Ahead of the release of her new album İstikrarlı Hayal Hakikattir, Shane Woolman catches up with the Turkish musician to talk about Nirvana and Zeki Müren, LGBT issues in Turkey, psych revival and consistent dreaming
Born in Istanbul in 1985, Gaye Su Akyol studied social anthropology at university and went on to forge a path as a successful painter, having her work exhibited both in Turkey and abroad. At the same time she also performed in the bands Mai (2004) and Toz Ve Toz (2007), and in 2009 she formed the duo Seni Görmem İmkansız (It's Impossible For Me To See You) with Tuğçe Şenoğul. After several years Akyol embarked on a solo career and, utilising the services of the three-piece band Bubituzak, released her first full-length Develerle Yaşıyorum (I’m Living With Camels) in 2014. Mixing up traditional Turkish melodies and structures with elements of psychedelia, surf rock and grunge, underpinned by a distinctively elegant and at times hypnotic vocal delivery, she was soon established as one of the country's most compelling contemporary voices with one eye locked on the past and the other fixed on future horizons. In addition, the unconventional theatricality she lends to her craft, whether performing live or conceptualising album artwork, provides a visual spectacle that seems perfectly married to her music. In 2016 Akyol released Hologram İmparatorluğu (Hologram Empire) on Glitterbeat Records and, further propelling the expansion of her musical boundaries, the new album İstikrarlı Hayal Hakikattir (Consistent Fantasy Is Reality) is released on 26 October, also on Glitterbeat. Shane Woolman caught up with her on a recent visit to the UK.
Shane Woolman: What are some of your earliest influences?
Gaye Su Akyol: The first things that really influenced me were my mother’s musical tastes and her beautiful voice. She was frequently listening to Turkish classical music at home from the only channel that existed on television, which was the government’s channel, and it was always playing old-school classical Turkish songs so I was always listening and trying to sing them. I see the essence of this when I look at my vocal technique. My second biggest crush was when I was about ten years old and I remember the first time I heard my older brother play Nirvana and my mind was blown, you know? I couldn’t believe it and I asked him "what’s that?" and he explained that this is Nirvana. This was in 1995 so Kurt Cobain was already dead. This was my second crush. After that I tried to find my own influences, digging into music with the help of my uncle who was listening to sixties and seventies rock’n’roll like Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones. I found my own influences like Dick Dale, The Ventures, The Lively Ones, Jefferson Airplane, Morphine, Mudhoney, Sonic Youth and after that, when I was seventeen, it was artists like Nick Cave and Tom Waits – there were so many bands but these are just the first names that I remember. There’s also a long list of Turkish musicians like Erkin Koray, Barış Manço, Moğollar, Selda Bağcan, Müzeyyen Senar, Ulvi Cemal Erkin, Münir Nurettin Selçuk, Zeki Müren and so on.
Your father is a well-known artist, did he influence your desire to be an artist?
Of course, he had a huge impact. You know, when you are a child you assume that everybody’s parents are like yours, it’s such a big delusion. My father was always a free soul, he is a rock star in another universe [laughs]. Not the perfect type of father but one of a kind. Our house was covered with his paintings on the walls which I grew up looking at, writing stories in my mind all the time. He is also good at poems, words and metaphors, and he was always reading from his own poems or others from his favourite poets who were mostly his friends. Actually he influenced me with his way of combining his art with the culture he grew up in, without any prejudice and looking from a wider perspective. This is what makes his art original, instinctive, universal and timeless I guess. “Being yourself” is the key here. Have you seen the movie Big Fish? In it there’s a fantastic father who’s always telling amazing stories and you can’t be sure whether they are fake or real - his son in the film is not sure either - but who cares? And what does “real” mean anyway?
So music played a big part in your family life?
None of my family were professional musicians but lots of different genres were played at home which led me to a wide selection of music. My mother was listening to old, classical Turkish musicians like Müzeyyen Senar, Zeki Müren and Münir Nurettin Selçuk, while my father was listening to Turkish folk music like Ruhi Su and Aşık Veysel, and also Western classical music like Mozart, Beethoven, Stravinsky and Brahms. We were also living on the same street as my grandparents and my uncle. My uncle played the bağlama [a traditional Turkish stringed instrument] and was traveling a lot because of his job as a journalist. He collected musical instruments from all over the world, especially percussive ones, and we used to improvise with them when we got together. He also had a great collection of rock music from the 1960s and ‘70s. And my brother was listening to rock’n’roll and grunge bands so home was the beginning of my musical adventure.
