I actually met Asena Akan through social media. She had a different attitude than the others, but her perspective wasn’t aiming to “differentiate” her from the rest. Her messages were not egotistical, but instead they were positive and unifying. I enjoyed them. So I first got to know Asena as a person and then as a musician. Maybe this was the best way to get to know a vocalist colleague…
Asena’s music journey started with classical violin classes at Istanbul State Conservatory when she was 5 years old. She actually wanted to play the piano, but they usually did not ask what children of such young age would prefer while they are getting enrolled. Eeverybody eventually paves their own path one day. Jazz musician, composer and vocalist Asena Akan had to go through some obstacles to be able to walk on the path of her own choosing.
She bid farewell to her forced friend violin when she was 10. She then studied psychological counselling at Istanbul University both as an undergraduate and graduate student, and became Fidan Kasımova’s student in the Opera Department of Istanbul University State Conservatory. When her passion for jazz took over everything else, she studied jazz vocal and theory with Randy Esen, Donovan Mixon and Aydın Esen, and gave her first concert with her teacher Donovan Mixon. She also sang rock, soul and flamenco in addition to jazz. She walked through many different rooms of music, touched many people and emotions. She continued on with her profession in psychological counselling in the meanwhile and managed to touch many people’s hearts, including those of very traumatized young people.
Asena touch my heart for the first time with her bossa nova-esque album İstanbul’un İzleri. Now she is back with her second album Golden Heart, and I thought I should use this excuse to bring Asena together with jazzdergisi.com readers once more. We met at a cute cafe at Beşiktaş as two friends and made this interview you will read below.
Note: If you would like to hear some melodies coming from this golden heart while reading this interview:
Let’s start with a question you are probably asked a lot about this album. Why are the lyrics in English?
Every album has their own coming of age story. This second album grew up differently than the first one. The first piece I wrote was “Parçalar” (its current name is “Pieces”). The first idea I had was to combine the pieces I felt and collected throughout my life with the metaphoric language of music. I had worked on the music first as I always do, and had started to write the lyrics in Turkish. For example, the first name I came up for of “Harmony” was “Uyum”. However, a sad event changed the path of the album completely. Of course it changed its language as well…
There was a jazz guitarist I really admired. His name was René Macaroğlu. I met him when I was singing flamenco in a band called Alcala with Ali Fuat Yılmazoğlu. The sound changed from flamenco to bossa nova with his arrival, and we started making a more eclectic music. In addition to becoming a musician friend of mine, he also taught me a lot about music. Unfortunately dear René passed on in 2013. I went to his funeral. People were talking about how René had a heart of gold as they were departing. I had a composition I was working on for the album. When I heard what these people were talking about I thought “Okay, this piece should be called ‘Altın Kalpli’.” Then the English lyrics of the piece came to me in a dream. I woke up in the morning, took the pen without thinking and wrote these lyrics in English. So the album picked its own language.
So how did the other songs in Turkish get transformed and translated into English?
Making an album is the equivalent to writing a book for me. I would be at ease only when its language was consistent. So I sat down and started to write English lyrics for the other songs I had already written in Turkish. I thought I would be able to reach more people this way. Because my first album İstanbul’un İzleri focused on the city in a more local scale. In this album—especially after René’s death—I decided to give a universal message that said “We are all born with golden hearts and it is our duty to protect these” and I wanted this message to reach more people. Adem Gülşen, a friend who was working on the arrangement of the pieces with me, also supported this idea.
Do you still save all the Turkish lyrics?
Of course. I already have all of them memorized.
Your audience is used to hearing you sing in Turkish. Did you worry that this change of language might put a barrier between you and your listeners?
When I released my first album İstanbul’un İzleri with Kalan label, the label’s audience found this strange and some even gave rather funny reactions now that I remember, because they were used to Anatolian and Classical Turkish music. I now receive many support messages and positive feedback about that album from different cities and counties. Yes, I told my story in English in this second album, in contrast to what I did in my first, but I believe these two albums will complete each other and carry my music to willing ears.
Language is actually a rather interesting concept. I talked about giving a universal message. There seems to be a unifying language out there that connects us to each other without us noticing. For example, I improvized while recording “Gubara” and while improvizing I thought about clouds and rain, and the syllables “gu-ba-ra” came out of my mouth. Then I learnt that “Gubara” meant cloud in Hindu…
That’s really interesting. Now I wonder about what language your next album will be in…
Watch me sing in Portuguese! Joking aside, I feel like Portuguese would go well with some pieces in Golden Heart.
