When Nilüfer Yanya sings, her face stays steely. She holds a constellation of emotion in her brow as she delivers the big questions like, “Do you like pain?” Her hands, meanwhile, rhythmically widen and stretch, evolving into chord shapes that keep her songs grounded, yet aspirational. It’s how each of the young London-based singer-songwriter’s tunes begins, with six strings and an idea.
Yanya, who started off on piano as a child but picked up the guitar at 12, has spent the past few years winning over fans with her sonic palette of alt-rock with jazzy corners. Her debut album, Miss Universe, out Friday (March 22), goes even deeper: the guitar lines slice harder, the percussion bulks up, and Yanya’s smoky voice fortifies the whole operation. Oh, there’s also the health-service hotline interludes that give the album a whisper of dystopia. Miss Universe contains multitudes.
Yet the star at its center remains completely unostentatious. “I’m not a natural — what’s the word — performer,” Yanya told MTV News. After positive experiences with a music instructor in school, she applied to study pop music in college, though she said she didn’t really want to go. When she didn’t get in, that was fine; she kept working on her own. “The first time I played I had such a big buzz off the playing that lasted a day, so it’s definitely addictive. Your songs are different when you’re playing them live. But it’s definitely not easy to do, for me anyway.”
You wouldn’t know it. At a recent show on a small basement stage at New York City’s Berlin, she breezed through selections from Miss Universe with help from her band, including creative collaborator/saxophonist Jazzi Bobbi, completely owning the room. She channeled her early guitar inspirations The Strokes and The Libertines on the rollicking “In Your Head,” a fantastic entry point into her vibrant catalogue. In the song’s video, Yanya oozes star power; one particularly IG-ready moment finds her posing with an Arby’s soft drink in a pink dress, bejeweled and fierce — it’s unsurprisingly become a go-to image for outlets covering her music. Her actual Instagram page is full of such defining moments. She can tell you who she is with a simple look. Or an indelible hook.
Nothing is quite like “In Your Head,” a lyrical doubt spiral that sounds like the most fun night out you’ve ever had. It began with a demo based around a muddy guitar part and a drum machine and with help from producer John Congleton (who’s worked with everyone from Earl Sweatshirt to St. Vincent to Marilyn Manson), ended up “bigger and better.” “It was kind of refreshing to be able to work like that, I think, because a lot of the time, from your demo to a finished song, you do a lot of refining. But here it was like, let’s just do it again but make it sound better,” Yanya said.
The song plays off the album’s overarching specter, a futuristic health hotline called We Worry About Your Health (WWAY Health) — “a kind of slogan” she found stuck in her mind — that manifests in five interludes dryly narrated by Yanya herself. “We are here for you. We care for you. We worry about you, so you don’t have to,” she intones to open the album. A minute later, on “In Your Head,” she’s questioning everything: “I can think what I want, I can feel what I feel / Until you say it out loud, how will I know if it’s real?” It’s entirely possible to experience Miss Universe solely through its wiggly grooves and midnight-purple guitar tones while not paying much attention to its higher conceptual aims. But if you listen, you might start pondering the unknowingly vast cosmos of your own brain.
“How much control do you want to give away?” Yanya said. “For everything you get, you give something away. And I think my conclusion is that your mind is the last safe space, really, and if you can’t look after your mind and you can’t keep it safe, if you have to open it up to everything, then you have no control. It’s kind of a scary thought, really.”
One place it’s nearly impossible to have total control, of course, is the internet. But it’s also capable of intense community-building, especially as it applies to musicians. Yanya’s already amassed some loyal fans who record themselves playing her songs on guitar and post the videos online. One particularly handy one offers a tutorial for her eerie and mournful “Keep On Calling,” a godsend for fans of artists whose work perhaps hasn’t made it onto guitar-tab sites yet. Yanya said a friend showed her one such cover. “I was like, wow this is so weird. But they were playing it kind of wrong,” she said with a hearty laugh. “It made me feel a bit better about myself, I don’t know why.”
One of the final sounds Yanya allows us to hear on Miss Universe comes as closer “Heavyweight Champion of the Year” winds itself up to a hypnotic, cathartic conclusion. Over a blast of squelching guitar noise, she lets out one of the most human cries found anywhere on the album: “Game over, I’m / Heartbroken / I gave you up.” It’s a powerful song even upon first listen. But in closing, it sheds new light on the entire preceding enterprise. All the spooky WWAY Health outsourcing and funky explorations of self become part of a larger ecosystem within the album’s framework. “Music is weird,” she said. “Like, whatever you’re kind of thinking, you write into a song, and then if you sing the song, it’s kind of like you’re making things happen by singing that song out loud and putting that message out there.”