Nilüfer Yanya’s Songs of Noxious Attachment


The twenty-six-year-old singer-songwriter Nilüfer Yanya tends to make music that indulges her worst impulses. Yanya has a singular voice—a disarming rasp that turns every note into a smoldering ember—and her restless pop-rock songs circle her feelings of emptiness and inadequacy. “I’ve hit bottom rock / Swear I’m telling the truth / But, down here I’m dark and confused / Although I cannot tell if I’m paranoid / Or it’s all in my head,” Yanya wails, on “In Your Head,” from 2019. Her singing is fuzzy and distorted through the song’s hysterical verses, building on squalls of electric guitar, until the instruments cut out. “This picture / Gets boring / I give up / Oh, darling,” she sings in slow, clipped phrases. But then the drums pick back up, and the spiral begins anew.

Born to a Barbadian-Irish mother and a Turkish father, both visual artists, Yanya found the beginnings of her unusual rock sound as an adolescent. She cites bands from the early-to-mid-aughts, such as the Strokes and the Libertines, as formative influences, thanks to an iPod loaded with music from her older sister’s library. She was immediately drawn to guitar sounds, from bratty white-boy skate punk to more full-fledged acts, like the Cure and Pixies. She started learning guitar at twelve, took lessons from the Invisible’s Dave Okumu while attending school, and eventually recorded her first songs in her uncle’s studio. Yanya has said that, when she started singing, she avoided sounding like a girl because she “didn’t want to make it pretty.” When she heard Amy Winehouse’s album “Frank” for the first time, she realized she’d only been restricting herself.

Around 2015, a breakout moment presented itself. Yanya, then twenty years old, was scouted to be in a girl group put together by One Direction’s Louis Tomlinson after a music executive heard some of her early songs on SoundCloud. Fearing her music might become a mere line item in a major-label ledger, she declined the offer; Tomlinson reportedly abandoned the project soon after. Her instincts vindicated, she, in turn, continued to pursue the kind of guitar-driven, post-punk music that she had fallen in love with growing up.

After three EPs in as many years, Yanya released her staggering début, “Miss Universe,” on the indie label A.T.O. Records, in 2019. It’s a soulful alt-rock record about the thin line between self-love and indulgence, and the dark urgency of needing another person. Sonically and conceptually, it pushes well past the limits of any major-label pop, yet its tunes are strikingly catchy, even danceable. The songs are breezy, multifaceted, and varied, tethered by Yanya’s smoky, glorious vocals, and funny interludes in which she supplies the indifferent automated voice for a self-care program. “To continue, please choose from one of the following descriptions,” she intones, before listing symptoms such as “I often search for validation in others.”

Yanya wrote herself a note to “do less things” while working on her second album, “Painless.” The resulting record, released this month, is pared down but intense, less sprightly yet more rhythmic than her previous work. The songs distinguish themselves with their weighted melodic charms, their textural richness, and the stark interplay between Yanya’s voice and her guitar. The record is moody but propulsive, animated by the perpetual pull of noxious romance.

The songs on “Painless” are studded with little discoveries from various idle states. Yanya’s lyrics usually find her detached and nihilistic, alone amid company. She feels outpaced by those around her, marooned in a dead-end relationship, aware of her own stagnancy yet unable to change. “And I can tell you’ve only just begun / I can tell you feel exhausted / I can tell you’re not the only one,” she sings on “Company.” Yanya yearns to retreat from her romantic and temperamental limbo, and the music—curling guitar riffs, repetitive lyrics—conveys her acquiescence to familiar patterns. The figures in her songs of heartbreak are usually marked by the ways they are bad for her—she labels them undependable (“The Dealer”), addicting (“Belong with You”), and on autopilot (“L/R”).

The record sprouted from the lead single “Stabilise,” the first song Yanya co-wrote with the producer Wilma Archer for the album after her own period of inactivity early in the pandemic, when she struggled to play the guitar and make music. “There’s nothing out there / For you and me / I’m going nowhere,” she croaks, as the drums bustle forward. The album is driven by a feeling of being trapped in alienating situations, and many tracks are exhilaratingly jittery and on edge. Yanya’s voice spills out over the jangling guitars and the beat-machine programming on “Shameless,” as she continues to invite and even pine for mistreatment. Through the spectral singing that wafts through the coiling arpeggios of “Trouble,” Yanya tries to make sense of a bad habit forming (“I bet this hurts / No, but it’s good for me”). Even if the songs echo one another lyrically, the record has an impressive, dynamic range, from the surly post-grunge crunch of “Chase Me” to the rolling, melancholy blues of “Try.” The album never fully emerges from its fever, but Yanya does find solace on the finale, “Anotherlife”: “In some kind of way, I am lost / In another life, I was not.”

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