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Nilüfer Yanya's music is a family affair
The artist Nilufer Yanya in London, Feb. 25, 2022. The British musician has long collaborated on videos with her sister — her new album, “Painless,” stems from exploring her lineage, and what exactly it means to “be from somewhere.” Adama Jalloh/The New York Times.

by Lindsay Zoladz



NEW YORK, NY.- Sometime last year, while on vacation with her two sisters, British musician Nilüfer Yanya was listening to the mastered recording of her second album, “Painless,” for the first time.

“We were getting really excited,” her older sister, Molly Daniel, recalled on a recent video call, especially about “Stabilise,” an antic number built atop a guitar riff as intricate and tightly wound as a labyrinth. “I was like manically dancing around and directing the video,” Daniel said, “Like, then you run here, then you’re on a bike, then you do this, then you’re in a car.”

Eventually, Daniel did direct the video, in which Yanya jogs and cruises around London while insisting defiantly, “I’m not waiting for no one to save me.” The collaboration was an extension of the powerful role family has played in Yanya’s music since she first picked up the guitar — a gift for a teenage Daniel that landed in her sister’s hands. “Each time you’re pushing the limits in your head of what you can achieve and what you can do together,” Yanya, 26, said in a separate video call. “My idea of what’s possible and realistic now is so much bigger than when I started out.”

Many of the lyrics on “Painless,” Yanya’s excellent new album out Friday, deal with what she described as the connection between your “environment and the way you feel or the way you think about something.” It was created at a time when Yanya was reexamining her lineage and her ties to her homeland, an experience that forms an unspoken undercurrent connecting these songs.

Yanya’s parents are both visual artists: Her mother is a textile designer and her father is a painter whose work has been exhibited in the British Museum. Daniel — a filmmaker, photographer and creative director — has directed every one of her sister’s music videos, beginning with the moody, low-budget clip for “Small Crimes,” from Yanya’s 2016 debut LP. Her younger sister, Elif, is a visual artist and designer.

Calling from her manager’s office in London on a February morning, clad in a kelly-green turtleneck sweater and wired earbuds, Yanya recalled weekend family outings in West London and sketching in museums, but added that her upbringing wasn’t completely bohemian. “When people say, ‘Oh, you’ve got artist parents,’ they imagine you painting on the walls and being real hippies,” she said. “But they were quite strict, serious about homework and school.”

Once Yanya got ahold of the guitar, she played constantly. When she started performing at local shows and open mic nights, Daniel glimpsed a part of her sister’s inner life that she’d never before seen. “It’s like, oh, there’s this whole side of you that we don’t know,” she said.

In conversation, Yanya is soft-spoken and thoughtful but not necessarily shy; Daniel described her as “calmly confident.” (And tirelessly musical: “She hums 24/7.”) Since her first EP, “Small Crimes” from 2016, Yanya’s music has often sounded like someone’s private stream-of-consciousness externalized in the legible grammar of well-crafted melodies. Her singing voice can move deftly from a low, smoky hush to a suddenly impassioned wail.




Yanya’s breakout came with her acclaimed 2019 album “Miss Universe,” an eclectic collection of spiky indie-rock, singer-songwriter meditations and even a few jazz-influenced compositions. The album’s sounds were so varied, Yanya said, that she decided to come up with a thematic concept to tie it all together. And so “WWAY Health” was born — a fictitious self-help service that allowed Yanya, in surreal and darkly hilarious interludes spaced throughout the album, to lampoon modern wellness culture. “Congratulations, you have been chosen to experience ‘paradise,’ as a part of our What Will You Experience? Giveaway,” she intones in a robotic voice on one such track. “Don’t forget to leave a review in the comments section.”

When she began writing “Painless,” though, she wanted the album’s through line to be not thematic so much as “a more cohesive, signature sound.” Skittish electronic-influenced beats, textured guitar tones and introspective lyrics are woven together on “Painless” to create an immersive listening experience. The songs are enlivened by subtle flourishes and small moments of upended expectations, like the guitar distortion that blossoms after the final chorus of the record’s centerpiece “Midnight Sun.” “In some kind of way I am lost,” Yanya sings with a stirring mix of melancholy and hope on the affecting final track. “In another life I was not.”

“Painless” was created when Yanya was reconsidering her family history. Her father is Turkish, and moved from Istanbul in the 1980s to work in London’s art scene. Her mother is of Irish and Barbadian descent, and the ancestors on Yanya’s maternal grandfather’s side were enslaved. Though she always knew this, Yanya said it has recently caused her to think more deeply about her own sense of place, her relationship to England, and what exactly it means to “be from somewhere.”

After George Floyd’s murder, Yanya’s aunt was inspired to research and map out their family’s history more meticulously than ever before, and even to meet with the living ancestors of her family’s enslavers. The experience affected Yanya deeply. “I used to feel like my family’s history wasn’t necessarily tied into the history of this country, and I felt I didn’t have as many ties to where I was,” she said. “But now I’m seeing those ties, and they’re a bit more insidious than I’d imagined.”

On Instagram, Yanya has publicized the work of Tteach Plaques, an organization that seeks to “contextualize statues, buildings and institutions enriched by the trans-Atlantic slave trade.” In August, Tteach installed a plaque in Bristol Cathedral honoring the life of Yanya’s great-great-great-grandfather John Isaac Daniel, who was born enslaved to a British family that owned sugar plantations in Barbados. The exhibit featured photographs and biographies of his descendants, including Yanya and her siblings.

Before this reckoning, Yanya and her family also sought to demystify the process of making art. In 2015, Daniel started Artists in Transit, a program that provides art supplies to communities in need. Before the pandemic, Daniel and Yanya were bringing art projects to migrant families in Greece, and in the past two years they’ve been focused on outreach closer to home, in London. “You can make a career” out of art, she said, “and you can make jobs out of it, so it should always be an option for everybody.”

Her family members continue to set this example for her, and even as Yanya gears up to release and tour her second full-length record, she remains curious about art forms other than music. Last year, she took an evening printmaking course taught by her father at a nearby college. “You’re learning how to print onto metal plates, etching into it, and using acid,” she said. “It’s a very technical process, so that was really cool.”

What best prepared her for a career in music, she said, was getting to observe her parents in the everyday rhythms of an artist’s life: driving to shows, unpacking materials, hanging paintings. “You can kind of see the labor behind it that you don’t really think about,” she explained. “As I was growing up, seeing how much time they put into their work and practice really solidified in my head that this is work and it doesn’t really stop. It’s not something where you get somewhere and you stop doing it. It’s constantly going on, and constantly changing.”

“It just seems like a waste of an opportunity not to work with my family when I can,” she added, “because everyone seems to make cool things.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.










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