It’s like the essence of what your music is.
Of course, and there’s so much music that I discovered later and all of this comes together, I guess.
You’re a big fan of Zeki Müren, who’s a very important figure in Turkish music and entertainment. What is it about him that you really admire?
You know, he had a unique voice and he didn’t look like anybody else or act like anybody else. He was one of a kind. He was also a dreamer, a revolutionary guy in Turkey’s conservative reality with his music and with his vision. He was an LGBT person so he made people accept him just by being the way he was, and this was something very huge and important for Turkey, and for the world of course. He created a revolution, that’s the point – with the combination of his music and his appearance, his choices – he carried classical Turkish music to a new level, took it from a small region and spread it to almost all of the social layers, he made it popular and glamorous. You know it’s not that easy to be an LGBT artist but he succeeded while gaining a lot of respect. And he was appearing on the government’s channels with all his clothes, jewellery and make up, which was really very surrealistic. He was the designer of these fantastic clothes by the way. So the point is this: he was like a superhero who damaged the norms while creating his own normal, and he made everybody believe in it.
He did a lot to make Turkish society accepting of openly gay artists. Is the Turkish music scene and society in general relaxed about that today?
Honestly this is a very complicated issue. I think it’s the same throughout the world, it has been changing a bit maybe in the last ten years, but I feel that people are very two-faced. The society we live in is not honest about gay people, minorities, different subcultures or inclinations. Frankly this is also the government’s conscious political view. To be able to control the people, they need obedient, regular, “normal” robots. So if we go back to your question: everybody will accept a gay artist until they are open!
This is what is going on in Turkey. Zeki Müren didn’t say at any point that he was gay but of course it was so obvious from everything he did. It feels like it’s okay until you confess it, not just in Turkey but in the world. It’s a great dissimulation. Nobody ever had the courage to openly ask him about it, or when they did he changed the subject or something, so I wish we could have a world where everybody can be who they want to be and confess anything they have inside, this is the freedom that we really need.
But society is two-faced. There are lots of gay social media phenomenons who have two or three million followers on Instagram in Turkey, they earn money from people’s enormous interest, but society refuses to see gay people in any other professions like the health industry or education system. They are only visible or to be accepted in the “entertainment industry” or live their life closely to be able to do their job. This is a taboo that needs to be broken as soon as possible and we should start to discuss it publicly.
Earlier you mention Selda. Was she was a big influence?
Yeah. She’s a great musician with such a unique voice, she’s a producer, record label owner, she wrote songs, she is super talented about covering old folk songs and bringing new aspects to them. And what makes her story more unique is that she is also a revolutionary, a very important figure in liberalisation. You know, she always talked what she believed and was put in jail sometimes – so she was always for freedom. That’s why I’m really interested in her opinions, her music and her importance in Turkish music.
How was it to perform on the same bill as Selda recently?
It was an honour and a pleasure for me, a dream come true. But the funny part is we had never played together in Turkey, this was the first time. It was really beautiful, an historic moment.
Do you see yourself as continuing the issues of social justice, the things that Selda was concerned with in her music… do you see yourself as part of that same wave?
Different waves but the same sea! I think everybody is making their own waves and I prefer that, and of course Selda and I share the same ideas, the same philosophy about freedom, free minds, the equal rights of people, liberalisation. Whoever is really into freedom, we are in the same sea.
What are your thoughts on the current Turkish psych revival?
There are so many great, young bands in Turkey right now that really make cool music… it’s because, you know, when the pressure gets bigger, the art needs a way to express itself and grows insidiously. This is maybe one of the only good side effects of the situation there. But still most of them need to be more courageous and they shouldn’t be afraid of their own culture.
The title of your new album translates as Consistent Fantasy Is Reality which refers to a concept called consistent dreaming, which you regard as the strongest option people have "to challenge organised evil and the horrible reality it creates"... could you explain this idea a little further?
