Nilüfer Yanya’s partnership with her sister Molly Daniel drives her visuals and inspires activism
Words: Angus Harrison
Photography: © Jake Millers
It’s the golden hour. The afternoon dips behind blocks of flats, drenching Chelsea in eye level sunlight. Singer-songwriter Nilüfer Yanya has spent the day with her sister, film-maker Molly Daniel, her creative partner in the worlds of music, film and activism. The day’s final cup of tea in hand, we sit in the light of a window to discuss life as collaborators and siblings.
With the release of her widely praised debut album, Miss Universe, earlier this year, Nilüfer’s grungy soul has been more in demand than ever. She’s spent much of the past couple of years away from home, touring in her own right as well as supporting the likes of Interpol, The xx and Mitski. Molly – responsible for her sister’s neon-streaked music videos and unmistakable visual identity – has just quit her job in order to refocus on filmmaking full time.
Until early last year, when Nilüfer moved out, the room we are sitting in was a bedroom, originally for her and her three siblings – four of them, stacked in bunk-beds. Molly gestures over her shoulder, “that was my corner”. You wouldn’t know it now. The space has been reclaimed by their mother, Sandra, as her studio. It’s covered in every direction with books, materials, pencils and paints. It’s cluttered, in a freeing sort of way, as though every inch of space has been put to use. The sisters huddle in front of Molly’s MacBook, hand-drawing ideas for tour visuals which they bring to life through design and video editing, overlaying imagery onto lo-fi camcorder video footage shot earlier that day.
The room certainly carries memories for the sisters. As the oldest two of four (Nilüfer 24, Molly 30), the pair recall how their comparative closeness in age meant they bonded ahead of their siblings. Before they shared a room, Molly used to kidnap Nilüfer and carry her to her bed for storytelling and midnight feasts. “So many penny sweets,” Nilüfer says, the memory rushing back. The pair possess the sort of closeness that can only come with memories: easy and unsaid.
Having artists for parents meant the lines between work and play were blurred for them as children – art wasn’t a hobby, it was a fact of life. Their mother, in particular, drew them into her world, encouraging them to create as soon as they got home from school. It’s a creative bond that extends well beyond their household. Much of Miss Universe was produced at her uncle Joe’s studio in Cornwall – the place she recorded many of her first songs as a teenager. “All our family get togethers are always spent discussing what we could do together,” Molly adds.
It’s hard then, for them to pinpoint the moment they started collaborating. “There was always something,” Molly reckons. “I’d say: ‘shall we take some photos today?’ Do you remember the ones we took with the projector on you?”
“I was your muse!” Nilüfer adds with a laugh.
As they grew older the nature of the projects grew more serious. Molly made a documentary about their grandmother for her Contemporary Media Practice degree at Westminster University, and asked Nilüfer, then 15, to soundtrack it. “Nils had a song I thought was really nice,” Molly says, “so I asked if she could change the lyrics with our nan in mind.”
“So I did,” Nilüfer says. “It’s one of the songs on the album. Monsters Under the Bed.”
When asked what their first project proper was, they cite the video for Small Crimes, the first single Nilüfer released in 2016. There was no question about Molly directing the video, Nilüfer says. “I wasn’t going to ask anybody else, that wouldn’t have made sense.”
Despite using modern software in post-production, Molly’s visuals paired the song with a lo-fi, glamorous grit. It’s an identity that, while developed, has remained consistent with Nilüfer’s music since. You get the feeling through all their collaborative work that they are constantly imagining and creating, able to capture moments of inspiration and bring projects (musical and visual) to completion wherever, whenever by opening up her Mac and getting to work. An achievement considering the circumstances. “We had no budget,” Molly explains, “like £100, so it was a case of: this is the idea, this is the money, let’s see what we can make.” Their work emanates a feeling of freedom and adventure – reflective of a modern partnership which spans disciplines and mediums, able to move between cutting music videos, developing album artworks, creating performance backdrops and designing still imagery at the click of a button while touring the world.
Like the cast of British artists carving out their own lanes celebrated in Apple’s latest campaign, the sisters’ collaborative spirit has placed them at the forefront of UK music. They now have a growing roster of videos for Nilüfer’s singles, each one as vivid and distinct as the music it accompanies; from the glitzy Americana of In Your Head to the chilly cityscapes of Baby Blu. Molly likes Nilüfer to be involved at every stage, doing away with traditional notions of “talent” and “director”. “Your label and managers trust us, so we don’t have to deal with people checking in,” Molly says to her sister. “The artist doesn’t always get that freedom.”
Nilüfer adds: “I guess we just established that from the beginning, and showed them what we could do with nothing.”
It’s a privilege they’ve been afforded through the efficacy of their working relationship. Throughout Crack Magazine’s day with the sisters, the quiet, unassuming support they offer each-other is constantly perceptible. Sat behind the laptop, the pair sift through visuals for Nilüfer’s landmark US shows – effortlessly editing hypnotising videos soundtracked by the spoken interludes on the album. They barely need to speak to know whether or not an idea is working; between them they just know.
It’s an intuition they relied on heavily during their work as Artists in Transit, a project created to deliver art workshops to people in times of hardship.
Molly had the idea after a trip to Greece volunteering with her brother in 2015, and set about devising workshops that could be delivered to unaccompanied minors in Athens’ refugee camps. The organisation did four trips last year – Molly has been out eight times in total – and are steadily building an artistic community in the city’s semi-permanent squats and camps. Nilüfer helped take the project to Athens in 2017, where they spent much of their time at a squat in an abandoned airport, working with unaccompanied minors – a stay that culminated in the production of a zine, which has since been sold to raise funds for future work.
It was a challenging project, that required more than they’d previously asked of their relationship. “By the end of the trip we weren’t even talking,” Molly remembers, “we’d being doing a group workshop, surrounded by ten kids doing sewing and just using sign language, simple words. Scissors… pass.”
The work in Athens was massive for them both, giving them new respect for what art, and each-other, were capable of. “[Volunteering] really changed my course of life,” Molly explains. “That sounds really dramatic but it did. You start doing something and it opens up this whole world.”
“Until you talked about going to Greece, I just didn’t think it was something I could do,” Nilüfer tells her sister. “I thought you had to be a certain type of person with certain qualifications. You don’t.”
Tea drained, our conversation winding down, thoughts return to old videos and first songs. Molly’s Jack Russell Chihuahua Coco nudges the door and scurries into the room, bringing with her living room chatter as it floats down the hallway. “I’ve just remembered what the first thing we made actually was,” Nilüfer groans.
“I know,” Molly adds, a laugh catching.
The truth isn’t so embarrassing; a live session filmed in their uncle’s studio in Cornwall as teens – the same place Nilüfer would record her album years later. The pair insist it’s been removed from Youtube, but the reluctant fondness with which they remember it speaks to the why they work so well together. An artistic bond that dates back further, perhaps, than they’d care to remember; but is always looking forward.