Nilüfer Yanya Takes a Note From Black Mirror and Stirring Indie Rock in 'Miss Universe' [Q&A]
"So, 'Miss Universe...' you're not meant to know who it is. But, at first, I was like, 'Oh it could be a character in the album.' Then I was like, 'No, it's like the person controlling the album.' And then I was like, 'No, it's not even a person. It's just someone pretending to be a person.' The more I thought about it, '[Miss Universe]' was more like the language and the way that we are spoken to every day of our lives. That automated control we listen to automatically. Everything seems like a suggestion, a nice idea. 'You should think about buying this. This is how you should spend of your free time.' Instead of actually thinking about any of those things, you just do what the voice of society says."
Nilüfer Yanya, the profound British talent, speaks on her then-to-be released debut album, Miss Universe, with a prophetic-like enthusiasm in a lively restaurant in Silverlake, California. Now out and already receiving widespread acclaim, it is an album that strays the line between dystopic technological vision and striking portrait of reality itself, all told through a transfixing blend of synth-driven indie pop and exhilarating indie rock.
Miss Universe is a debut album that, in many ways, feels like a long time coming for Yanya, who has been releasing understated gems like "Keep On Calling" since 2016. But more than anything, Miss Universe feels like an album that feels like a long time coming for how it portrays the very fine line between dystopia and the reality we currently find ourselves in. As we continued our conversation on dystopias and music at little pine, Moby's vegan restaurant in Silverlake (quite possibly the most Los Angeles thing myself or the rising British talent had ever done in our lives) we spoke on everything from her opinion on the broccoli to Black Mirror.
OTW: When was the first time you ever picked up a guitar?
Yanya: I was maybe 10, 11, and then I started taking it more seriously at 12, 13.
OTW: And was there a certain thing about the guitar that drew you to it?
Yanya: I was obsessed with distorted guitars. I wanted to play electric guitars so badly. We had this beat-up acoustic thing at home, which was really bad, but I played that for as long as possible. It was just so exciting that that was the same instrument that could make a sound I'd heard on a record. Do you know what I mean? I was like, "Wow. If I learned this, I could play that song." That was so exciting.
OTW: Before we dive into your new album, can I just say that, in my opinion, you have not put out a bad song.
Yanya: Aww really? What about "Sliding Doors?" (laughter) I don't like that one. I haven't played that in years; it's like I didn't do it.
OTW: Given the pervasive technological presence that exists in Miss Universe, I have to ask, are you quite the Black Mirror fan?
Yanya: Yes! Yes! I love Black Mirror, because I'm like, "Yes, exactly! This guy knows what I mean." I don't want to say it's a fear; it's just reality. When I watch Black Mirror, I'm not like, "Oh, this could happen." I'm like, "This is happening now; it's just made into a movie."
OTW: It does get quite difficult when the imagined dystopia is indistinguishable from reality.
Yanya: Yeah. Everyone is like, "Oh it's so creepy, so weird." But this is it. The whole dating one. That's the one where I was like, "This is what they're doing." That's why I've never used Tinder. I always knew there was something weird about it.
Photos: Molly Daniel
OTW: In many ways, Miss Universe is nearly a concept album.
Yanya: In a way. It's not really a concept album, because I didn't make it with the intention of '[Miss Universe]' being a concept album. I feel like that takes a lot more work and thought put into it. But it was fun around to play around with it, make a website, and make it real. For me, it makes it easier to talk about my work. So, I'm not just like, "These are my feelings." (laughter) That's really boring. It puts it in another context for people. They don't have to see it one way. They can choose how they want to see it.
OTW: Do you then find that most of your songwriting is character-driven or comes from personal accounts?
Yanya: A bit of both. I think a lot of the time I imagine a character, but sometimes when I'm singing it, I feel like the person is almost in the room. It's not me. It's become someone else, and every time I'm singing it, I'm developing that character a bit more. So, they're not fully-developed characters or anything. They haven't got stories, but you can just be that person for a day.
OTW: Would you say your songwriting has evolved a lot since the "Keep On Calling" days?
Yanya: Yeah, I think so. Sometimes I don't know, because one song on the album is really old. I've had it since I was 15, yet it still kinds of fit. You just find new ways to write things. I feel like I'm kind of saying the same things, but I'm getting better at saying it each time.
OTW: Throughout this whole journey that has led you to your debut album, what do you think is the biggest thing you have taken away?
Yanya: Doing this album has been a big step. It gets things moving a different way. Now that I've done an album, I know I can do it. Because before, it's like, "Can you even do an album?" You can think about that stuff for it. Half of me wishes I spent more time on it and the other half of me is just glad that I made myself do it and have done it. Instead of thinking about if I can do it, now I can actually think about what kind of album I want to create. It's crazy how you can think about doing something and then actually doing it, it makes you into another person.
OTW: Is there anything you hope people take away from an album like Miss Universe?
Yanya: That everyone is in control of their own reality. For me anyway, it feels like everything is always trying to be forced upon you - an idea of this, and idea of that, this is what's happening, the world is going this way or that way. But you can actually take control of your own reality and decide. Hopefully, that comes through somehow. Maybe that's a bit too hopeful. It's just an album. (laughter) It's not like a book or therapy.
OTW: Speaking on unfortunate realities, you have touched upon how touring with Sharon Van Etten was the first time you have opened for another female musician on tour.
Yanya: It's crazy. She's the first female artist I've supported. It's crazy I've had to use male influence up until now just so people will listen to me. It's really weird. It's different from the other tours we've done. Sharon is just so welcoming. I've sung with her onstage. She has her baby with her. I've gotten so used to playing our show, watching our show, and going to bed and feeling good about things again. (laughter)
OTW: Do you think female representation in music is getting any better?
Yanya: I think it's getting loads better. Everyone is talking about it and is aware of it. I just hope it stays. I can't imagine any female artists that I know who would stop doing what they're doing. But I just hope it doesn't become a thing; it should just be the norm.
OTW: What's next for you?
Yanya: I just want to work on more music, put out my second album pretty soon. I do want to take a second and think about things, but, also, I don't. I just want to do it again but better.
OTW: Most importantly, what was your review of Moby's restaurant?
Yanya: It's really sweet. I didn't know it was his restaurant at first. I picked up the book straight away when coming in and was like "Oh, it's a Moby book" and then was like "Ooooooooooh." The potatoes were amazing. The broccoli was very good.
OTW: Who are your Ones To Watch?
Yanya: Jazzi Bobbi, Lucy Lu, joviale, Uma. They're all my friends in London and they're going to make some great things. Also, all the people I worked with on my album, like M. T. Hadley. He's a pop genius. Will Archer, as well.
For more Nilüfer Yanya, revisit the first time we discovered this profound British talent.