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Nilüfer Yanya’s perfectly poised pop

The west London singer-songwriter explains the magickal thinking behind her new video ‘Thanks 4 Nothing’

Nilüfer Yanya isn’t indecisive, she has trouble making decisions. For her new video, the 22-year-old songwriter enlisted the help of Stargate, a peculiar card game she’d found in a charity shop, to steer her through some major life choices. If you’ve never heard of Stargate before, think of it as a gateway drug for the tarot-curious.

“The idea is you lay these cards with symbols on the back to help you to work out decisions,” says the west London native of the magickal thinking behind her new video “Thanks 4 Nothing”. “I was actually using it the day before the shoot. We were having a session, and I was like, ‘This would look really cool in the video!’”

On her last EP The Florist, Yanya was caught in a quandary: still half-in love with the person she knew she needed to leave, she couldn’t resist dwelling on what might have been: “If you could go back to that place, I would still feel the same,” she confesses over woozy sax on the halting, swoonsome “Golden Cage”. It’s an emotional masochism that resurfaced on last year’s breakout “Baby Luv”, whose perfectly weighted pop belied some messy thoughts: “No one sees it, so unfair / how you’re still beautiful when you comb your hair.

Now, Yanya seems finally ready to wash that ex right out of her hair. In the new video, she attempts to break free from a sinister cult, the song building from sorrowful bossa nova glides to an ominous, rumbling bridge that suggests a Big Rock Chorus is about to break, before ceding the floor to silence. It’s got all the quiet mastery of melody and dynamics that’s made Yanya one of the more intriguing talents to emerge from the capital this past few years, able to evoke King Krule and the Pixies in the same breath as Sade.

“It’s about me being part of this cult but wanting to opt out,” says Yanya, musing on the video’s meaning. “You know when you’re in a relationship and you feel like you want out, but you can’t really escape? When you’re feeling kind of bitter about it, like ‘Why did I mess myself, it clearly wasn’t gonna work out?’”

Yanya, born in west London to Turkish and Bajan-Irish parents, is just as you’d imagine from her songs: bright, confident, and worldly enough to shrug off the praise that’s come her way of late (“It’s like it’s real but it’s not real,” she explains). A self-professed introvert who claims to “kind of shrink” in group environments, she nonetheless possesses a low-key charisma that invites you to listen more closely.

You’re living at home with your parents right now in Chelsea, is that where you grew up?

Nilüfer Yanya: Yeah. I was actually born in Ladbroke Grove, that feels more like home to me than Chelsea. My nan and all my aunts live there, it’s got more of a community. Chelsea’s been sold out so quickly. There’s nowhere to hang out; everywhere’s closed by ten. My sister jokes about it, she says they’re gonna put a roof over all of Kensington and Chelsea and the whole thing will be a mall. It’ll be one big gated community!

Your parents are both artists, right? What kind of stuff do they do?

Nilüfer Yanya: They both do mainly printmaking at the moment, but he mainly does abstract paintings of people, and my mum does more abstract, colourful stuff… Er, pieces of art… She won’t like that, haha! I did wanna do art, it was either that or music when I was doing my GCSEs but by the time I’d started my A-levels I knew what I wanted to do.

“Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about this image of a mother and her child... this idea of loving something so much you’re scared you’re gonna suffocate it, but you can’t release your grip” – Nilüfer Yanya

Was there a first song you heard where you remember thinking, ‘I could do this?’

Nilüfer Yanya: The first one was the Pixies’ ‘Hey’ (which Yanya covered in 2016). It was one of my teachers at school who played me the song. You know when you just feel connected to something? I was like, ‘This is exactly the kind of song I want to write.’ Just the sparseness of it, the rhythms... It was the same with The xx’s ‘Crystalised’; I remember hearing that song in the playground at school. It’s kind of insinuating something rather than saying, ‘This is what it is.’

You’ve been compared a lot to artists like Sade and Amy Winehouse, are these artists you’re inspired by?

Nilüfer Yanya: Sade I got quite a lot early on, but I only listened to her after (people made the comparison). Amy Winehouse’s music was kind of everywhere at one point, but I was never really into it until I heard the first album, Frank. Learning more about her life and career, she didn’t seem to like that album so much – I think she was quite upset about the production, maybe there was a power thing going on there. But it was just so different from the perception I had of her before, it really blew me away.

What are you listening to right now?

Nilüfer Yanya: I’m listening to a lot of Joan Armatrading, Tori Amos, a lot of Kate Bush, who I’d never listened to before. I really like that song, Ba-ba-ba… ‘Babushka’? I was gonna say baba ganoush. Like the aubergine dip.

Ha! Delicious, but entirely a different thing. How far along are with your own album?

Nilüfer Yanya: It’s getting closer. Some of it I’ve recorded but I’m still at the writing stage really. I’ve got maybe five or six songs that I’d be happy to put on it, but I also wanna see what I write now. I write mainly on my own, though I’ve been writing with some other people recently. But I try not to do loads of that, because I think it can take away from what you’re about.

You once said you write with characters in mind when it comes to your lyrics, is that true of the new songs as well?

Nilüfer Yanya: Yeah. It’s not like I know their whole story, I can just see a person doing something. I don’t know if it’s me, or if it’s someone I know really well... It’s probably just me, isn’t it? (laughs) Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about this image of a mother and her child. I’ve got this song called ‘Angels’ which I actually stole from a poem, ‘Annabel Lee’ (by Edgar Allen Poe). In the poem, this woman has a baby she loves so much, she’s holding it while dancing across the room and she holds it so tightly she stops him from breathing. It’s just this idea of loving something so much you’re scared you’re gonna suffocate it, but you can’t release your grip.

Are your parents very overprotective?

Nilüfer Yanya: I think so, yeah! But in a nice way.

“I like the idea of writing something and not really knowing what it’s about till afterwards” – Nilüfer Yanya

You started an initiative with your sister, Artists in Transit, to help refugees in Greece. What did you do out there?

Nilüfer Yanya: We were basically doing art workshops; we just turned up with loads of art equipment and did whatever we planned to do that day, like sewing, t-shirt-making, painting... It’s weird how normal a lot of it feels. My sister works with children from mainly refugee backgrounds here (in the UK). It was just reading about everything that was going on and wanting to do something positive, something that was non-political in a way. Just trying to look past the barriers that are already there. These people are making lives for themselves literally out of nothing. They don’t have a job or a school a lot of the time, they haven’t got permanent status, but they’re still very much alive and these communities are built very quickly. It definitely makes you think hard about what you’re doing, like, ‘What is my life over here?’

Your songs are generally written from a very intimate perspective, would you consider writing on a slightly bigger scale?

Nilüfer Yanya: I think it might even go smaller. I feel like the more personal a song gets the easier it is to put anywhere; it could mean so many different things without saying this is what it’s about. I like the idea of writing something and not really knowing what it’s about till afterwards. I think that’s more powerful, personally.