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Music Find your place with singer Nilüfer Yanya

Dec. 22, 2020
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Find Your Place is a series of conversations and photographs with artists in their homes, captured online. It examines the current intersection of the physical and digital, sharing perspectives across different cities. Each discussion explores the theme of identity, creativity, and how we find our sense of self.

First in the series is musician Nilüfer Yanya. Her debut album Miss Universe last year garnered critical acclaim with beautiful, electrifying songs held by earthy yet surreal lyricism. Punctured by intersperses of almost dystopian narration, the album sits in a tier of its own, holding a place in your mind long after the tracklist pauses, carried by the echoing stitch of Yanya’s voice. On December 11th she released her EP Feeling Lucky?—a compilation of three songs encapsulating thoughtful, lyrical genius wrapped around eclectically designed tracks.

For our interview, Yanya and I discussed what her adolescent soundtrack would be, creative influences, and the advice she would offer her younger self. 

Adolescent Content: How do you feel this year has changed your creative practice?

Nilüfer Yanya: I haven’t done much creating this year, which is probably one way [it’s changed]. I’ve been thinking about my work in a new way and looking at it from a different angle—the backseat instead. It’s been really nice to be able to chill on a sofa but because it has been such a weird year in so many ways, it’s also been stressful. 

Adolescent: What are some formative experiences that influenced your style as an artist?

Nilüfer: I started piano when I was really young, so having [music] constantly in my life has given me a sense of continuity. I haven’t had to pause and think [about it]. I feel quite lucky, because I’ve had the luxury of being able to keep music in my life. I think sometimes when you take a break from something, you miss out on a lot of things. Life happens. 

I also didn’t go to university, which has definitely influenced the way I’ve lived and thought about things. Music has just been a priority. Both my parents are artists, and everyone in my family is a creative person, so that’s been a big influence on the way I have decided to do things. 

Adolescent: What songs do you think would make the soundtrack of your adolescence?

Nilüfer: I used to do that a lot in my head. I used to walk to school and be like “if this was a movie, this is my soundtrack that’s playing. This is the beginning of the film.”

I used to really love Blur, The Strokes, and The Cure, so maybe one of their songs. As I got older, I remember being at home with my imaginary record player, which I didn’t have—it was just YouTube [and listening to] smooth soul stuff and being like, “Yeah I’m a grown-up now.” So, I also feel like a Nina Simone record for the end of the adolescence, or maybe a Jeff Buckley song. 

Adolescent: Good picks! When you first started releasing songs, you were approached to join a girl group but chose a different path. What advice would you give to young creatives about trusting their gut, even if it feels like you’re turning down “the right thing to do”?

Nilüfer: Mainly I would say just try to focus on the part of what you’re doing that makes you enjoy it. There’s a lot of pressure in so many ways. 

As long as you focus on the music, or whatever it is that you’re doing, everything tends to fall into place. But it’s so hard—be patient as well. Things take a bit longer than you expect. When I was 18, I was like “I’ll have an album out in two years.” And it was five years. Trust the process.

Adolescent: What did you enjoy about creating Feeling Lucky?

Nilüfer: I work with my sister, Molly Daniel, and she does all the videos. We managed to get to Greece to shoot a music video which was nice, I didn’t think I was going to leave the country this year! My mum and sister were art directors, and my cousin was filming.

Adolescent: Is it nice working with your family in that environment? If it’s someone you’re really close with, do you feel more comfortable sharing a creative vision?

Nilüfer: For me, it’s like, if you know these people and they’re in your life, why wouldn’t you work with them? I’m lucky that my sister loves photos and she has a really great eye. That’s her passion, and mine has been music. We’ve been able to join those. 

Adolescent: You’ve shared work from the non-profit project Artists In Transit. For those that don’t know, how would you describe the project? 

Nilüfer: It was my sister’s idea and started in 2016. The idea was to use art as a form of showing solidarity with refugees. The focus ended up being a lot on children because the first time she went to Greece to do a workshop with children who were refugees, they were really drawn to it. Since then, there’s been a big focus on children’s art and activities. It’s whatever they want to do and whatever we can raise the funds [for]. A big thing for us is trying to keep transparency and making it a community project. Helping people in other countries, but also making sure that we are doing the work in London, so that it can be moved anywhere. It’s hard to do but recently we’ve gotten lots more friends and people involved. 

Adolescent: You’ve spoken about the influence of growing up mixed race. To see someone talk about that perspective of not always feeling confident in one identity or the other—because you’re a mix of these different things—is always refreshing to hear as someone who also has mixed heritage. What advice would you give to your younger self trying to navigate those feelings?

Nilüfer: For me, personal identity is a journey. I feel like I’ll have a different perspective on who I am in 10, 20 years’ time. You tend to gloss over things you don’t want to include in the way you see yourself but whatever you try to gloss over now, you’re going to have to come to terms with later. Sometimes you feel some sort of fear or shame or disconnect from things you feel like you shouldn’t be connected to. Try to push past that.

The more love you can give yourself now, the better. Just try to enjoy being all these different things as much as you can, because there’s so much. 

Follow Nilüfer on Instagram.

Follow Artists In Transit on Instagram.

This interview has been edited and shortened for clarity.