Fulya Özlem Interview

Sean Parker: You have been operating as frontwoman for the Fulya Ozlem Band for some years now, and you’re known as one of Istanbul’s more unique (multi-octave) voices. Can you give our readers a fuller history?

Fulya Özlem: Well, I started music as a child, playing the violin in the Turkish Classical Music style when I was 8. Then after a couple of years I discovered Rock and then Heavy Metal and soon found myself asking my grandma: “Hey, why don’t the washing-machines have a program for ‘blacks’? All my clothes are black!” Then I discovered Bob Dylan and the singer-songwriter scene when I was about 16 and my fascination with Pentangle, Sandy Denny, Fairport Convention, Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell among many others began.

Soon afterwards, I started studying Philosophy at Bosphorus University. There I formed a couple of bands and finally settled for our little Folkfish Duo. I was singing Irish, Scottish and English folk ballads and playing the violin at Folkfish. We did a small world tour with Folkfish, we played in folkclubs in Edinburgh, Dublin, Galway and became the homeband in O’Donoghues in Dublin, appeared in RTE, and such stuff. They were calling me ‘the Nightingale of Grafton Street’. Then we returned after a two-year tour in Asia, Australia and Europe and I started an MA in Philosophy while writing songs in Turkish for the first time. It was as if my childhood and its songs were coming back to the surface.

Then I recorded my first album Buz Kraliçesi, my own compositions arranged by Cem Tuncer and played by many great musicians. Afterwards, I had the first depression of my life, Buz Kraliçesi was a good album but nobody seemed to have heard of it. It was my first encounter with the ‘frustrated artist syndrome’ so to speak. Anyway, I had already begun to be interested in South American Music, folklore and tango as I was learning Spanish. That year I went to Argentina, got some tango singing lessons and fell in love with Argentinian music and folklore in general. In the meantime, I had received my MA degree in Philosophy, so I was free to wander about the globe again. I got back from Argentina to İstanbul and started a PhD at the State Conservatory of Turkish Music in Music this time.

I had the South American melodies and Nueva Cancion Chilenaon my mind and Turkish Maqams and rhythms in my heart or vice versa I don’t know. So, I started writing songs in Spanish with South American motives and rhythms, but with a huge Turkish music influence on them. They somehow blended in really well. Then I went to a philosophy conference in Berlin in 2008 for a week and ended up staying there 3 years. There I met great musicians and started playing my own songs with Fulya Özlem Band, the old ones as well as the new ones with the Latin influence. In the meantime I was learning new genres, forming new bands; it was a great time of musical flourishing for me. In 2011, we formed VENTANAS with Patrick Zeoli doing Renaissance Music of Spain alongside folksongs of Andalucia and the like.

A short time afterwards, I met Chilean musicians in Berlin who were the musicians to play my Spanish songs with: Rodrigo Santa Maria and Luis Barrueto. They are amazing musicians and we clicked and finally they came to Istanbul last year to record my new album ALBA, the one with my Latin influenced, Turkish-centered songs in Spanish and Turkish. You will soon hear a lot about this album cos it will be released in October, 2014. So that’s about what has been till now. Oh, and I founded Taş Plak Kumpanyası, an ensemble playing songs from the Gramophone Era, getting more and more popular in Turkey. I am always writing new songs, my newest niche is Greek Music, traditional and Rembetiko since I now speak Greek and hang around in Mitilini playing oud and singing on the street.

Sean: What would you say are the challenges facing a comparatively independent-minded, female solo artist working out of Turkey in 2014?

Fulya: Mediocrity. Mediocrity is a huge challenge. You know, when you create, you do not really create to be appreciated by others, “you don’t play for the tribunes” as we say in Turkish; it is quite the contrary: your creation is the unique expression of the way you feel. When I write a song, I write it exactly the way it is because I do not know how to do otherwise, that is how I express myself, I am not going to simplify my way of being into shorter or more understandable sentences or more repetitive melodies. Not that I write long sentences or atonal melodies or anything. But my genre simply is not similar to something known, at least in Turkey, so this “weirdness” of my music makes me all too peripheral, I do not belong to any circle, any clique, and sometimes it feels a bit lonely being a local weirdo that way.

Another huge challenge is the “music market” and the “music mafia”, so to speak, from media to musicians and the audience; it is always the same bunch of people who get to play everywhere and release their albums and play the festivals etc., if you are outside this circle, it is almost impossible to get your music heard. And after a while you get tired, you stop and ask yourself: “Hey, am I a musician or manager, what was my job, to create, to work hard to make it sound better or simply to promote?” I’ve left it to destiny now, if people hear my music and want to hear more, fine, if not, to hell with all the promotion business.

Sean: What is the Berlin connection?

Fulya: I lived in Berlin from 2009 to 2012 playing my own music with Fulya Özlem Band and several other genres such as Rembetiko, Spanish Renaissance Music, Ottoman Music, Tango and the like…I still have my bands active there, I go on and off to play concerts with them , I will be in Berlin in November to play some concerts with VENTANAS and we’ll do the CD release party for ALBA soon in Berlin.

