Nilüfer Yanya and the Revival of Nineties Grunge

The British musician’s latest album <em>PAINLESS</em> is a modern tribute to old-school sounds.

“You are amazing,” a voice calls out from a darkened crowd. Several scattered “whoop”s echo agreement.

Nilüfer Yanya smiles, mostly to herself, while retuning her guitar. Awash in purple light, she stands centre stage at Vancouver’s Fortune Sound Club, halfway through a set of electro-indie, grunge-inflected tracks. Drums kick in with breathtaking force, and a bouncing bass reverberates through the chests of the audience as Yanya dives into the next song. Her voice, sparse yet forceful, dances across fast-paced guitar riffs, evoking both raw emotion and restrained power.

 

 

The British singer-songwriter is almost at the end of a world tour following the release of her sophomore album PAINLESS earlier this year. The 12-track album is a maturation, in sound and subject matter, from her earlier projects—including 2019’s debut Miss Universe, a concept album that satirized the wellness industry. PAINLESS probes more vulnerable territory, heartache in tracks like “belong with you” and “chase me” and faces inner sadness in “trouble” and “midnight sun.”

The album was born out of the pause for air that was quarantine. Following the tumult of Miss Universe’s immediate success, 2020’s lockdown was a period of stagnancy for Yanya. PAINLESS “came out of being uninspired,” she tells me ahead of her Vancouver show, recognizing the irony of finding creativity in being uncreative.

While Yanya’s music exudes the same disregard for genre that new music often does, there is a distinct sense of good old-fashioned rock in her songs. In a time of resurging nineties sensibility, her songs both pay homage to old-school grunge and mirror current nostalgia.

The 27-year-old grew up listening to rock music, she says, but her mother only allowed her to take guitar lessons if she learned the cello first. She was introduced to the genre by her older sister, Molly, who has directed all Yanya’s music videos. “I really liked skater rock. It was quite big at the time, like 2001 to 2003,” she recalls. “Then I got more into indie bands like the Strokes, then it was singer songwriter kind of stuff, like Elliot Smith.”

 

Elements of all her inspirations can be heard in her songs, which amalgamate rock, jazz, and pop. But right now, her biggest musical inspiration is the Pixies. “I’ve always liked the Pixies not just for their music but for their lyrics. It kind of doesn’t make sense. It’s a bit abstract. And it’s always nice to have that there as a reminder that music doesn’t always have to make sense in the most obvious way.”

When it comes to her own songwriting, Yanya chooses that sense of abstraction to avoid exposing too much of herself. Her lyrics come out in short bursts, sparse in words but heavy on emotion, reminiscent of the energetic pop-punk songs of the early aughts. “[Vulnerability] definitely will come out a lot easier in my songs than in conversation,” she says, explaining that she finds it easier to express emotions through her music. Still, she is deliberate about not oversharing in her lyrics. “It’s like you’re putting yourself out there, but you’re also going into yourself.”

That push-and-pull of reserve and emotion is manifested on stage. In the slices of silence between songs, Yanya—a self-confessed shy performer—seldom speaks to the crowd. Not that they mind: the gaps are filled with cheers, song requests, and cries of adoration. But when the music starts, a swell of energy permeates the venue, and Yanya’s explosive power comes through, unbound and undeniable.

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