Yonca Evcimik is a Turkish pop music artist who has signed off on many accomplishments in the Turkish pop music world, and who, after a long break, is back in the spotlight.
The singer, who notes she is always in pursuit of novelty, says: “I have lost popularity, but I am still out there, like a touchstone in music. The things I have done were sacrificed to history, and I was sad that a lot of the stuff I did didn't wind up sticking, but those who walk now down the roads I opened up are successful.”
In an interview last week in İstanbul, Evcimik spoke to Sunday's Zaman about '90s pop music in Turkey, which was also the peak of her career, her new projects and her efforts as an animal rights activist.
For a long time, we have not heard new songs from you. Why did you take this long break from music? How did your single “Yallah Sevgilim” [Yalla, Lover] emerge?
It was much appreciated. It has been seen as a single that was always expected from me. I was not even aware that it was so long anticipated. But I really had not done something new for so long. … But actually, the single “Yallah Sevgilim” was a song ready for an album. I had worked for a long time on this album, but it was shelved for a while when the whole animal rights issue came to the forefront for me. When I was able to breathe again, I was able to put together this single.
You started the trend of "single" releases in Turkey with your song "8.15 Vapuru" (8:15 Ferry). How did you decide on this at that time?
Since the very beginning, I had always followed developments abroad to see what I could do with my own work here in Turkey. At that time, I had gone to the Far East. I watched a show of dancing elephants there, and they were dancing to this song. When I returned to Turkey, I decided to make a single out of this song. When I said I wanted to make a single, music producers reacted negatively. I spent a long time trying to convince them, and they allowed me to do it as a favor. At the start, they only turned out 2,000 of these singles. But then, 250,000 of them wound up selling.
It later became a tradition…
Yes, after that, everyone began making singles. In Turkey, everything goes backwards. It is the proliferation of radio stations, the huge increase in the use of the Internet and the drop in album sales that have brought the sector to this state. You make an album, but if the songs are not popular right when they come out, the whole album unfortunately heads for the trash.
There is renewed interest these days in some of the music from the 1990s. What was the trademark of that era's music?
At the beginning, that music was acoustic, but nowadays, everything is electronic. It was quite genuine, and each piece had its own voice. But now, we see that they are really all the same, the songs. People really accepted this very quickly. A strange conclusion seems to have been reached by people: that this is how Turkey's music is. But actually, the nostalgia for some of those songs of the '90s, and the return of these songs to the mainstream, has proven that this is not how it is. People are now saying “enough” to electronic music. And they are right, since the music from that previous era had an identity and a genuine nature to it.
There were quite a few talented and quality pop musicians in Turkey in the '90s, but only a few have managed to make it to today. Why are so many names simply absent now?
The problem might have to do with financial resources. Or these could be artists who tried new things that never got popular, and so they were left behind. There are so many friends who I wish were still making music; the current music wouldn't be so monotone and polluted if that were the case. Some decided to stop making music, others turned against it after a few experiments. Some wanted to continue, but didn't find the money. With declines in album sales, producers aren't making the investments in music that they used to. But still, one must not give up. When a song is good, people find a way to follow it and listen to it.
Your place in the music market was viewed as a milestone of sorts. How did the idea come about of bringing together a style that combined song and dance?
I am a graduate of a music conservatory. Theaters [cabaret companies] like Devekuşu and Şan were my third and fourth universities. At the time, I had focused on ballet for my diploma, and I also had a talent for theater, while at the same time I was developing my abilities with music. I wanted to be able to do all these things at the same time. I think it was in 1990 that this really all came together, and then I decided to make an album. I never would have dreamed that the album would sell nearly 3 million copies. I did believe that what I did was going to be unique, and that it would become popular. But at the same time, it was not me who discovered the presentation of music. I might not have been so full of ambition when it came to the music itself, but I was offering something else altogether. At the time, arabesque music was tremendously popular. When I first talked to music producers about what I wanted to do, they looked at me as though I was crazy. I was stubborn though, and managed to convince people. At the same time, I really did want the musical aspect of what I was doing to be strong. I worked with both Garo Mafyan and Aysel Gürel. I think that with “Abone” [“Subscribed,” Evcimik's debut album], Turkish pop music obtained a new sort of speed. It became closer to the rest of the world, and much more visually rich.
What was the spell cast by “Abone”? Why did it catch on so well?
It had something to do with the social situation at the time. Arabesque was very popular, with its sad and troubled atmosphere. I think people were just responding to wanting to emerge from that state. This sort of joyful approach sort of wound up making people more joyful. I am experiencing the same thing with the single “Yallah Sevgilim” now. People are saying “phew!” There are already so many problems with our world, and our country. We are being crushed under all the problems. At the time when my first album came out, there were certain social situations that were really worrying and stressful for people. Of course, this is not the only thing that explains the success experienced by “Abone.” There was also its new sound, and its visual imagery that it added to the music scene at the time. Perhaps had one of these elements been missing, it wouldn't have been so successful.
