Nilüfer Yanya basks in restless radiance at August Hall

Photo of Nilüfer Yanya at her concert
Erica Cardozo/Staff

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Nilüfer Yanya may express her struggle to stabilize, but the confessional contradictions and offbeat symmetry embedded in her sparse lyrics and tantalizing musical textures illustrate that the London-based artist is anything but unsure of herself.

Hot off the early March release of her sophomore effort Painless, Yanya has embarked on an international tour with a new collection of frenzied, intimate songs added to her repertoire. On April 20, under the alternating, kaleidoscopic blue and violet lights of August Hall, Yanya electrified a crowd of ardent fans and enthusiastic newcomers alike. 

An intricate, idiosyncratic set from the Oakland-based band Meernaa primed the inimitable, intimate set from Yanya that was to follow. “It’s good to be here. Haven’t been back in the Bay since… the last time,” lead vocalist and guitarist Carly Bond sarcastically said, a subdued half-smile on her face as she endeared the local band. At once hollow and filled with fury, gentle and violent, Bond set the stage ablaze with glittering guitar solos and a soft growl that exuded quiet power and vulnerability — qualities that would linger in the air for the rest of the night. 

After ending its set with an exhilarating electric guitar solo, Meernaa exited the stage as fans awaited Yanya’s arrival in spirited anticipation. Yanya breezed on stage with little fanfare. She exuded a poised serenity and quiet confidence as she and her backing band transitioned straight away into “midnight sun,” a track from her latest album. “I remember everything/ So I can’t take back anything,” Yanya breathed out in her cloudy, contemplative opener under hazy blue and blush-colored lights. Her lyrics, intimate and detached, matched the pace of a beating heart as Yanya excavated the recesses of her feelings toward her lover, questioning the unrelenting care she has shown for them. 

While Yanya’s lyrical indecision and insecurity bled into her second track “belong with you,” this continuing lyrical narrative of self-doubt stood in stark contrast to her assured yet modest stage presence. As Yanya alternated between the piercing (“I don’t even like you, b—h”) and the helpless (“I belong with you, I belong with you”), she closed her eyes and swayed in place to the increasing tempo of the strumming guitar. The explosive, melodic saxophone solo toward the end of the song poetically disrupted the carefully constructed aura of bitter, pensive wistfulness.

Cloaked under the faint blues, pinks and purples, Yanya’s soft vocals and tart, tender stillness allowed the artist to melt. She transformed the state into a site of radiant reverie at the pace of her music’s melodic melancholy. The sparsely set stage behind Yanya — comprising the drummer, the bass player and the keyboardist/saxophonist, all of whom moved slowly to the momentum of Yanya’s murmur — only contributed to the intimate, dreamlike quality of her performance. 

As the tempo of Yanya’s songs accelerated with performances of tracks such as “chase me,” “The Unordained” and “L/R,” the ethereal bubble onstage didn’t pop; it only expanded. On “L/R,” Yanya channeled female fury and resentment, singing, “Sometimes it feels like you’re so violent, autopilot.” The artist oscillated between expressions of emotions and vulnerability, delving into husky vocals and her muted, flowery falsetto. This musical exercise in contradiction, accompanied by a grungy musical production, allowed for a seamless transition to the palpable, paradoxical fluctuations between anger and affection in Yanya’s surprise cover of PJ Harvey’s “Rid of Me.”

Yanya’s performance of the angsty, anxiety-ridden “stabilise” earned perhaps the most raucous response from the audience. The artist’s guitar solo sparked shrieks and cheers from the crowd. “Thank you. How’s everyone doing?” Yanya said, her voice breathless following the performance and mellow against the vociferous screams of the concert-goers. Yanya rode the audience’s high in her segue into the slower-paced “Same Damn Luck.” 

Yanya’s visceral vacillations and anxieties culminated exquisitely in her fast, frantic performance of “In Your Head,” in which, in the midst of frenetic paranoia, she hopelessly implores a potential significant other to open up to her. In an enthralling encore, Yanya performed a stripped-down, acoustic rendition of “Heavyweight Champion of the Year,” trading in the panic of “In Your Head” for acceptance of what she cannot change. 

“Give this one up/ Game over, I’m heartbroken I gave you up,” Yanya sang, before fading away, leaving the August Hall audience to steep in a resigned realization that the onstage reverie was an ephemeral fantasy. Yet, the show’s collective daydream will most assuredly not dissolve, instead remaining poignantly rooted in individuals’ memories as a day they wish they could return to again and again.

Contact Hafsah Abbasi at [email protected].