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Nilüfer Yanya’s Painlessly Great Rock Music

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Nilüfer Yanya. Photo by Molly Daniel.

When I gave the 26-year-old English singer-songwriter Nilüfer Yanya a call in early March, she was just finishing up a soundcheck for a show in Belfast, and was exactly a week past the release of her terrific new album, PAINLESS. The LP — a follow-up to her much-lauded 2019 debut Miss Universe — has garnered acclaim so widespread and immediate that even Pitchfork, the notoriously hard-to-please music pub, couldn’t help but gift it its much-aspired-to Best New Music stamp. Though the many stressful obligations associated with an album release were starting to sink in when we talked — working out live-setting kinks; the extensive touring to come; promo (sorry) — a sense of gratitude was inextricable from the looming busyness.

“The dust is settling a bit, I guess, around the initial excitement (of an album release),” Yanya told me over Zoom. “And you're like, ‘okay, like, I’ve got a lot of work to do, a lot of gigs to play — got a lot more songs to learn.’ It's still exciting, though. I feel very grateful just being able to release this record, especially, like, amid everything that's been happening in the world. I know I'm really lucky to release music.”

Although the title PAINLESS is itself a nod to what it felt like actually writing the album, the onset of the pandemic understandably dulled Yanya’s creative desires for a long, stifling window beforehand. Though she’d put out the three-song EP Feeling Lucky? at the end of 2020, that year was one largely devoid of writing — an artistic limbo Yanya says created a kind of backdrop for the songs that would soon round out PAINLESS

Coaxing her out of her rut was producer Wilma Archer, whom she’d worked with on a handful of songs for Miss Universe. Because Archer brought with him a good sense of her artistry, Yanya said that, early on, when she was still trapped by writer’s block, he often presented ideas so attuned to something she’d write that it felt like her music already.

“When me and Will started writing, it just felt so good,” she remembered. “I was just really enjoying it. And I think it was just very instinctive…we know what we’re looking for, or how the other person works and how the opposite reacts.” 

While PAINLESS features key contributions from Bullion, Andrew Sarlo, and Jazzi Bobbi, Archer became Yanya’s main collaborator on the album. Nearly all of its 12 tracks — seamlessly moving from skittering to swooning and finding their throughline in raw-nerve lyrics given life by Yanya’s brawny, emotionally tensile voice — were produced by and co-written with him. 

Yanya describes the LP as an album “about emotion,” and looks at it as more intentional and concentrated than Miss Universe. Seasoned with comic phone-message interludes from a fake wellness company, that adventurous, genre-melding 17-track concept album sounded like the arrival of a great to most critics (including this writer). But Yanya finds it hard to join in with the chorus. Looking back, what strikes her is how her younger self was spreading herself too thinly with Miss Universe’s many collaborators, pushing through the exhaustion of touring and promotion as it was made. (Miss Universe followed a handful of well-received EPs.)

“I wasn’t really able to deliver something that was, like, focused, and an actual album,” she said of Miss Universe. “(Now) I’m just like, ‘that sounds crazy’ — like, this sounds insane.” 

When she hears people take notice of PAINLESS' sonic distinctions from Miss Universe, she pins the shift mostly on being able to focus more, give more consideration to decision-making, and not feeling obligated to say yes to every offered suggestion. PAINLESS still came together quickly by most standards, though: nearly all of its work was done in 2021, within less than a year. Yanya said she still feels far away from truly experiencing the conditions she thinks of as crucial when making an album: taking yourself out of your normal environment for an extended period, planning far ahead, and “really, really (taking) my time.” 

Yanya looks at PAINLESS now as a necessity to help encourage her to push forward and write again. For the next record, she’d like to evade the fast pace of her previous two, and also get into producing. That was something she’d been interested in for PAINLESS but, because “she fell so far off the wagon creatively speaking” leading into its making, was forsaken to put more attention on writing. For now, though, she’s savoring a present that hadn’t so long ago seemed only a distant possibility. 

“You remember why music is such an important thing,” Yanya said of being able to play live again. “When you're connecting with the audience, everything kind of makes sense.”

Buy tickets for Nilüfer Yanya’s Seattle show here.

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