Nilüfer Yanya’s Guitar Heroes

As she releases her second album, Painless, the West London artist reveals the strummers and shredders who have inspired her.

Nilüfer Yanya is a magical guitarist, wringing all sorts of six-string wonders from her instrument. This jazz-inflected artistry is all over and turned (deftly) up to 11, on the 26-year-old’s brilliant second album, Painless, written and recorded with producer and fellow guitarist Will Archer.

On recent single Midnight Sun, they get grungy. On L/​R, the Londoner flexes dexterous fingers on a saz, the stringed folk instrument she was introduced to as a kid by her Turkish dad. Opening track The Dealer boasts flashes of riffing at which Johnny Marr might cock an appreciative eyebrow.

Ahead of the album’s release and a heavy spring touring schedule here and in the US, THE FACE met Yanya for tea in Soho and quizzed her on her all-time favourite guitarists.

It’s just a great instrument,” she says of the musical first-love she picked up aged 12. When you see someone playing it and joining all the dots, it’s special. When I see and hear that in a musician, everything makes sense.”

Lianne La Havas

I could really relate to her. She was my first actual guitar hero. I just loved the way she was playing and the connection she had with the music – it wasn’t two separate things. I also liked the way she brought jazz into her music. I hadn’t seen anyone else really do that. The only other person I can think of [like that] is Amy Winehouse – she used to play guitar, but then she stopped.

Dave Okumu

He was actually my guitar teacher at secondary school [in Pimlico] from Year 8 for a couple of years, then he left to pursue his band projects [including the Mercury-nominated The Invisible]. Seeing him play, it’s so exciting. Again, he’s a jazz guitarist, so concise and so clear. And the energy is spellbinding.

Joey Santiago

Pixies don’t sound like other bands – they made their own sound, and I don’t think anyone has ever been able to replicate them. And they still sound really new. When I heard Hey as a teenager, it was a euphoric moment. All of a sudden I was hearing all the guitars I had been dreaming about. A lot of things made sense in that moment in a way I can’t really explain. The linear kind of playing really speaks to me.

PJ Harvey

I loved Rid of Me. One of my teachers played me that song when I was 15 and I didn’t really get it at the time. I knew I liked it, but I couldn’t get my ear around it. In the back of my head, I knew I had to go back and listen to it. It was just weird and really striking, but her execution of it was really simple. I love all her rhythms and the raw tones. She’s also an inspiration as a performer with just voice and guitar – I watch a lot of her live versions of songs and, again, I find it really reassuring to see the connection between the guitar and her voice.

Elliott Smith

He’s well-known for his finger picking style and choices of chords, and I love his soft, angelic playing. And there’s a lot of space [within it]. You have to be a really confident player to do that. He has a different kind of depth and richness. I also love the speed and energy his playing often has. I know people find his music very melancholic and sad but I find it very uplifting.

Shirley Tetteh

She’s a jazz guitarist in London who plays in lots of different bands. I first heard of her when I saw her playing with [indie band] Juice. I loved them! They put out an EP and then seemed to disappear. Afterwards, she actually gave me some guitar lessons. She helped me learn to read music, but then interpret it in your own way – because I was really terrible at that! She’s someone who has that technical skill and understanding that helps you make really interesting choices.

Adrienne Lenker

She’s in Big Thief. I love her stuff in the band, but also her solo stuff – she does a lot of instrumentals. Like Elliot Smith, I really connected with her. Her playing in Big Thief is maybe more dynamic. I love them as a band, but there’s a lot going on in their songs. Her solo stuff is more [simple], just really nice songs. And I’d love to be as prolific as they are! But I think I’m getting there.

Will Archer

It seems crazy not to include Will as he wrote and played a lot of guitars on my new record. He has a very resourceful style of playing, like just using the bottom three or four strings. That’s my favourite thing, because for me that’s where you get all the good tones.

I think I had some kind of musical depression throughout most of the pandemic because writing wasn’t really happening for me by myself, and even less so guitar. But working with Will on these songs has helped unravel that and I’m seeing the light again! Learning the guitar parts he has written is giving me my confidence back. I’m inspired.

Painless (ATO Records) is out 4th March

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