It’s 7:30am in London when Nilüfer Yanya answers the phone. She’s outside in the cold, awake before any cafes are open and sans coffee. Her loping West London accent filters through the Whatsapp line. She’s still waking up and I’m getting ready to cook dinner. The irony isn’t lost on either of us.
Last week, she released her debut album, Miss Universe. In one year, she wrote, recorded, produced, and mastered the album. “Is this a good idea?” she tells me, echoing pre-release anxiety, “It was just weird to do it so fast. Sometimes people spend years on albums.”
It’s difficult to believe Nilüfer rushes anything. When she speaks, she chooses her words carefully. You get the feeling that everything she does has filtered through to the final product. That it’s a trait bleeding through her art.
She considered the way that the wellness industry impacts self-esteem in the creation of We Worry About Your Health (WWAY)—a counterfeit health scheme that anchors her 17 track album. She considered the positive impact she could have by creating an artist initiative alongside her sister to support refugees. She deeply considers those she chooses to collaborate with. At times, she holds an intimate connection with them, counting her sister and her sister’s partner as long time video creators—other times she’ll collaborate with someone on first meeting.
When Nilüfer sings, it’s in self-assured alto and suspended falsetto. In ‘In Your Head’, Nilüfer seamlessly switches between the two, capturing the insanity of processing emotions.
Sitting down with Nilüfer in the weeks preceding the release of Miss Universe, we spoke about her love for Black Mirror, questioned what an album really is, and speculated where our online data is actually going.
Are you usually an early riser?
Kind of! Just not this early! I mean it really depends what I’m doing that day. I do like having time in the morning. If I have to leave, I want to be up at least two hours before I have to leave so I can adjust. I can’t be one of those people that just wakes up and goes.
Wow, neither. Have you moved out of home?
I have! I moved out like a year ago. I mean it took me a while to get used to because I was used to living with loads of people at home. I live by myself so it’s kind of crazy.
We Worry About Your Health. I got sucked in. The marketing worked on me.
[Laughs] That’s cool! I’m so glad it worked.
When did you come up with that concept?
I had the slogan We Worry About Your Health in my head. I wanted to use it for the album but I didn’t know how. I was just mulling over the idea and I thought it’d be fun to weave it in as a story. So I made it a company but within the album.
Will there be a phase two?
Maybe! I don’t know. I just thought I’d take the idea as far as I could take it.
It’s a great album. Can you tell me about the process behind making it?
It’s kind of a weird process of making it because I was doing so many things at the same time. And then to myself I was like “Yeah I could do an album in a year.” Looking back I’m like, Why did I decide to do that? Why did I want to do it so quickly? And also I didn’t want to release things that I’d already released. So I was writing for the album most of the time. Which was scary because I’ve never done that. So I was working with different people, different producers. And it sort of came together suddenly at the end. To be honest, I was just a bit scared. I didn’t think I’d done it properly because I hadn’t really thought about it that much. You know when you’ve just done something and you haven’t had time to reflect on it?
It’s a bold move. But it hasn’t gone to waste.
It’s just funny, because now I’m questioning “What is an album?” even though I’ve made one. It just feels like the beginning of that process. I had this preconception in my head. Like if someone does an album, then they really know what they’re doing. They really must know what it is that they want, that things become clear once they’ve done it. But actually it’s like “Oh shit.” It just makes you think about everything more.
Would you write another album that quickly again?
I see the good thing of doing it that quickly. I’d like to do another one soon. It’s good to always be making something. I’d like to make another album soon. But maybe spend more time. Reflect before I release it. Not too long. Just a bit more.
You collaborated with people that are really close to you.
Some people I knew really well and some people I was meeting for the first time or reconnecting with. It was a mix.
You seem really well read. Do you read a lot?
I love reading. I haven’t read a lot recently.
What was the last book you read?
I’m reading like… three at the moment. This one called The Milkman by Anna Burns. It’s set in the republic of Ireland during all the Protestant vs. Catholic wars. And then I started reading Moby and his memoirs. But the last book I fully read was by Kate Tempest. She wrote a book that came out two years ago. I really enjoyed that.
Who have you been listening to a lot of lately?
Sharon Van Etten because I just finished touring with her. That was amazing. The last playlist I made had some Prince on there. The Cure. It changes every day to be honest. I really like Blood Orange. I really love Tirzah’s new album Devotion.
What did you think of the Black Mirror ‘Bandersnatch’ episode?
Do you know what? I still haven’t gotten through all the endings. I love the idea of it though. The concept that it just keeps going and you never know and that it drives you insane. Even though you think you’ve seen all the ways that it could turn out, there are so many other paths that everything could take. Weird.
Do you have a favourite Black Mirror episode?
I think the first season is probably the best. But, the one about the couple and the dating app. That one really hit me. I was like “Oh my god! This is why I don’t use Tinder!” That one struck a chord. I was like “This is what they’re doing!” But it’s so true. It’s like pairing and data in the end.
I used to think I had a decent grasp on where my data is going. And I really don’t.
I also didn’t really care. But now I’m older I’m like… that’s so creepy! People can make contact with you. Have you seen the other show? Maniac?
How good was that show!
I loved it. I loved the AdBodies they had. It was kind of stuck in the 80s and they’d really annoy and hassle you and sell you things based on your personal data.
What other shows do you like?
I watched You. We watched it all on New Year’s Day because we were tired. We woke up at 5pm that day. I thought it was absolutely crap and that I wasn’t going to watch even half an episode. And then it draws you in and you realise that you’re in it for the long run. It was really scary. It’s actually really good and the way that it’s really rubbish is part of its goodness.
Do you think your process has changed a lot because you wrote your album in such a short period of time? Has it helped you decide what you want to put more time into?
Yeah, in a way. I feel like I’ve laid the foundations for how I want to work for the next couple years. It’s like now I’ve done it one way, I have the freedom to do it the other way. So I know what I’ve done. You have to do your first album at some point. But until you’ve done it, then it’s always going to be “Why don’t I do it like this” or “like this”. Now, at least I’ve got one of the millions of options out of the way. Next time I can approach it in a different way and think about it more consciously. Instead of like “First album! Ah! How do I do this?”
Who would you really like to work with next?
I’m not sure… I want to do a lot more writing before I start working with people again. Or maybe I shouldn’t? Maybe I should just dive right back in.