When I phoned 26-year-old English singer-songwriter Nilüfer Yanya in early March, she had just finished a soundcheck for a concert in Belfast, and was exactly a week after the release of her terrific new album, PAINLESS. The LP – a sequel to his highly acclaimed 2019 debut Miss Universe — was so widely and immediately acclaimed that even Fork, the notoriously hard-to-please music pub, couldn’t resist offering her their long-awaited Best New Music label. Although the many stressful obligations associated with releasing an album were starting to kick in as we spoke – solving live staging issues; the many upcoming tours; promo (sorry) – a sense of gratitude was inextricable from the impending turmoil.
“The dust is settling a bit, I guess, around the initial excitement (of an album release),” Yanya told me on Zoom. “And you’re like, ‘ok, like, I’ve got a lot of work to do, a lot of gigs to play – I’ve got a lot more songs to learn.’ It’s still exciting. I’m very grateful to be able to release this record, especially, in the midst of everything that’s going on in the world. I know I’m really lucky to be releasing music.
Although the title PAINLESS is in itself a nod to what it was like to write the album, the onset of the pandemic understandably dulled Yanya’s creative desires for a long, sweltering window ahead. Although she released the three-song EP Feel lucky? at the end of 2020, that year was largely devoid of writing – an artistic limbo, according to Yanya, created a kind of backdrop for the songs that were soon to end PAINLESS.
Producer Wilma Archer, with whom she had worked on a handful of songs for Miss Universe. Because Archer brought with him a good sense of his artistry, Yanya said that early on, when she was still trapped by writer’s block, he would often come up with ideas so in tune with something. that she wrote that it already sounded like her music.
“When me and Will started writing, it was so good,” she recalls. “I really liked it. And I think it was just very instinctive…we know what we’re looking for, or how the other person works and how the opposite reacts.
While PAINLESS features key contributions from Bullion, Andrew Sarlo and Jazzi Bobbi, Archer became Yanya’s main collaborator on the album. Almost all of his 12 tracks – moving seamlessly from din to swoon and finding their focus in raw edgy lyrics driven by Yanya’s muscular, emotionally taut vocals – were produced and co-written with him.
Yanya describes the LP as an album “about emotion” and considers it to be more intentional and focused than Miss Universe. Seasoned with comedic phone message interludes from a fake feel-good company, this adventurous, genre-blending 17-track concept album sounded like the arrival of a big one for most critics (this writer included). But Yanya finds it difficult to join the choir. Looking back, what strikes her is how her younger self spilled too lightly with Miss Universeof his many collaborators, going through touring and promotion exhaustion as he went. (Miss Universe followed by a handful of well-received EPs.)
“I wasn’t really able to deliver something that was, like, focused and a real album,” she said of Miss Universe. “(Now) I’m just like, ‘this sounds crazy’ – like, this sounds crazy.”
When she hears people notice PAINLESS’ sound accolades from Miss Universe, she pinpoints change primarily on the ability to focus more, give more consideration to decision-making, and not feel obligated to say yes to every suggestion offered. PAINLESS however, by most standards, almost all of his work was completed in 2021, in less than a year. Yanya said she still feels a long way from fully experiencing the conditions she considers crucial when making an album: getting out of her normal environment for an extended period of time, planning well in advance, and “really, really (take) my time”.
Yanya looks PAINLESS now as a necessity to encourage him to move on and write again. For the next record, she would like to escape the fast pace of her previous two, and also get into production. It was something that had interested him ever since PAINLESS but, because “it fell so far off the wagon creatively” leading to its making, was dropped to give more attention to the writing. For now, however, she is relishing in a gift that not so long ago seemed only a distant possibility.
“You remember why music is such an important thing,” Yanya said of being able to perform live again. “When you connect with the audience, everything has meaning.”
Buy tickets for the Nilüfer Yanya show in Seattle here.