Heavyweight Champion of the Year? Nilüfer Yanya Live in Concert
Brace yourself for incoming, obsessively-referenced fandom: Laura Snapes never steers me wrong. She’s my favourite music writer.
From the punishing beats of Marie Davidson through to the apocalyptic folk of The Weather Station, she has expanded my musical world through her taste, her advocacy, and her irresistible prose. Her excoriations of Ed Sheeran and Morrissey were bracing displays of critical sanity, and as an interviewer and author of profiles she’s made me feel closer still to some of my favourite artists: Christine and the Queens, Charli XCX, HAIM. She triggered the abhorrent Mark Kozelek, whereupon he showed his ass. In March of 2019 I read the following words of hers, and an obsession was born:
In some ways, Nilüfer Yanya’s career maps onto that of King Krule: Both young Londoners arrived with stark, bruised elegies led by their electric guitar and urchin cries; both quickly eclipsed their early promise. But where Archy Marshall swerved towards solitary murkiness, Yanya, on her debut album [Miss Universe], has shocked her desolate confrontations into some of the most adventurous pop-rock crucibles since Mitski’s Puberty 2. They are catalysts for communal outpouring that spark with adrenaline and anxiety, a mixture of the raw and the refined, her guitar fuzz mingling with tinselly synth glitter and the bluesy disaffection of her startling voice.
A King Krule I could enjoy listening to? A second Puberty 2? How could I not? I must have played the album immediately, and by the end of the first spin I was completely taken. Here was an essential new artist: a musician of searing intensity, and a songwriter of intense vulnerability.
In March of 2022 I finally got to see her perform live. And not a moment too soon — my flatmate Will and I were supposed to see her as part of Pitchfork Festival London back in November, but circumstances thwarted our attending. While the Electric Brixton gig was a fine show, it wasn’t the rapturous experience that I had hoped would crown an affair of three years. In fact, of all the gigs I’ve attended since the restoration of live music, this was the first that felt routine — even forgettable. Since early 2021 I’ve found uplift and transport at shows by Peggy Gou, Little Simz, HAAi, Floating Points, Idles, Black Midi, Caribou, Caroline Polachek, Mogwai, and Rina Sawayama. Each of these felt like an event, a celebration, a consummation. Nilüfer, on the other hand, put on a more ordinary display. Quite aside from whatever was going on in the musician’s life or mind on this last UK date of her European tour, I think there are two factors at work here.
First, it’s not Nilüfer’s fault that I’ve had this long to fall this intensely in love with her music. In this I clearly wasn’t alone. There was a lot of love in that room. A lot of enthusiasm, and a great deal of patience too: not just for the lengthy pauses she took to tune her guitar between songs, but also for the two idiots behind us who insisted on shrieking along to every song. Off-beat, off-key, and about 80% word-perfect. The crowd also extended every welcome and courtesy to Léa Sen, the sweet but soporific support act best known as a voice on Joy Orbison’s debut album. This brings me to my second factor, which has to do with the format of the rock show itself. Doesn’t this whole ritual look tired and clapped out to you too?
The best combos of support and headliner can turn a gig into a miniature festival, or they can make the last two acts on a festival stage feel like a double header. One of my favourite examples of the former I experienced at the Roundhouse in 2015, when Another Eternity-era Purity Ring were supported by an emerging Empress Of. Later that year, the last night of Glastonbury was seen out by the one-two punch of FKA Twigs followed by Flying Lotus. Even sitting at my desk and remembering how delirious and giddy I felt on those nights seems unfair to Sen. I can’t help feeling bad for her. It’s a bad gig — both in the sense of assignment and jamboree — to have to precede Nilüfer, with all her rockers and bangers, with a set of dinner party music.
Surprising to think that the pair had an entire set of UK dates under their belt. There was no sense that the artists had put their heads together and thought about how their sets might combine to become greater than the sum of their parts. Never mind the hallowed highlights of years past; recent gigs provide ready examples of greater harmony. There was a more palpable sense of concordance between Rina Sawayama and Hana, between Caroline Polachek and Jockstrap. At that latter gig, my friend Toby likened the support act’s vibe and attitude to an open rehearsal: shambolic, welcoming, and utterly charming.
The other night in Brixton saw Léa Sen buoyed by the energy and warmth of the crowd’s anticipation of the main event, but she was serving up the kind of inconspicuous moodscapes that people felt at liberty to talk over. Not my tempo — I caught myself using the time to tally accounts and attempt squaring Situationism with Objected-Oriented Ontology, which is another story for another day. Anyway, her music wafted through the space atmospherically enough, she duly shouted out the headliner at the correct intervals, and if she was good enough for Nilüfer then we’d applaud politely.
More and more I find myself vulnerable to the effects of a desultory support act. It can be devastating. My pep isn’t what it used to be: grad school (my gig-going prime) feels like a long time ago, and Sara and I had both had long days at work. Times like this when I find myself most sceptical about the whole gig experience. Watching an artist like Léa Sen makes me wonder whether mere talent is enough. Probably not, but it seems to suffice for Nilüfer.
Now, I absolutely adore this woman’s music — so grateful was I to Laura for switching me onto Miss Universe that I sent her fan mail — but maybe I love her best as a recording artist. That incredible first album, the wonderful singles collected on Inside Out, and the brilliant new full-length Painless already amount to an enviable body of work. It’s as though Benjamin Clementine had just kept giving and giving, rather than vanishing into abrasive abstraction before reappearing on Caladan. It doesn’t feel like a premature stretch to say that she’s got that full Joni Mitchell thing: as recognisable by the shapes and patterns of her chords as by the texture of her voice. Some are frustrated by her marble-mouthed diction; I find myself utterly beguiled by how the slurring smudges her lyrics — an impressionistic blur framed by her guitar’s harder lines.
Perhaps the most painful thing I can report is that seeing Nilüfer live felt like an inessential experience. A lesser one, even, than listening to her records, because nothing was revealed of these songs that studio wizardry had concealed from us. If anything, there’s more to these songs than can be realised by a band of four — even one including fan-fave saxophonist Jazzi Bobbi (so essential to the whole shtick that Nilüfer brought her along for her Colors Show). It’s not that the simple chords that open Baby Luv were mumbled and fluffed, or that patter was minimal even when she was taking her sweet time tuning her guitar. Her rendition of my favourite track, The Unordained, was illustrative. The song can’t help sounding a touch thin in this sort of live presentation. On record, there’s that Imogen Heap-like effulgence to the vocal treatment, as well as tight, massed multitracking. Not even adding sax to the outro makes up for the loss of production — that sense of cohesion and propulsion that binds together that episodic composition.
There’s a comparison to be made with HAIM, and it ought to be made compassionately since Nilüfer is younger than Alana. Her songwriting may be more complex and achieved than the sisters’, but there’s no question that they rock harder live, that they put on an honest-to-god show, that you can’t take your eyes off Este’s facial contortions. For goofy better or worse (at Glastonbury 2017 my friend Amy and I were in heaven, while most of our friends found them unbearable), the sisters’ live energy doesn’t let you miss Ariel Rechtshaid’s polished productions. I live for the day I get to experience Danielle playing the solo on FUBT.
No doubt Nilüfer will only continue to mature as an artist, grow more confident and present, and write even more glorious music. Give it a few years, tell me where she’s playing, and I’ll be there.