“We are here for you, we care for you, we worry about you, so you don’t have to.” These are the eerie words that open 23-year-old Nilüfer Yanya’s debut album ‘Miss Universe’. The record is peppered with these unsettling, automated phone messages – health warnings from the voice of the titular Miss Universe (voiced by Nilüfer herself), from fictional company WWayHealth.
“As the album is quite varied and different, I wanted a way to piece the together the album, that made sense,” she tells NME in a cosy West London coffee shop in January. Thinking about the album as a story, she wanted to craft a narrative throughout it, so created a fictional company called “WWayHealth” – We Worry About Your Health. Imagine it to be SkyNet’s more approachable, but more conniving offshoot.
The narrative was inspired by Charlie Brooker’s cult sci-fi TV show Black Mirror – whose twisted tales of technological will quite often make your skin crawl. On Nilüfer’s album the dystopian organisation “look after” your wellbeing doing things like sorting your diet or, er, getting you a new organ. “It feels very real and poignant about the time we’re living in,” she explains of her decision to include these references to encompassing organisations.
Technology had a fair influence on the album, sometimes in the shape of the messages, but sometimes it was the lack connectivity to the rest of the world that had their impact. Recording part of the album down in her Uncle Joe’s studio in Cornwall, working in the South West holds some sort of magic for Nilüfer. “[Cornwall] definitely influenced ‘Miss Universe’ in the terms of space, and lack of information running.
“As you leave London you’re going through a door, and your mind unlocks itself automatically,” the West London native says. “You’re able to think more freely, and that really helps with writing.”
Work on ‘Miss Universe’ began in late 2017, with Nilüfer hopping between the relatively off-grid Cornwall, and the information hubs of London and Los Angeles. She still wrote with past collaborators, like guitar teacher Dave Okumu from The Invisible, and school pals-cum-band mates Jazzi Bobbi and Luke Bower. But ‘Miss Universe’ brought new circumstances and some new faces. Producers John Congleton (Lana Del Rey and Blondie) and Oli Barton-Wood (Michael Kiwanuka and Blaenavon) also helped craft the album’s shimmering and coherent sound. They were basically strangers at the beginning of the process, but Nilüfer didn’t notice any difference between working with them or working with her regular family of collaborators. “If you get along with someone musically, they just feel like family straight away,” she says.
“As you leave London you’re going through a door, and your mind unlocks itself automatically,” – Nilüfer Yanya
Alongside her club of co-writers and producers, ‘Miss Universe’ also came from a rich tapestry of influences beyond Cornwall, technology and Black Mirror. The galloping beat that sets the pace on ‘Heat Rises’ was influenced after listening to Kelis’ bouncing ‘Millionaire’, while the squelchy 80s-licked synths in next single ‘Tears’ was inspired by rising artist Jai Paul signee Fabiana Palladino and his retro-tinged hit, ‘Mystery’.
The result is a weighty piece of work (17 tracks, 54 minutes) that flicks between huge radio-ready hits (‘In Your Head, ‘Heavyweight Champion of the Year’), to gorgeous slow burners that put Nilüfer’s velvety vocals front and centre (‘Monsters Under the Bed’), and culminate with roaring, earth-shaking indie eruptions (‘Angels’).
Marrying all these different sounds is a tricky task – one that not many new artists can pull off. But the timeframe and sessions the songs were recorded in no doubt helps. Every song on the album is new, with songs from past EPs like the jazzy ‘Golden Cage’ or haunting ballad ‘Sliding Doors’ omitted. “There wasn’t any point putting out an album of older songs, I’d feel like I was cheating,” she says.
As she waits for her album’s release date, Nilüfer’s keeping busy. She’s currently on her longest ever tour, a month with cult US indie star Sharon Van Etten. For somebody who has played scores of shows, including support slots for heavyweights Fleet Foxes and Interpol, this is the first time Nilüfer has embarked on a tour with another female artist. “It’s crazy, why has it taken me so long?” she says, before answering her own question: “there just isn’t really enough female exposure out there.”
Female exposure is something Nilüfer has championed before. The crew for the music video for ‘In Your Head’ was almost entirely female, and it was produced by Girls in Film, a company that supports female-identifying creators in the film industry.
And although she can see the representation getting better, there are still some obvious problems. “At the moment it’s still in this danger zone of being ‘female music’, or ‘here’s the girl stage’,” which is why this tour with Sharon is so exciting to her. “I feel like I actually have something in common, as the other bands have been indie rock bands, from 2006, which have been great! But there’s a big gap between you and them”.
After her US dates with Sharon, Nilüfer is heading out on her own headline tour, and then going straight into festival season. But even with her rammed schedule, she’s keen to start writing new material. “Writing really validities myself to myself. That’s what I am really: I’m not a performer, I don’t think I’m a great musician, I’m more like a song writer. And I’m only going to feel like myself, and only going to know who I am, if I’m writing.”
To validate and feel content with what you’re creating is perhaps the ultimate example of self-care. ‘Miss Universe’ might feature nods to new-age organisations, but as Nilüfer finds, the simplest fixes begins at home.
‘Miss Universe’ is out on 22nd March. ‘Tears’ is out now.