The first thing you notice about Nilüfer Yanya’s music is her voice. It’s smoky but ethereal, jumping seamlessly between her lower register and delicate falsetto. It’s inviting, but contains a hint of menace, like a gentle ocean surf concealing jagged rocks below.
On her recent album, “PAINLESS,” Yanya’s vocals are often overdubbed, creating an even richer and more textured sound that has drawn comparisons to the great Sade Adu.
But the 26-year-old from London, England doesn’t see herself primarily as a singer.
“It’s weird, because when I started writing my music, my voice was more like an afterthought,” Yanya told the Star in a video call last month. “But on this record… I was really focusing on the vocals and how they sound. I guess I was thinking more like a singer.”
Released in March to near universal acclaim, “PAINLESS” is a masterful and sophisticated rock record, one that makes heavy reference to 90s alternative but feels firmly rooted in the present. Largely co-written with the English producer and multi-instrumentalist Will Archer, it marks a significant departure from Yanya’s 2019 debut “Miss Universe,” a punchy and occasionally raucous collection of fuzzed-out garage-rock.
“It’s kind of got a different identity, a different sound, and the writing style is different,” she explains. “I wanted to make a new album, but I felt like I didn’t have anything to work with. When I started working with Will, everything just kind of fell into place so easily. I wasn’t questioning everything I was doing. It just made sense.”
Until quite recently, rock music felt mostly like a boys club, and in many ways it still is. Perhaps because of her name, or her gender, or her soulful voice, Yanya’s music is often mischaracterized — Pitchfork categorized her record as R & B ”while The Guardian called it“ indie pop. ”
But Yanya is just one of the many women-fronted rock groups — Snail Mail, Wet Leg, Soccer Mommy, Japanese Breakfast, Sharon Van Etten, HAIM, to name a very small sample — who have emerged as the torchbearers of the genre.
“I definitely think there’s been a shift,” Yanya says. “But I feel like women were always making rock music, it’s just that people never made space or never wanted to listen to it before. Like, I don’t think there was ever really a shortage of amazing female rock bands or rock musicians. It’s just that now people are like: ‘Oh, this is cool, and the doors are open. There is a really good scene at the moment.”
Raised by two visual artists in Chelsea, Yanya grew up surrounded by Turkish and classical music, but as a teenager she was drawn to “any music with a guitar.” Scrolling YouTube, she eventually got into 90’s rock groups like the Pixies (she has an excellent cover of “Hey.”)
After releasing her own music on SoundCloud as a teenager, Yanya turned down an offer to join a girl group devised by One Direction’s Louis Tomlinson, opting to hone her skills as a musician and songwriter while maintaining the purity of her indie rock cred.
On “PAINLESS,” her prowess as a guitarist supplies the music with a sense of swagger that counteracts the album’s darker lyrical themes.
“(The album) is about feeling stuck, and feeling like you can’t escape. Like you’re not moving forward,” Yanya says. “There is hopelessness attached to it, like you’re not doing anything right.”
Written and released during the pandemic, the album taps into the loneliness and anxiety of existing in a time that feels severed from the future, and explores the challenge of recognizing and sorting through one’s own emotions.
“There’s nothing out there/ For you and me/ I’m going nowhere/ Until it bleeds” she sings on “stabilise,” her voice cool but pained amid a swirl of frenzied drums.
“What troubles me now if I tear right open /Some people won’t have the faintest notion,” she sings on the devastating track “trouble,” her voice charged with guarded emotion.
“’Painless’ is not allowing yourself to feel something, or not admitting that you feel something, or just kind of numbing your emotions,” she says. “I didn’t plan to make something like this when I started writing, but it all came out quite easily. So it’s quite cathartic.”
The album’s key moment of catharsis occurs midway through “midnight sun,” a fan favorite that bubbles with uneasiness before exploding into a crush of distorted guitars.
“It’s a song about recognizing what it feels like to be pushed down but wanting to resist,” she told Stereogum. “If I could pick what people saw and heard, it would be seeing the beauty of confrontation and the necessity of rebellion.”
Yanya says she’s looking forward to traveling to Canada for a run of shows in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver this month. She spoke to the Star from Austin, Texas, just days after performing two weekends at Coachella.
“The first weekend was a bit chaotic — we had literally just flown in the day before,” she says. “The second weekend was a lot better, though. It’s been so long, and it felt nice to actually play these songs live. That’s what music is all about, really.”
Though she may not be a household name quite yet, her music is finally getting the recognition it deserves.
“I was at this record shop recently, and I was so happy because they had my vinyl under ‘rock,’” she recalls, smiling. “I was like ‘Yeahhh! They know what it is.”