The 23-year-old songwriter talks her debut album Miss Universe, a darkly funny sci-fi narrative taking aim at self-improvement culture
When Nilüfer Yanya unearthed the garish cover of Jan Larkey’s Flatter Your Figure among the debris of a Los Angeles second-hand bookshop, she wasn’t eager to devour the style secrets contained within – seeming, as they do, to recommend dressing like you’ve been vomited out of a Golden Girls VHS and into a Mr Motivator zumba class. Instead, she was fascinated by how preposterous the 1992 book seemed when shorn of its era. “It had all these different, meaningless, empty sayings,” Yanya says. “No one would look at this book anymore.”
The discovery of Flatter Your Figure, an artefact of extremely recent history rendered inherently ridiculous over a short space of time, would prove formative in shaping the ideas within the 23-year-old’s debut album, Miss Universe. Arriving after a number of singles and EPs that have been near-omnipresent in song-of-the-year playlists for the past couple of years, Miss Universe is a concept album with a distinctly sci-fi narrative, set somewhere between an imagined future and an ambiguous past, dripping in macabre gallows humour that takes aim at the vulturous vacuity of self-improvement culture.
It isn’t the most conventional direction for someone known for minimalist indie-soul singles (none of which appear on the album) to steer their debut in, but it’s brilliant, evoking the luxuriously sinister dreamscapes evoked on Goldfrapp’s Felt Mountain, the pared-back, lingering grunge guitar of Martina Topley-Bird, and the exhilaratingly unpredictable tonal shape-shifting of Tom Waits. Yanya speaks of how, after her debut EP Small Crimes earned critical approval for its understated atmosphere in 2016, the ensuing attention seemed like a novelty. It didn’t feel “real”, somehow, to be the subject of interviews and press coverage. But follow-up EPs Plant Feed and Do You Like Pain? only brought more acclaim, attention, and questions, along with a BBC Sound of 2018 nod. “Now, it’s slowly become part of my reality,” she says, “and that’s when it gets a bit weird.”
We’re meeting in a cosy deli around the corner from Yanya’s home in Ladbroke Grove, west London. She was born and raised here, to parents of Turkish and Bajan-Irish heritage. Ladbroke Grove has changed over the course of her lifetime, and it also hasn’t. It still feels like the same Ladbroke Grove where she forged memories hanging out in her nan’s garden, attending carnival, and failing to fulfill her ambitions at the skatepark. Then, sometimes, it isn’t the same: a new upmarket restaurant or cafe appears like airbrushed scene dressing in a Richard Curtis film, and she gets a sense of, “Oh, this isn’t what Ladbroke Grove used to be, it’s what it’s now becoming.”
Yanya attended the nearby Pimlico School, renowned for a music department that would be the envy of any school, especially a state secondary. She would be among the last of the department’s alumni, though. Failing to meet government standards in other areas, Pimlico’s arts funding was gutted and the school turned into an academy, music falling by the wayside. Access to means of creative expression is evidently something that matters a great deal to Yanya – a few years ago, she set up Artists In Transit, an initiative that runs art workshops for asylum seekers in Greece’s refugee camps, with her sister Molly and some friends.
It was material uploaded to Soundcloud in 2014 that prompted snowballing interest in Yanya’s music. She has an impressive vocal arsenal, which encompasses the contemporary London speak-sing indie style, all truncated vowels running full pelt into hards consonants, growls and yelps inherited from The Strokes-obsessed teen years, sultry soul singing honed after revelatory experiences listening to Amy Winehouse and Nina Simone, and an angelic, classically-trained choral falsetto. What’s more, she can deftly shift between them, and has an innate sensibility to know exactly when.
Over chai tea, she animatedly explains Miss Universe’s myriad influences as though she’s a private detective excitedly talking you through a case-wall heaving with newspaper cuttings, post-its and string. Joni Mitchell. Kelis. Frank Ocean. Angel Olsen. Edgar Allen Poe. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Instruction manuals on computing programs from the 80s. Black Mirror. Tube ads for fitness fads. Pop-punk. And, of course, Flatter Your Figure.
Flatter Your Figure’s entire premise presupposes that you, the average reader, have a figure that needs to be flattered, one that would be deemed incorrect in some way unless it’s cunningly disguised beneath enough technicolor monstrosity that it becomes necessarily acceptable to an otherwise-repulsed general public. Yanya argues its fundamental message hasn’t been consigned to history. Maybe you’ve noticed adverts not-so-subtly suggesting you need improving, too: the benignly gurning faces of David Gandy and Tess Daly imploring you to take more vitamin supplements, your Instagram feed passive-aggressively urging you to give yoga a go, apps promising to ‘simplify’ the process of everything from financial advice to fixing complex mental distresses.
“There’s a new style of how to ‘flatter your figure’ self-help,” Yanya says. “It’s all being resold and repackaged to us. It’s like, ‘improving’ for... why? What are you improving? I feel like everything’s always focused on the wrong side of improvement.”
