Mehmet Erdem is a young Turkish musician who is best known to Turkish music fans for his work with the ethnic music ensemble Kardeş Türküler, and for the soundtracks he has recorded for well-received movies and TV series.
The 34-year-old debuted his solo album, “Herkes Aynı Hayatta” (Everybody’s Equal in Life), this month, which is being called a belated effort by his fans.
Compared by some in Turkish music circles to Leonard Cohen for his voice and singing style, Erdem nevertheless says his primary field of interest in music is in instruments, rather than singing. Erdem says he takes pride in the comparison but adds he finds it too exaggerated.
The musician did not receive a formal music education, but says it’s always been an integral part of his life. Erdem’s father used to play the clarinet and his uncle taught at a music conservatory. Erdem started playing music in middle school in the Aegean province of Manisa. He started on his mother’s old mandolin, which she used to play in music classes in her days as a student. That mandolin, which Erdem still keeps, led him to delve further into classical string instruments -- oud, cümbüş and then bağlama.
Erdem, who holds a degree in engineering from İstanbul’s prestigious Boğaziçi University, says he’s never been able to stay away from music because he loves it far too much, and sees it as the legacy he will leave. “I want to leave my voice behind; the human spirit cannot come to terms with the idea of death, so it wants to leave behind something immortal,” Erdem says.
The artist says music takes up most of his time. On the heels of the release of his debut album, Erdem says he has already started working on new projects, with talks also under way to make the music for two upcoming movies. Erdem says he is also ready to roll up sleeves for his sophomore album.
Erdem spoke to Sunday’s Zaman, in a recent interview in İstanbul, about his career and his new album.
You are a graduate of Boğaziçi University’s mechanical engineering department. But you chose music over a career in engineering. Wasn’t that a huge risk?
I have always loved making music, starting from childhood. When I was little I never left the house without playing my mandolin at least once, because I was going to be separated from my beloved mandolin. I was always part of a music band during my days as a [high school] student in İzmir and later at Boğaziçi University. At first, my parents did not want me to be involved in music because I graduated from a school that offered me great career opportunities.
But music is something that relaxes my spirit. It satisfies my soul. Being appreciated by others is an unparalleled feeling. I want to leave a voice behind; the human spirit cannot come to terms with the fact that it is going to die, so it just wants to leave behind something immortal.
When did you decide that music would always be in your life?
In fact, I made that decision pretty early in my life, back in middle school.
Why, then, did you not attend a music conservatory?
I had the opportunity to do so; my uncle used to teach at the conservatory. But of course, career opportunities are more important [for parents] in Turkey. But later I was able to make music my full-time profession.
There is a milestone in every artist’s career. What was yours? Could it be your joining the folk ensemble Kardeş Türküler?
The impact of Kardeş Türküler on my life has been huge, but the bigger impact was the song “Olur Ya” (As it happens) I sang for the soundtrack of the feature film “Polis” (Police). After that point I started singing more. I used to sing before, but only when I was alone. I always used to consider myself an instrumentalist rather than a singer up until then. The positive reaction to that song encouraged me to sing.
What were the benefits that came with playing with Kardeş Türküler?
I earned the ability to interpret anonymous folk songs in many different ways and how to work on a song that already has a certain melody. I also learned more about the inner workings of the [music] business, recording techniques, etc. Also, Kardeş Türküler used to tour a lot for concerts, so I gained a lot of onstage experience.
You just released your debut solo album. Don’t you think it is a little late?
I have already been producing good work in my primary field -- soundtracks for movies and TV series. I also previously recorded with Kardeş Türküler. I wanted to wait a bit for my songs to both pile up and age and mature after the release of “Olur Ya.”
You chose your cover version of a song by Sezen Aksu as your title track?
It was relatively unknown that this song, [“Hakim Bey” (Your Honor)] was actually written by Sezen Aksu, so making it the title track kind of served as a reminder. On the other hand, that song particularly suits my style. I want to get my words across without yelling, without hurting anybody. I chose this song in order to reveal, in a naive style, my lack of belief in “the system.”
Will this style of yours continue in your upcoming albums?
I do not have such a specific aim; I just wanted to make my solo debut with this song. It could have been another song, too. I personally do not prefer attaching so much meaning to such songs. I just want to get myself across without yelling. As it is, I know that a song cannot change the world. I just want to touch people’s lives with music.
The increasing number of cover versions of old songs in new albums is seen as proof of a lack of original production in the music industry. Do you agree?
I am not a person who can decide whether there should be less covers or more. I just recorded songs which I love singing to myself when I’m at home. I actually sing whatever I want to listen to -- it doesn’t matter too much whether it’s a cover or not. Of course having new, original material is good, but listening to 15 different cover versions of a single song can also make me happy.
You are said to be leading in an online poll to find the most attractive male voice in Turkey. You are even billed by some as “Turkey’s Leonard Cohen.” Isn’t that a little too pretentious?
I find it pretentious, too! But in Turkey it is unbelievable how people can speak highly of you when they really love your work. Actually I am irritated with the comparison. I mean it’s an honor to be likened to Cohen, to bear resemblance with him, but I feel like it’d be presumptuous [to say I have a similarity with him]. We’re talking about a poet, songwriter, novelist -- a philosopher if you will. The comparisons are rooted in the similarity in the structures of our voice ranges.
Do you imitate Leonard Cohen in your singing style?
He is a musician I love and listen to a lot. I listen to every musician who makes great music.
Cohen is said to not like his own voice. In one of his songs, he ironically sings that he was “born with the gift of a golden voice.” Do you have such complaints?
I have never thought of myself primarily as a singer. I am much more into playing music. I started to sing after one song I sang got rave reviews.
As musicians, what we do is in fact not too different from each other. Just like [guitarist] Erkan Oğur once said, we take something that comes from eternity and leave it in the arms of eternity once more. We cannot produce too much, we can only be interpreters. The entire aim is to leave a beautiful voice for the world.