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Painless or Painful?

Written by on May 10, 2022

Nilüfer Yanya @ The Roxy [4/21/22]

“I’m not that good at talking on stage,” Nilüfer Yanya proclaims after shrugging off a comment from the crowd. But it’s okay. The crowd isn’t here for the banter. 

As I entered the Roxy a couple hours earlier, I observed that a majority of concert goers were waiting in silence for the show to begin. Although a handful scrolled aimlessly through their phones, most just watched at the stage in anticipation. 

I noticed myself absorbing their energy as I recounted what I knew about Nilüfer Yanya. Yanya was born and raised in London and has been active in the English indie scene since 2016. Although she has made a name for herself in the UK, she is relatively underground in the US. However, her newest album, PAINLESS, presents a solid chance for her to break in the US, as it is noticeably different from everything else she has released. In her previous albums and EPs, her songs mainly consisted of vocals and guitars drowned in reverb. However, in PAINLESS, she utilizes punchier drum beats, layers upon layers of instrumentation, and more visceral lyrics. With this new album, she has garnered more attention within the indie space, as her new releases received critical acclaim and numerous playlist placements. As I thought about this, I couldn’t help but feel that she’s entering a new era as an artist, moving beyond the UK alternative space towards international indie mainstream.

Around 8:15, Turkish psychedelic rock group Altin Gün energetically runs on stage wearing silk button downs and linen pants. They launch into their first number, “Rakıya Su Katamam,” and the crowd is immediately transported back to the ‘70s. There are no major breaks in between songs, and the band keeps the crowd engaged through their electric stage presence. Each member of the band has at least one solo, and Dasdemir dances on stage to hype her bandmates up. To my surprise, they play an encore, and Dasdemir hops into the crowd to dance.

When the curtains close, tension re-enters the room and the crowd inches ever so closely to the stage. By the time Nilüfer Yanya comes on, the room is packed to the brim with fans waiting in anticipation. The lights dim, and Yanya walks on stage nonchalantly wearing a sequin mesh top, jeans, and stompers. She grabs an ombre stratocaster and her band follows, consisting of a drummer, bassist, and synth player/saxophonist. 

As soon as she plays the opening notes of “midnight sun,” her demeanor changes, and her presence as a performer is revealed. In “midnight sun,” Yanya is at odds with herself: she is drowning in sorrow, yet she’s trying to fight back. Her movements are subdued, but she channels a quiet confidence that forces the crowd to listen. The track is relatively minimalistic, yet this simplicity amplifies the desperation in Yanya’s voice. When she sings “You’re my best machine / you’re my midnight sun / always I did it for you,” her voice contains an element of desolation that’s missing from the studio release.

Even though her songs tackle intense themes about love and identity, I don’t feel their full emotional weight right away. Her performance, although powerful, is restrained. Tension swells during lowkey verses, and the pain creeps over me ever so slowly. The emotional release comes during the choruses, when there’s an explosion of drums and saxophone riffs that hits me right in the chest. 

Yanya is at her edgiest during “L/R,” “Rid of Me” (a PJ Harvey cover), and “stabilise.” In “L/R,” a track about a failing relationship, she sings: “take me out to the beach / take off your clothes / whatever makes you happy,” with ambivalent lust. Although Yanya’s lyrics describe lost love, her nonchalant delivery allows her to appear apathetic. The heartbreak is there, but it’s hidden behind detachment. 

After each song ends, Yanya looks down and smiles to herself. Beyond the usual “thank you for being here tonight” and song introductions, she says very little to the crowd during transitions. During these quiet moments, I find myself trying to sort out what’s going through my head. Has she led me to become disinterested? Or am I just pushing the pain away?

Towards the end of her set, she lets down her guard, and I feel safe enough to confront the sadness she’s singing about. With “Same Damn Luck,” she pairs cold guitar riffs with high pitched vocals as she sings, “don’t miss you / miss you.” She’s led us on to believe that she’s too cool to care, yet she finally lets vulnerability take center stage.

She only lets us sit in this sadness for a second, though, before moving to the last two songs of the night, “the dealer” and “In Your Head.” These two tracks are the fastest of the night, with intense drum patterns and ethereal synths. Both describe losing a sense of reality, and the bright, gritty instrumentations amplify the feeling. Yanya and her band drop the build and release pattern and fully let loose, and the crowd is here for it. 

At the end of “In Your Head,” Yanya and her band quickly bow and run off stage, but it’s clear they’re going to come back for an encore. The crowd cheers for a minute, and they walk back on to perform “Crash” and “Heavyweight Champion of the Year.” These songs effectively wind down the leftover energy, as she performs the latter almost entirely on her own. As the final notes ring out, she bows again, for real this time, and casually walks off.

Nilüfer Yanya’s performance dove into the pains of heartbreak and identity while simultaneously avoiding it, and she reached a level of emotional complexity that’s hard to convey on stage. Even though she wasn’t the most talkative on stage, her talent speaks volumes. 

When I entered the Roxy at the beginning of the night, I asked myself, “Is this the moment where Yanya breaks into the American indie scene?” After tonight’s performance, I think so.

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