This skepticism began to coagulate with other influences circulating Yanya’s mind, particularly Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. The 1931 novel prophesies a dystopian near-future where people hatch from artificial wombs into designated classes, jobs, and levels of sexual desirability according to society’s predetermined metrics for each. In this world, people accept their trappings not through violent suppression, but through constant distraction and titillation. They are conditioned not to want to experience the gamut of emotion, and instead to only pursue soporific contentment and carnal pleasure.
“There’s a new style of how to ‘flatter your figure’ self-help. I feel like everything’s always focused on the wrong side of improvement” – Nilüfer Yanya
On Miss Universe, Yanya sets up her own self-improvement empire, too, albeit by imagining a fictional company, WWAY Health (We Worry About Your Health), a satirical 24/7 care program: promising to cure its users feelings of inadequacy, loneliness and paranoia by replacing them with pleasurable ‘experiences’. Some of the treatments carry a high risk of melting your body parts, and the website hasn’t been completed. ‘Miss Universe’ herself is a character, an amalgam of an automated healthline response, HAL 9000 and a melancholic version of late 20th century in-store muzak.
Voiced by Yanya (doing her best Siri/Alexa impression), Miss Universe’s announcements are interspersed across the album’s tracks. At one point, she cheerily informs the listener they have “chosen to experience: paradise”; the album then launches into a stark, slow number titled “Paradise”, where stagnating lovers goad one another to take the decision to end their failing relationship. In the album’s penultimate track, a still-chipper Miss Universe tells us that the option to “feel better and (probably) live longer” in the WWAY Health program “no longer exists” and repeatedly advises you to “give up, please. Give up.”
“It’s not like negative, I don't think,” she says, realising that it might seem quite bleakly nihilist at a glance. “It’s not meant to be a depressing or sad journey. I dunno, I think it’s fine sometimes to give up!”
Likewise, on the record, Yanya embraces imperfection. “It’s not so much about making something finished and polished,” she says. “You don’t need to get rid of all the inaccuracies.” Miss Universe is an impressively non-jarring bricolage of sparse indie melodies, minimal soul, scuzzy lo-fi grunge, one consciously Kelis-inspired beat, and whatever else felt right. Saxophone lines gently lap in and out over intricate harmonies. Her fingers savour running up and down her fretboard, with ASMR-pleasing precision. Scruff-of-the-neck verbal pugilism and gnashing guitars build and then diffuse, suddenly, to softly forlorn vocals that crackle with vulnerability in near-silence.
While WWAY Health promises to deliver neutered experience within rigidly defined parameters, the characters on the rest of the album are allowed to feel out the darker recesses of their imaginations, often changing their minds drastically mid-song. Yanya considers “not knowing what the true reality is that you’re existing in,” one of the main themes running through her work. “Clinging on to something that’s, like, ‘real’ – but what is that?” The real comes up several times during the course of our chat, and it's a subject she adopts several intriguing, apparently conflicting positions on. The charade of interviews, talking her jaw sore dissociating even while answering questions about her own life, is taking some adjusting to feel real. So too is some nagging sense of becoming a product within the music industry. She wants to make music for a living, but observes how this necessitates performing live shows – and while she’s grateful for accruing a paying audience, it comes with its own pressures and expectations.
She’s been reading a lot of musicians’ biographies of late, but they feel “too real” sometimes. “I like when something feels more made up.” She’d like to write a sci-fi novel one day. She collaborates with her filmmaker sister Molly on her music videos, playing a cast of costumed characters with arresting disinterest, but she doesn’t want to be the focus of them anymore. It’s distracting. “If I’m putting myself in it, then I'm just thinking about how I look,” Music is about honesty, not the artist looking good, Yanya argues, but videos can become an exercise in satiating that more egotistical desire. “It's not real, it's a real thing!” She and her sister are discussing the possibility of shooting documentaries for her music in future, instead.
“It never really makes any sense, does it? When people talk about their music?” Yanya laughs, reflecting on the course of our conversation, and how it will translate when filtered through the slightly unreal prism of a profile piece. “Whenever I read an interview with someone else, it’s like: ‘What are you talking about?!’”
Reality demands people sublimate themselves to societal expectations. Flatter Your Figure recommends clothes disguise bodies from being noticed. Brands want to empower us by pressuring us to become fitter, more productive, and less visibly (or audibly) unhappy. The music industry encourages emerging acts to simultaneously present as relatably ‘authentic’ and to seem aspirationally, unattainably perfect in their music videos. These are restricting expectations with neutering results – artists becoming interchangeable names on internet streaming platforms, for one.
This all seems false to Nilüfer Yanya. She would prefer to explore the realm of the fictional, where the facade of the real is abandoned, and so ironically allowing for more honest expectations of it. In a way, it does make a weird sort of sense.
Nilüfer Yanya’s Miss Universe is out March 22