We are living in a dualist world full of injustice, inequality, and grief but also love, passion, and art at the same time. Life turns into what you are convinced of. People looking at the same point can perceive totally different things, so there is not “one reality”, there are actually infinite realities even in one mind. Reality changes according to an individual’s perception. So at this point my mind asks the question: if the reality we are living in is quite absurd but the only thing that makes it real is consistency, then what is the difference between a consistent fantasy and reality? We do not know if we are living in a simulation or holographic world but I do know that the software of this life is based on “dreaming the reality”. You can connect this with quantum theory or anything else.
The world is ruled by idiots who lack imagination while the rest of the world feels powerless and hopeless. What these people are missing is the power of consistent dreaming. If we see the same dream then it becomes our mass reality and the only thing left is to take action which is quite simple when you believe in it. As Picasso once said “Everything you can imagine is real” and none of the organised evil can survive against it.
How long did the album take to record? Were most of the songs written in advance of the recording process or did they develop in the studio?
We recorded the guitar, bass, drums and percussion in three days. Then the additional instruments and vocals took a couple of weeks because of the concert traffic. After releasing the second album Hologram Imparatorluğu in 2016 the new songs started appearing and they were ready to be recorded in advance of the recording process.
The instruments used on the album have been expanded with the inclusion of the bağlama, saxophone, trumpet and electronic beats – was this a conscious step or more of a natural progression? Are there any specific sounds that you would like to incorporate in your music that you haven't yet used?
I love to expand the boundaries, to experiment and develop new sounds. I like to bring together the sounds that are not so much familiar to each other. It’s like in some languages there are words that don't exist in your mother language, so you realise that you’ve never felt that feeling before you heard that word. This is the same when it comes to music: the meeting of two harmonically unfamiliar sounds gives me the feeling of enthusiasm.
When writing the songs I hear particular sounds and instruments for specific parts in my head while arranging them and the instrument serves the feelings and the mood. The arrangement of a song changes everything so I like to expand the musical boundaries as much as possible.
It's interesting to hear the cover version of Bariş Manço's “Hemşerim Memleket Nere” on your new album – the song's themes of equality are still extremely relevant in today's world. If you had to choose an English-language song to cover, what would it be?
“Hemşerim Memleket Nere” is a magnificent song with its lyrics, arrangement and Anatolian Rock essence. It is topical but also universal with it’s philosophy, metaphors and sounds. As you said, it is relevant in today’s world and that’s why I wanted to cover it. If I had to choose an English song to cover, it would be “Good” or “You Look Like Rain” by Morphine. I would put some Turkish instruments in it; probably bağlama, bendir and strings. Last year we did a cover of “Love Buzz” by Shocking Blue, also covered by Nirvana, and we sometimes play it at our concerts but haven’t released it yet.
You've recently been involved in the soundtrack of a Turkish television production called Dip. How different was the process of working on this project compared to recording an album? Are soundtracks an area you'd like to explore more in the future?
I love to collaborate with artists from different disciplines, either for a soundtrack to a film I like or something visual. Recording an album is pure freedom for me, I have my own plans, rules, and aesthetic preferences which makes the process more comfortable, but a soundtrack is a mutual relationship with lots of parameters and the process of working is often bound by the demands of the collaborator. Yet it is enjoyable when you like each other’s works. We recently performed in an old cinema, soundtracking an old Turkish B-Movie classic called Yilmayan Seytan while watching the film with the audience which was such great fun. These kind of unique ideas really motivate me. There were several new tracks made just for the film and we’re planning to release them as an album in 2019.
Have you got any other projects planned for the future that you'd like to talk about?
An album called Remiks Imparatorluğu will be released in 2019 which was curated by Kaan Düzarat and consists of remixes of tracks on my second album by DJs from around the world. Also a documentary film about Hologram İmparatorluğu will be released. It’s by Irmak Altıner and features the recording process and footage from various concerts plus music writer Murat Meriç’s analysis of my music’s historical and sociological context. A cover album with an anthology of old Turkish songs is another project for 2019.
İstikrarlı Hayal Hakikattir is released by Glitterbeat on 26 October.