Get to Know Nilüfer Yanya & Mk.gee, The Rising Stars of Pitchfork Paris 2019

Molly Daniels
Nilufer Yanya

Singer-songwriter Nilüfer Yanya and multi-instrumentalist Mk.gee may have been two of the youngest artists performing at this year’s Pitchfork Music Festival Paris, but their distinctive sounds prove that their talent is far beyond their years.

Yanya’s hauntingly powerful voice and soulful instrumentation resulted in the critical acclaim of her debut album, Miss Universe, whereas the juxtaposition between Mk.gee’s funk-fueled melodies and introspective lyrics earned him a fan in Frank Ocean. The best part is: They’re just getting started.

Billboard sat down with each of them at the festival to learn more about their fast-moving careers, musical influences and future projects.

Nilüfer Yanya

Age: 24

Hometown: London

How did you get your start in music?

I've always made music, but I didn't start releasing it until a few years ago. I started playing piano when I was 6 and then started guitar in my early teens, which was around the same time I started songwriting. I would write lyrics in little notebooks and all that. 

What are some major musical influences?

When I was younger I was really into pop punk skater stuff because I just thought it was fun, and then I got into more indie, soul and jazz. I kind of listen to everything. I'm a big fan of the new Brittany Howard record, and I love Blood Orange and Frank Ocean. 

What’s your songwriting process? 

It's kind of like characters, in a way. I mean everything is based on my own experience, but sometimes when I start writing songs it's like a little movie starts. It’s not really my life, it’s more like me in another world. A lot of the songs actually form out of a few words. My favorite ones right now are a lot more open and abstract, where I don't really know what they’re about. But then it turns out that a year later I'm like, “I get it now, this is what it's about.” It’s almost like predicting my future.

You started the nonprofit Artists In Transit, which provides refugees with access to artistic expression and education. How did that come to be?

Artists in Transit was my older sister Molly's initiative, who directs some of my videos as well. She was volunteering in Greece a few years ago and wanted to go back with a better plan and more structure. We tried it out in the refugee camps at first and then we started hearing about these sort of squats, where no one knows that they're there. We started reaching out to them and doing workshops and we've just been going back and getting more friends involved. We haven't done so much music yet, it's mainly drawing, painting, T-shirt printing and sewing. 

What is the main message you hope to convey through your music?

If people listen to it I'm really happy with that, but I hope they can feel something or connect with it. I listen to a lot of music and sometimes music is just like "Oh this is nice, this is enjoyable." But every now and then you get a song or album or artist that kind of hits you, so I'd like to try and do that. But it's difficult, you can't do that for everyone.

What’s next for you?

We've still got more touring. I've got a show in London later this month and then we've got some shows in Spain, Portugal, Australia and Tokyo.

Mk.gee

Age: 23

Home state: New Jersey

How did you get your start in music?

I started piano when I was 6. I used to play classical concerts and showcases, and then eventually my uncle gave me a guitar and the rest is history. I started producing when my mom gave me a Tascam 4 track. Playing all the parts myself just started from a place of necessity, rather than trying to be the star of the show. I was always pretty bad at singing. I liked it, but I had a really high voice for a long time so I didn't like to sing in front of people.

What are some major musical influences?

I can't really distill my whole childhood into two people, but I remember watching the Crossroads Festival on DVD with my family a lot. It was really inspiring to see a whole collective of different artists getting together and just playing for the fun of it. I also grew up with a lot of Steely Dan and the whole post-70s disco yacht rock. When I moved to LA, it definitely influenced my sound because I was introduced to a lot of movements and artists that I wouldn't have allowed myself to give a chance. 

What’s your songwriting process?

I usually start with instruments and then lyrics, but I've been trying to do vice versa the last couple of months. The outcome is just way different and comes from a different place. I'm just like a kid in a sandbox, playing around. I used to be really insecure about the paradox in my music, but I think it's more interesting when music has some sort of paradox because there's no such thing as black and white. Nothing is just a happy story or just a sad story. I think it's interesting to ride that middle line because it does something interesting to the listener.

Frank Ocean played your song “You” on Blonded Radio earlier this year. What was your reaction to that?

It was crazy, man. It was nice to be recognized, but I'm not, like, driven by it. But it's nice to be put on to those playlists. He's my favorite.

What is the main message you hope to convey through your music? 

It's okay to be a paradox of yourself. There's freedom in music and I have a lot of fun making it.

What’s next for you?

I'm hopefully releasing a single for the new year. I'm working on a ton of music and I have a lot of stuff ready, so I'm going to be putting that out in the next year.

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