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We’re all plenty familiar with the tortured artist archetype, the tormented creative who spends sleepless nights trying to perfect a brush stroke or the wording of a crucial sentence. It’s an alluring concept to be sure, except when you’re an actual artist making actual art. Deconstructing that myth is part of why British singer-songwriter Nilüfer Yanya decided to title her second LP PAINLESS.
“You always have to push yourself and it’s not like it was easy to make a record — it never is — but it doesn’t have to be a drag,” she said.
In other words, making art can be onerous, but onerousness is not a necessary condition for producing something great. And PAINLESS is indeed great — it’s a return to Yanya’s musical roots after her debut album, 2019’s Miss Universe, a loose concept record with a few big pop swings. But it’s also a clear step forward, as she’s thriving in the gaps between different sounds with serious confidence.
“I feel more comfortable writing in between genres, and when they feel more stuck or solid on one or two genres, then that’s when I start to feel a little bit beholden,” Yanya said. “Like, ‘Oh, this is how my music is now.’ I feel more comfortable when it’s more in-between and more vague, and a bit less clear of what it is.”
PAINLESS gets off to a rollicking start with “the dealer.” It’s vintage Yanya, with crunchy drums and clean, almost wistful guitar strumming. But the vocal melody is what makes it stand out — the verses are restrained and beguiling, hinting at a resolution that comes at the exact right time, reinforced by the song’s mammoth bassline. Working with producers like Wilma Archer and Andrew Sarlo, Yanya, an accomplished guitarist, was able to pour more of her efforts into crafting the bewitching topline melodies of the LP.
“There are probably like seven or eight songs on the record that I’m not playing guitar on. In one way, I was returning to what I’d worked on, my music, that naturally happened,” she said. “And, in another way, I was still experimenting because I was doing more of the topline stuff, whereas in the past I’d felt like I wanted to be doing both things.”
Like many a Millennial, Yanya, 26, is aggressively self-aware. She acknowledges that talking about a new album in the present global climate, with all the uncertainty around touring, feels inherently odd. When she notes that she and Archer drew on Nirvana as a sonic influence, she admitted, “That’s not very original” with a wry laugh. (She also cited Elliott Smith as an inspiration for the pensive “company” and t.A.T.u. as a surprising forebearer of “belong with you.”)
She synthesizes these decades-old acts into something that feels fresh and urgent. Part of it is in the tone of her voice. It has appropriately been referred to as “honeyed” by approximately 1,157 different writers, and it’s so rich and emotive that phrases, like “Love is raised by common thieves / Hiding diamonds up their sleeves,” linger in your mind for days. But a lot of it can be traced to the unvarnished way she talks about anxiety, romance and ennui. She doesn’t get bogged down in clouded metaphors and convoluted storytelling, building a ruminative atmosphere through jazz- and blues-flecked chord progressions and dreamy harmonies. These soundscapes help soften the blow of gutting lines like, “Spend a lot of days with these thoughts / Keep them locked away, I can't stop / In some kind of way I am lost / In another life I was not” from the album’s closer “anotherlife.”
Yanya said PAINLESS largely came together “in a really small window” from March to June 2021. She’s candid about the creative process; one of the perks of putting the record together that way is that she is “nowhere near sick of the songs yet,” which will be helpful when she sets out on tour. She’s also endearingly frank about the fact that, with hindsight, not every track that makes it onto the album is flawless.
“When you look back there were some songs in there, there were always some songs that you wish you could shave off the edge. They don’t really matter as much as the core ones and I think there are always going to be a few of those,” Yanya explained. “For me, it’s just about writing and continuing to write till I have this core material at the heart of everything I do, to help me define who I am and what I’m trying to make.”
Miss Universe was widely praised by music critics, with many reviews fixating on the way the album satirized wellness culture, particularly through a series of clever, cutting interludes. In some ways, PAINLESS makes a fitting companion piece, as Yanya said the album is also about “the anesthetized side of things that we want.” On the single “stabilise,” Yanya reflects on the numbing uniformity of gray city blocks. She seems to yearn for something, good or bad, to shake her from a stupor.
“We do want to live a life that’s not painful and we’re always trying to find an easier way to do things and things that won’t hurt. It’s a natural thing, we want to avoid pain, which is a good thing, but it doesn’t always work,” she said. “Most of the time, it doesn’t work.”
But Yanya is careful not to describe PAINLESS as a concept album, in part because she says this collection of songs fit together naturally and didn’t need a connecting narrative. She also pointed out that when one theme in a piece of art is overemphasized in the media, it can make it harder for listeners to create new interpretations.
“I liked the concept on the last record, but the fact that people picked up on it being wellness-based kind of turned it into something else. [That] took away from if you wanted to see it another way,” she said.
Yanya has plenty on the books for 2022, including an international tour to promote the album, slots at high-profile festivals like Coachella and continued work with Artists in Transit, the non-profit initiative she runs with her sister, Molly. She said that she’s grown considerably since entering the public eye five years ago, and has come to terms with the fact that people are not always going to fully grasp her art, though, in characteristic fashion, she knows everything is too uncertain for definitive statements.
“You should probably ask me the same question in two months and I’ll give you a completely different answer,” she said with a laugh.
Grant Rindner is a freelance music and culture journalist in New York. He has written for Dazed, Rolling Stone and COMPLEX.