Sean: What did the Gezi protests of summer 2013 mean to you, and particularly in reference to the current political situation in Turkey?

Fulya: Oh, I get all emotional when I hear the word “Gezi”. For the first time in my life, I felt that I had a country, I felt that I belonged somewhere: in Gezi. I discovered what funny, intelligent, big-hearted, great people there are in my country. I mean, there was suddenly this solidarity, people uniting for their right to hug trees, for their right to a little fresh air in the city, there was suddenly this little piece of heaven where everyone were equal, there were almost no sexism, misogyny or homophobia, no capitalism or consumerist culture, it gave me so much hope…I have seen it happen, I know now that another world is possible, at least in the company of such amazing people.

In reference to the current political situation, then and now, democracy in Turkey has been understood as the majority’s oppression of the minority since we follow a majoritarian tradition. If from the beginning of the establishment of Turkey, a pluralist democracy had been in power – as it should ideally have been – we wouldn’t have had any of the political problems which are central to Turkey right now.

Sean: You have also expressed yourself through writing and journalism. How do you tie this more ‘objective’ discipline into your music?

Fulya: It is not an “objective” discipline, maybe only superficially so. Writing is quite personal, I was writing quite personal columns actually, be it on culinary traditions of the world, on musicians or on Urban Legends of Istanbul, I always wrote about what I felt like writing. And I kinda quit journalism when I got bored of it but I still do write, and a lot for that matter. I have a theory about the relationship between writing good lyrics for our songs and our background education which shapes our thinking. Here it goes: Everyone has feelings, artists are the lucky ones that get to express their feelings via an art form. If that art form is music, you need good technical knowledge of music to make good quality songs and a good theoretical background to understand the perspective through which your emotions have an impact on you. If you are gonna write a song about fear for example, your theoretical background – philosophy, sociology, physics, architecture, anything – helps you find what aspect of fear you want to talk about in your songs. The more specific the aspect is, the more personal and “catchy” your story can get. And as in any story, since your song is also a “story”, the golden rule is to tell a very personal story in a way that everyone can identify with.

Sean: Do you think social media has been a positive or negative influence on art and music? Moreover, what is your position on technology in creativity in general?

Fulya: Well, at the beginning there was boredom. Now there is Facebook, converting all your necessary hours of fruitful boredom into strolling through Facebook. And that is bad, all the great creations happen as a matter of mind-boggling amounts of boredom. Einstein must have spent a million hours staring at the ceiling before he came up with the general and special theories of relativity. Well, I am joking of course but Social Media is not an independent medium either as most people think when it comes to promoting your music independently. Social Media also has its prime time, its rating, and its own commercial rules of viral invasion of some info that would reach everyone.

Again, the same old rule applies: if you have money, you pay a Social Media Specialist to manage your page, s/he does her magic tricks and all of a sudden you get all too very ‘like’able. So the same rules of media industry applies, it only helps musicians reach other musicians easily. But still, nothing compares to a good face-to-face encounter with the musicians of the world, that is my way actually, I prefer travelling to a place, learning the music there from local masters and meeting the local musicians in person. Only then I get the “organic results” I strive for in music. Well, technologically I am quite backward; I handwrite my sheet-music, my lyrics and everything. I am a stationary freak; I never go out without a beautiful notebook and a pencil-box full of pencils and stuff.

Sean: What are you working on at the moment?

Fulya: I am in Mithilini, learning songs of the island of Mithilini. I have composed a lot of songs in Turkish maqams lately, some more traditional-sounding stuff and retro styles such as Turkish Tango and Milonga and zeybeks and stuff. Like music of the 30’s. I want to record a new album of these new songs with my band in Istanbul: Kanun, Oud, Double Bass and Percussion and me singing. I am quite excited about that.

Sean: Do you have any new musical recommendations for us?

Fulya: Watch out for my new album Alba and that of Taş Plak Kumpanyası, haha. Well yes, Turkish Music of the beginning of the 20th century was great; one can find recordings of singers such as Safiye Ayla, Perihan Altındağ Sözeri, Deniz Kızı Eftalya, Seyyan Hanım, Sabite Tur Gülerman, Radife Erten, Münir Nurettin Selçuk and many others. This is a basically unknown genre for many people in the world, when they discover it; this genre may open new perspectives for understanding certain vocal techniques. Maqam music and Turkish Classical Music can give the composers a new way of understanding cadences and modulation. I highly recommend taking a look at those.

Sean: Can I offer you a drink?

Fulya: Sure, haha, any time

Sean: Thanks, Fulya


Fulya Ozlem’s ‘Eternity In An Hour’ (the words of William Blake set to her own musical composition) is available now on the ‘IstanbulDogs II – Slightly Off-Centre’, on Believe Digital

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