I want to transition from the musical language to the design language of the album. You seem to have a secret sadness in the way you look on the cover. This seems to contrast the general feeling of the album?
That was the final shot in a very long photo shoot, I was in pain! I had a shy look on the cover of my first album, with my head tilted forward. Now that girl looks right ahead. Actually, she is looking at herself. That look means to say “in spite of”. The ‘sadness’ you are feeling might be caused by that. Because as I already mentioned, we are all born with hearts of gold, and it is our duty to protect these. But this is a rather hard duty. We should view ourselves from the outside and evaluate what we see, and we should also take a look inwards and challenge the evil in there, this is a painful process of purging. That’s the story of the cover photograph. It is the work of my dear photographer Serdar Şamlı and graphic designer Ayşegül Çakırusta.
How did your education in psychological counselling, your academic experience and the workshops you have given effected your music?
My education gave me the habit of evaluating and judging my every move before action. I might have preferred to live solely as a musician if it was up to me. However, things would get out of hand when I thought on what that changed me into. Working in social services encourage me to be useful to others as well, and that balances my ego. This way I can keep a foot on the ground while reaching out for the sky at the same time. I am able to keep my balance not because I chose the profession of psychological counselling, but because I can apply what it has taught me. You can get dragged into an egotistical state in all kinds of professions and this also includes psychological counselling. This danger applies to the role of the mother as well. There has been instances when I wasn’t able to stop myself, though. Signs from the universe helped me out in those instances.
How are your dialogues with musicians going while you try to keep this delicate balance?
Sometimes I even emphatize more than necessary. However, communication is really important for me in my life that I am able to connect with music in that way. My communication with myself, with my musician friends on the stage and with my audience… I can only be happy and productive if I can get all these three right. I am as serious in my choice of musicians as I am when I am doing my job as a psychological counsel, because it is incredibly important for me to show the necessary respect to every single note and to contribute something to them. Therefore my choice is to give a limited number of concerts with fundamental musicians. It makes me happy to perform with real music people who have a habit of listening, give value to the job at hand and those who really love music. The musicians I have worked with during this album are disciplined and “golden hearted” people who really serve music. Adem Gülşen, Burç Bora Uyan and Ayça Daştan play the piano, Volkan Hürsever plays the double bass, Şenova Ülker plays the trumpet, Bulut Gülen plays the trombone, Serhan Erkol plays the soprano/alto sax , Damla Aydın plays the cello, Dirge Seçil Kuran vibraphone and Cem Aksel and Riccardo Marenghi plays the drums. I met Volkan Hürsever by coincidence during 2015 Kosova Jazz Festival. That is the greatest gift of that festival for me.
What kind of a step is Golden Heart in your music adventure?
I want the album to reach farther overseas in the long run. Maybe concerts might help me with this goal. The arrangements and the bandmates who play the pieces are distributed very fairly. Cem Aksel played the rhythms as arranged by Adem Gülşen, and Riccardo Marenghi played those arranged by myself and dear Burç Bora Uyan… Volkan Hürsever was like a glue holding all these elements and pieces together with his bass.
How do you feel while singing these days? We are going through a traumatic period. Do the peaceful whispers in your songs transform into screams?
E. E. Cummings said “To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else – means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight.” The real battle is inside. It is not on the outside. I have always tried to find the source of my problems within myself, and not on the outside. I believe in the same in the music i create. I realized with the lives I have touched through my profession in psychological counselling that people accumulate so much anger on the inside by looking for problems outside of themselves and then they blow up one day. I see what we are going through these days as such a breakdown. I have sadness inside of me rather than fear or a need to scream. Every loss, no matter who it is, makes me equally sad.
British actor and director Peter Ustinov says “Pessimism is a romantic passion but optimism is a duty.” I think we should start with ourselves and with those closest to me when it comes to healing. Some will scream out aloud to do this. Some will remain silent. I will continue to peacefully whisper my music. I will always insist on love and fellowship; I will keep on producing, I will use all my power that the stage gives me to emit my good energy and try to develop a unifying language. We have to keep on creating.
My last question will be a fun one. Which instrument do you see yourself as?
Maybe I could be an instrument that aims to restore and heal with its vibrations, one that takes what it needs to from an environment, but an instrument not confined in a single environment. I am an eclectic person, so I would be an eclectic instrument.