Nilüfer Yanya’s Backed Up Balance

Reading Nilüfer’s Loud & Quiet cover feature, it was hard to imagine what her music would sound like. She’s supported Interpol, sports riffs that wouldn’t sound out of place in a Hard-fi record, but also has a ‘signature crisp jazzy guitar sound’. How do you make room for jazzy crispness at the NME/Radio 1 stage? And then there’s the conceptual debut album whose tracks each convey different subjective representations of reality, different responses to the same personal problems, whose creation involved weeks of songwriting games (‘today we’re going to pick names out of a hat and try and write a song in another style’), how could such a record make people dance? Artists who balance functionality and concept aren’t unheard of, neither artists who blend and refresh genres, but doing them both so early in your career without reducing your sound to a venn diagram, that’s special.

The week of the gig had been heavy for me, I quit my job and began the search for something new, or to be more precise began the search for a way to stop procrastinating, to have faith that some deeper comfort was on the horizon. I was offered the press pass the day before the gig, enjoyed the first track of hers I found online (I had never followed up that cover feature), and decided not to listen to any more to keep things fresh. The day comes, I cook a couple of big meals to last the week, message a few leads, brush up my blog, lie down for a bit of fretting, watch some Vox videos and head down to the gig.

First off I realise this isn’t in the venue I thought it was. The main room of Earth Hackney, where I’ve been in the past, is grand and ornate, with a slanted audience area. This room is flat and low-ceilinged. Pity, I was looking forward to sitting down. Ah who cares, WHAT a voice that is. The support act Westerman has just started, and is singing this gorgeous rhythmic acapella to a silent crowd. He’s so poised, standing above the crowd in front of a broad white sheet, it’s like he’s pausing to consider the people he’ll never see again as he ascends to heaven.

Half of the crowd, those standing within the crescent of his spell, stay silent after his band joins him. Those outside it chatter intermittently, happy to pause from time to time and soak things up. The band steers a stunted, ambiguous riff up into euphoric perfection, the song finishes and WOOOO’s passionately splutter from the crowd, ‘oh thank you!’ he says. There’s a warm cleanliness to the band, even as the drums kick in I keep coming back to the heaven imagery, it all swells so smoothly. Towards the end of their set they move onto these precious, delicate melodies, ‘staring down the road to nowhere’, ‘confirmation’s easy when you don’t think too hard about it’. In the moment they remind me of Ross From Friends but with the 80s sci-fi tones replaced by crisp 70s warmth, (and sure enough they cite Steely Dan as an influence, collaborate with Bullion and have been remixed by Ross From Friends) but really it’s the those nakedly intimate melodies that set Westerman apart.

The lights go off, I stand around for a bit debating joining a conversation, and then a projector lights up the introduction to Nilüfer’s set, a message from her album’s narrator, the WWAY HEALTH corporation: ‘Our 24/7 care program, we are here for you, we care for you,

… please choose from one of the following descriptions

I felt an abnormal discomfort from the light

I received some spot blindness from the light

There is a sense of being watched

There is a sense of being followed

I often feel alone and a deep paranoia

I often search for validation in others’

She walks onstage and kicks into In Your Head, and man I believe in rock music again. It’s the noisiest thing she’ll play all night, but there’s still that balance; her guitar is thick and fuzzy but light-footed, her voice is dejected and frustrated but clear and precise.

Over the course of the set the sheet behind her changes colour, as she works her way through mindsets. When interviewing her on Beats 1, Jehnny Beth pointed out how comfortable Nilüfer looks in music videos, before noting that this makes sense they’re shot by her sister; she’s among family, and you feel this is the case with her music too. Nilüfer’s love for the Pixies and Strokes came from her older sister, and as the set rolls through progressively spaced out headsets, you can really hear the time she’s put into restructuring sound. I can’t imagine getting such intense, specific feelings out into the open with such grace without supportive collaborators, particularly for someone who doesn’t naturally crave attention. She’s happy to see the audience, but stays consistently focussed on the performance with little chatter; this isn’t about seeking or rejecting validation, this is pure expression

I know I’m giving out a lot of praise right now, but her band are really something. I’ve seen a lot of great performers, but properly backing one up, helping give their world colour without hogging space, that’s a tricky art. You can see it at points when the bassist leans over the drum kit, tightening and sharpening the rhythm. Tracks like Melt and Thanks 4 Nothing have electronic percussion on record, but are pulled into life here by the drummer, who drives the latter track’s angst with a rolling growl of a beat.

They also do the Jazz thing of occasionally stepping to the front of the noise and allowing Nilüfer to play backup, most notably in their cover of Pixies’ Hey. At this point I’ve just realised that I actually *had* listened to Nilüfer before, I’ve loved and rinsed this cover for ages but totally forgot the artist name, and then the band blindside me with something I definitely haven’t heard before, a sax reimagining of that classic meandering guitar line. It’s so beautiful, so packed with moonlight that you really feel like this is the true version for a bit. The saxophonist Jazzi Bobbi was school friends with Nilüfer, and tours with her as a duo when they do international dates.

I stop taking notes in the latter half of the gig; I want to properly relax and, moreover, I’ve got the answer to my earlier question. This comes when Nilüfer’s axe and Jazzi’s sax groove together at the centre of Golden Cage (see 1min14sec above), a brief moment of joyous respite, a moonwalk away from an ex. Watching the band sway in unison, it all looks so easy. In that Beats 1 interview, Nilüfer admitted ‘I don’t really know who I am yet, it’s all part of a journey’, before discussing how she’s started to question why she would need a romantic relationship when her friends are so amazing and affirmative. Well there you have it, that uniquely balanced sound is just the natural product of hypertalented, individual friends helping each other express the world as they see it. It’s mutual support incarnate.