation.” I’m not very good at making decisions, especially about being in a relationship. Writing is my way of voicing that and later hopefully acting on it.
I love that the music video for “Thanks 4 Nothing” isn’t about a relationship, even though the lyrics of the song are. It makes the song just so much more applicable and universal. Your sister Molly directed the video, right?
Yeah–her and her boyfriend. They direct all my videos as a duo.
What’s it like collaborating with your sister?
It’s always been natural. From such a young age, we made films together. We just trust each other and even if we don’t agree with the other’s opinion, it is easier for us to come around to an idea and try it out–you don’t feel as precious about the project. It still does get a bit political but it’s easier to be yourself. I think everyone should work with the people they’re closest with if they can. It’s so nice!
You and your sister also run a nonprofit called Artists in Transit–can you talk more about that?
Molly had done a course on a Greek island where loads of refugees were coming to Athens via boat. We went to one refugee camp and did some volunteering. We really wanted to do art-related activities, because that’s something we know how to do. It’s kind of a classroom environment, but not the “sit down, do your work” kind of thing. It’s a positive thing that everyone enjoys. With the kids, we printed on t-shirts, painted ceramics, and made a mural. I realized that it’s so important to stay connected to the rest of the world. I love making music but it just gets so insular and bubble-like, and you start to feel like you don’t have a purpose as a person. Artists in Transit is a nice step out of my comfort zone.
What is the best piece of advice that you’ve received?
My mom says this one thing about thinking of learning as if you’re on a bus. The trick is to not get off the bus at the stop where you’re supposed to get off. Rather, you just keep going. I think that’s a really nice thought. Stay on the bus. Because when you get off, you’re like, I’m finished, done. But you can always go further and further.
Do you have any parting words for Rookie’s readers?
The best thing is that if you focus on the thing you want to do, you don’t have to worry about all of the things surrounding it. Like when you’re doing music, everyone’s like, “Oh, have you gotten a manager? A label?” You don’t need to worry about those things until the work itself is ready. I remember thinking to myself, Just focus on the music, just focus on the music. Everything falls into place afterwards. You just meet people along the way. And even if things haven’t panned out the way you’ve planned it, at least you’ve done what you’ve wanted to do. You have something that you can look at and say, “Oh yeah, I’ve achieved this.” It pushes you. But I think everyone figures that out eventually. ♦