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Nilüfer Yanya: “I never used a pick until I recorded my first album – it needed to sound angry, and I didn't want to break my fingers!”

Nilüfer Yanya
(Image credit: Mike Lewis Photography/Redferns)

The name Nilüfer Yanya is one you’ll find in many ‘ones to watch’ lists for this year – and with good reason. The young Londoner released her debut album, titled Miss Universe, in 2019 and last year’s Feeling Lucky? EP further intensified the hype around her name. 

She started 2021 by performing on NBC’s The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon – her first, and certainly not last, taste of primetime international exposure... 

“It was cool,” smiles Nilüfer, talking to Guitar World from her home in West London.

“They asked us at the beginning of the year and we just had to pull together a video and submit it. That was it, really. I guess they just have a booker and that person found me. 

“That said, it did feel crazy. America feels so far away and it’s so big, I never really thought about what the radio or TV stations are playing there. It kinda feels like once you are on YouTube, it’s endless. 

“There are no borders like there are in real life. But America is a big audience and big market, so it’s kinda mad there are people out there listening to my music.”

And as for the buzz around her latest EP, she remains equally as humble (“it’s been a great reaction so far, for just three songs I’m pretty happy with it”). 

In her first interview with Guitar World, we uncover her favorite tools to create with, the mix of influences at play and that time she politely declined being in a band being put together by a member of English-Irish pop group One Direction...

Take us back to the moment you decided to pick up the guitar?

“I think that was always the way it was going to be. I was obsessed with guitars before I could even play them. I was attracted to how they looked and sounded. When I started writing, playing and singing, it all happened at the same time. 

“I had already started on piano, and I did try writing with mainly that, but it didn’t really feel the same. All the parts of my songwriting – both singing and playing guitar – grew together.”

Was there a specific hero who you looked up to or idolized?

“I think it was the image of the instrument itself. It’s just so iconic in general. You could see anyone playing guitar and think ‘That’s cool, I’d like to do that!’ or a band, any band, to feel like that. 

“It wasn’t really specific for me. I didn’t really see many female guitarists growing up, it was mostly men. I think the first female artist I remember seeing was Lianne La Havas... and she’s really really good. I was probably around 16 at the time.”

I didn’t really see many female guitarists growing up, it was mostly men

One of your new tracks, Crash, features some pretty grungy power chords that aren’t a million miles away from Nirvana...

“I really love Nirvana but when I was growing up I never really listened to them or heard them. I guess I missed it. When I was really young, I was listening to anything I could find – mainly pop music at the time, so a lot of RnB, plus a lot of skater rock anthems. 

“That was about it, there wasn’t a huge amount of music I was hearing. That just grew into indie, like The Strokes and bands like that. I was kinda rolling with the times I think, and then after that I got into artists like Jeff Buckley and Nina Simone, and other types of soul and jazz. It’s been a very natural musical progression.”

And though you were using a Strat in the Crash video, you’ve been mainly been sticking with the Jazzmaster seen in your Jimmy Fallon performance...

“I ended up using that Strat for that because my sister thought it was a better color! But yeah, at the moment, that Jazzmaster is definitely my main instrument. I had always played a Strat before that, it’s been a nice change for me. I don’t really know much about guitars other than the ones I play. 

Nilüfer Yanya

(Image credit: Scott Kowalchyk/CBS via Getty Images)

“There’s not a wide range of stuff – like I’ve played a Telecaster but never owned one or played one enough to get to know it. And the same goes for Mustangs. I actually really want to get back into nylon-string guitars, something a bit more simple. I like how they feel and the softness of the sound. I’m so used to playing electric that I think it would help push my playing in a different way.”

So are you more of a fingerpicker at heart?

“I’d never actually used a plectrum until I recorded the first album. A lot of it needed to sound a bit rougher and angrier. I needed a pick to get that across, otherwise I would have broken my fingers [laughs]. 

“I like being able to do either. It’s annoying when you feel you can’t play a song because you don’t have one. Some songs just sound better with them, I guess they just need it.”

And gear-wise, you’ve been spotted playing through a Roland JC-22 Jazz Chorus amp with some Boss pedals...

“The amp is probably my favorite piece of gear. I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever bought. I got the smaller one and it’s small but could still fill a stadium. You never need it on full volume… ever. I keep it at one or two, even for live shows the absolute max I turn up to will be three. 

I’d never actually used a plectrum until I recorded the first album. A lot of it needed to sound a bit rougher and angrier. I needed a pick to get that across, otherwise I would have broken my fingers

“I love the chorus and reverb too, it’s just such a good sound. I have the Boss DD-3 digital delay… it sounds really good and it’s very reliable. Then there’s the blue MXR Analog Chorus, and I also have an Electro-Harmonix Canyon Delay, which has a lot of different effects on it. 

“I always use delay, I guess! I recently got a Big Muff pedal, which is what I used for the Jimmy Fallon performance as the main tone. The fuzz seems to be working better for me right now. 

