“There’s something insidious about it,” Nilüfer Yanya says over the phone from her hometown London. The burgeoning 22-year-old songwriter is talking about the uncanny Valley-like introduction to her excellent new record, Miss Universe, called “WWAY HEALTH,” which sounds like an automated message from a dystopian healthcare provider. “Thank you for entering your details and welcome to WWAY HEALTH™, our 24/7 care program,” the anonymous narrator says. “We are here for you; we care for you; we worry about you so you don’t have to.” It sounds like the premise for an episode of Black Mirror, or an unused voiceover from the futuristic 1976 film Logan’s Run.
“Living in a city, you’re constantly bombarded,” Yanya continues, explaining how she came up with the theme for her not-quite-concept album. “Wherever you go, there’s an advert waiting for you. Everyone’s very jaded, but at the same time, it’s being shoved down your throat. You don’t really realize the way it’s being intertwined with your normal daily life.”
Yanya’s idea for how to tie Miss Universe together came after the album – which was written over the course of a year, while on tour – was basically finished; she thought it might be nice to have a story to really drive it all home. At first, she considered making it a guided meditation, but the songs’ darker themes, and her love of sci-fi, led her to create an eerie self-help guide instead. The narrator of this guide, she says, could be the titular Miss Universe character, it could be Yanya, it could be you. “It could be a coding, or a voice of society, norms, and pressure. All those things as a whole. Control.”
She’s intrigued by the way the concept of “self-care” has become an “industry and trend,” the way we, as consumers, buy into the doctrine of the best self. We’ve gone beyond the capitalist-driven desire to be at our healthiest – now we must be healthy and happy. “Everyone has to be their best all the time in every aspect,” she says. “We’ve talked about it so much, thought about it so much, we’ve disconnected ourselves from it, and from ourselves. It’s now just another thing to get. I find it condescending, always being told how to live your life in a way. It’s distracting.” You can’t buy happiness, Yanya notes. “If you want to be happy, you have to make real big changes in your life all the time, and adapt so you can feel free but still involved.”
These notions of health and happiness are all over Miss Universe, but Yanya is especially interested in the grimmer side of it. On the chorus of her 2018 hit, “Baby Luv,” a dark love song, Yanya asks, “Do you like pain?” (It’s also the title of the EP.) The song’s counterpart on Miss Universe seems to be “Tears,” a dance-y track about raw, emotional desire, on which she sings, “I’ll be lyin’ in a pool of someone else’s blood/ Sayin’ it’s not my fault if somebody gets hurt.” Yanya thinks a lot about pain, and how it’s generally viewed as a negative experience.
“Most of our lives, our day-to-day, is built around trying to avoid difficult things,” she explains. “People want to make their lives easier, more comfortable, and more relaxing. But if everyone’s cutting off their feelings, and you can’t feel your own pain, how are you going to understand anyone else’s pain? How are you ever going to care about anyone else?” (She later notes that the nonprofit she runs with her sister, Artists In Transit, which provides creative workshops for refugees in Athens, is a source of great fulfillment.)
Yanya addresses this on one of her interludes, too, the one called “‘Sparkle’ GOD HELP ME,” in which the voice asks you to complete a “quick online survey” about your feelings: “In my last experience, I felt: A) Extreme pain, B) My first impression was sparkle, C) There was no noticeable discomfort, D) I felt nothing.” The interlude, which is almost like a mini song, comes before “Safety Net,” a melancholic, synthy song about regret and wasting time; and after “Melt,” a jazzy, swaying tune Yanya wrote after returning from a festival and thinking about why people might use inebriating substances. “I bet your brain cells won’t last/ I bet they cling to the trash,” she sings. “Goals to be fit/ Goals to be sick.” The melting image – a motif employed across the album – came from witnessing someone so intoxicated they looked like their brain might be softening.
She’s not sober, by any means (she sings about getting high on both “Heat Rises,” a serious jam about messy affection, and “Paralysed,” a dreamy bop of a breakup track) but still, it makes her think. Why can’t we let loose, be open, say what’s on our minds, more easily? “What are we thinking?” she asks. “What are we doing the rest of the time?”
That’s just one of many questions Yanya has on Miss Universe about human interaction. On the album’s first song, the supremely groovy guitar pop track “In Your Head,” she asks, “How will I know if it’s real?” Singing about the need for validation, and feelings of paranoia and confusion, it’s possible she’s pleading to a lover, but it could be anyone – and mostly, it’s about getting wrapped up in yourself. The song’s video, which Yanya made with her sister, like she does all of her visual accompaniments, is meant to represent “all the psychological versions of yourself,” Yanya says. “The id, the ego, the super-ego, and a future self. It’s about being contained in your own head, not being able to escape yourself, no matter what point you’re in.”
“Monsters Under the Bed,” which Yanya originally wrote at 15 for her sister’s film project about their grandmother, who had bipolar disorder, is similarly hinged on ideas of selfhood. “They all say I’m not okay,” Yanya croons, over a straightforward and poignant guitar hook. “Such a shame/ Never felt so good/ They all think I’m someone else/ Not myself/ But the feeling’s good.” The verse is one of the most striking on Miss Universe. It may have been inspired by her grandmother’s struggle with mental illness, but it’s a universally relatable, ultimately uplifting notion of perceived image versus what’s really going on inside yourself. And – aside from it being chock-full of absolute bangers – that’s what makes Miss Universe such a rewarding listen, and Yanya such an endearing talent.
Nilüfer Yanya will be playing the Highsnobiety Soundsystem Stage at Melt Festival this July. For more info, head here.
- Words: Leah Mandel