The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Nilüfer Yanya sings in a remarkable voice as complex as her heritage

Onstage at Black Cat, the London native with Turkish, Irish and Afro-Caribbean roots offered songs that skewed from spare to lush.

HANDOUT: Nilüfer Yanya. (Molly Daniel)

Vocals and electric guitar are at the center of Nilüfer Yanya’s music, and occasionally they’re left entirely unadorned. Yet the London native’s recent album, “Painless,” is intricately layered and sometimes driven by electro beats.

At the performer’s assured show Tuesday night at a two-thirds-full Black Cat, machine-generated rhythms were largely, though not entirely, absent. The bulk of the music was played live by Yanya and her backing trio — a drummer, a bassist and keyboardist-saxophonist Jazzi Bobbi, whose most important role may have been merely to double Yanya’s vocals at crucial moments. The arrangements were simple but canny, and well designed to complement the band leader’s remarkable voice, which is as complex as her Turkish, Irish and Afro-Caribbean heritage.

The Owners kept the Black Cat alive in more ways than one

Yanya’s lyrics are intimate and introspective, while her style combines lounge-jazz balladry with astringent alt-rock. (The 26-year-old credits her older sister for introducing her to the latter.) Yet Yanya makes records in the manner of contemporary mainstream-pop stars, typically co-composing her songs with their producers. “Painless” was mostly produced and co-written by Wilma Archer, and Yanya worked with more than a half-dozen producers on her acclaimed debut album, 2019′s “Miss Universe.” (Bobbi has production credits on one song on each album.) A hankering to do something more raw and spontaneous was revealed by the 75-minute set’s only cover, a rendition of PJ Harvey’s “Rid of Me” that was almost as stark as the original.

Equally spare moments punctuated the other tunes, half of them from “Painless,” but only as brief contrasts to the lusher passages that dominated them. While such earlier material as “Baby Luv” and “Heavyweight Champion of the Year” drew the loudest audience responses, most of the highlights were newer songs. “Midnight Sun” clattered appealingly as Yanya cooed that she “could do with a drop of rain.” The uncharacteristically speedy “Stabilise” had a jittery propulsion that gave the lie to a refrain of “I’m going nowhere.” And “L/R” was a syncopated groove in which Yanya’s voice ascended to its higher registers on its way to a line that, perhaps ironically, endorsed, “whatever makes you happy.” Yanya can’t rival PJ Harvey’s gut instincts, but her carefully crafted songs are capable of cutting loose.

At Black Cat show, Boy Harsher serves synth-based, punky catharsis

At the 9:30 Club, Mdou Moctar’s guitar heroics tower above the rest

At the Black Cat, the Beths mix subtle self-doubt with unabashedly joyous songcraft