“And those are all the pedals I’ve ever used. I only got a pedalboard together when I was touring in 2019. Before that, it was just a few in a bag thrown on stage. I’m still experimenting with them.”

Another one of your new songs, Same Damn Luck is quite a minimalist track and still experimental...

“It’s a pretty simple song, but deceivingly so. It’s actually pretty tricky to play. We were doing a session yesterday and the guitar part is just a loop – I didn’t write it, my friend Will did – but I love how deep and lush it sounds. 

“So it’s the same thing the whole way through and feel so easy, but when you’re singing high in the chorus, if you lose focus it can fall apart really quickly.”

There’s such a mix of influences across the songs you’ve released so far – from electro-pop to rock to more jazzy/world kinds of music...

“I guess it’s a mix of different things. There’s definitely the angsty, grungy or rocky sound present, this energy that I use as a vehicle. The rock side is the energy source. And then that kinda influences the style of writing. 

“Sometimes I’m writing something and feel like I really need to strip the lyrics or melodies, pulling it back into something less like a poem and more like a bunch of words that randomly make sense together. 

“And then I guess a lot of it is built on a pop structure, they are pop structures but on some songs it’s just nice to play with that, break it down and mess around. I’m really into shorter songs at the moment. 

“The ones that go on too long I always notice it – in retrospect I could have trimmed them down or taken parts out… but you’ve always got to write them in the first place!”

We read that you’d been invited to be part of a pop group being put together by Louis Tomlinson from One Direction and turned it down – definitely the right decision considering how well you’re doing now...

“I think I told someone once in an interview and it’s never left me alone since then [laughs]! It’s a funny story and it all happened very quickly. It was around four years ago, when I had demoes on Soundcloud. People would email and I’d get back to them feeling excited. 

I’ve never had a thing for groups that are put together… you can just smell it from a mile off. It doesn’t really feel like a natural thing

“This one person got in touch saying they had a proposition for me but couldn’t tell me on email and that they’d give me a call. So they called and said it was something really exciting but they couldn’t tell me on the phone, I had to come into the office. It was a management company so I thought it could be good!”

So naturally you had to find out more...

“I turned up and there were two guys who said they were starting a girl band, but not a typical girl band, looking for the best musicians in the country. They were saying I was one of them, bigging me up like that, and saying they wanted me to have the main role. I asked how it would all work and was told they would get auditions done, then get us writing and recording in the studio. 

“I wanted to find out more about the writing because I only write my own music, I didn’t really see myself singing other people’s songs as a full-time job. And they told me it would be fine and this would set me up for the rest of my career, saying I would have three or five albums out in five years, touring the world and being a massive success. I asked who was behind it all and they couldn’t tell me. 

“So I told them I’d let them know and never got back to them… it was just too good to be true. Straight away, in the studio and touring an album, expecting everyone to love it. 

“I’ve never had a thing for groups that are put together… you can just smell it from a mile off. It doesn’t really feel like a natural thing. But they were trying to drag me in, saying I should stop what I was doing because this would set me up for massive success.”

Nilüfer Yanya

(Image credit: Molly Daniel)

And how did it all end?

“A bit later I was in my manager’s office and this guy walked in… I really recognized him and it was one of the guys from that meeting, who was interning. He told me that I made the right decision and it was the guy from One Direction. 

“In the end he decided he wanted to move to America and do something there instead. I think he had a girlfriend or a baby and moved to LA. When he was telling me I had made the right decision, I was thinking ‘You’re an evil person trying to convince young people to do something else!’ 

“I wouldn’t have been any good at it either. It’s flattering for someone to tell you those things, but I genuinely don’t have the energy to stand on stage in front of people doing that kind of thing. I’m not that kind of person. I don’t have it in me. If you do that, great, but I would have fallen apart!”

Fair enough! So what else can we expect from you this year?

“I’m trying to write my second album. Hopefully I can finish that and maybe tour next year. No one could have foreseen the pandemic. I was actually bracing myself for more touring – which I do love, but also has its own toxic elements and gets in the way of writing in the studio. 

“So I was getting myself mentally ready for that and then everything just stopped. The main thing right now is to keep myself motivated and inspired. That’s all you can do! When you come out of the other side of this, you don’t want to feel exactly the same...”

Nilüfer Yanya's latest EP, Feeling Lucky, is available now.

Amit Sharma

Amit has been writing for titles like Total GuitarMusicRadar and Guitar World for over a decade and counts Richie Kotzen, Guthrie Govan and Jeff Beck among his primary influences. He's interviewed everyone from Ozzy Osbourne and Lemmy to Slash and Jimmy Page, and once even traded solos with a member of Slayer on a track released internationally. As a session guitarist, he's played alongside members of Judas Priest and Uriah Heep in London ensemble Metalworks, as well as handling lead guitars for legends like Glen Matlock (Sex Pistols, The Faces) and Stu Hamm (Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, G3).