You were referred to at times as being Turkey's Madonna. Did this ever make you uncomfortable?
No. I am a big fan of Madonna. She is someone who actually did what I wanted to do. It pleases me to have been compared to her. But this is how I always was, before Madonna became popular. Those who know me can confirm this. When Madonna became a role model in the world, I was compared to her.
Sezen Aksu once said, “If the opportunities given to Madonna had been given to Yonca, she would have been a world star.” What would you have done had you been afforded the same opportunities given to Madonna?
You would never believe what I would have done. I was so sure of myself. But there was no one in Turkey who could have given me those opportunities then. In 1993, when Madonna came to Turkey, I appeared on stage in the warm-up group before she came on. I said then, if only I had her cadre and her tools, I would do even better in just one month. And now, after this last, most recent appearance by her here, I say 15 days would be enough to come up with something better.
Why is there no real investment in musicians in Turkey?
It is just not done. I gave my first live concert in 1991. I do not remember how many thousands of people came. It was a giant stage. The décor we used was on the level that could never be used anywhere ever again. But then Madonna came in 1993, and showed something a bit more developed, décor-wise, etc. People were shocked. It was as though it had never been done before. I brought out the bands Birkaç İyi Adam (A Few Good Men) and Çıtır Kızlar (Chicks). At the time, the Spice Girls didn't even exist. One year later, when they emerged, people said, “Oh, now we see what Yonca borrowed from.” But how could I possibly borrow from something that did not even exist at the time? I am very saddened by these views that seem to think that “Turkish musicians don't know, can't do anything.” Just give them a chance and they will!
Do you believe that, given this mentality, a world star can emerge from Turkey?
Perhaps if he or she does it alone. In 1995, through my own efforts, I brought out the single “Hot For You.” If we had been able to back it enough, it might have become a world hit. Being a world star does not mean just doing concerts in countries where Turks live. It is a whole different platform. But neither artists nor producers in our country are interested in this anyway.
Did the lessening in interest in your work that you once saw in the 1990s depress you? Do you feel like something is missing now?
No. Because the reason is me. After 1995, I really placed a distance between myself and music. I acted in a series called “Çılgın Bediş” [Crazy Bediş]. We worked seven days a week, and so doing music was almost impossible. Then I made another album, and it attracted attention. In 2001, I opened the school I had long dreamed of. I gave all my energy to that school for five years. I definitely never became sad that my popularity dropped due to staying far from music. I did everything that I had dreamed about. I always pursued my dreams, and I really do want to leave something permanent behind.
Is there anything you regret from that period, or anything you wish you actually had not done?
No, I have no regrets. I always brought out new sounds, to be closer to the rest of the world. Each time, it became less popular. I have always known how to bring out work that will be popular, but that is not my goal. Why would I even be involved in this work if I am not going to develop myself? When we look back in time, there is the first single, the first steps into the international market, the first house music, the first remix album. I always lost popularity, but I was there in the center like a touchstone. I might have been saddened by the fact that stuff I did at the time was not more popular, but on the other hand, the people now going down the path I cleared are experiencing success.
Do you have any “If only…” moments?
I did what I could. If things didn't turn out the way I wanted, there was always a reason. I never gave up on any dreams. In fact, I am still working on them. I think they will come to be in time.
You have had an important career. Do you ever think that you were spoiled?
It was not easy to obtain this fame. Many things were offered to me, not all of which I accepted. I used my own abilities to climb high. It came a bit late. I never had the luxury of becoming spoiled. It is very easy to be famous, but not too easy to carry it on.
So clearly your dreams never end…
How could they? If they do, I am over. Of course, the priority of these dreams always changes with time. At this point, my biggest dream is to accomplish much on the topic of animal rights. I pray on this matter day and night.
You are very involved in this issue. Some accuse you of making a show out of it…
It was when I really faced up to photos of animals in pain that I started pursuing this issue. And as sensitivity began to grow in society on this issue, I really got more interested. I even met with the prime minister on these matters. People may have accused me of putting on a show, but this only increased my impetus. These were accusations I also heard after the Marmara earthquake. But I really don't care. Let them say what they will. I just hope good things come of my work.
We have always known you as singing these joyful, jumpy songs. Is this how you are in real life?
I am really very emotional. I know my own feelings, my own conscience, my own sense of compassion. When these are triggered, it is hard for me to get myself together. It might seem selfish, but I even fool myself into thinking I am not suppressing these emotions, so that I won't be sad. This is part of the reason I have focused so much on animal rights -- that I never really faced these feelings. I did not want to look at the images, or hear things. But when I started to, the arrow left the bow, so to speak. I had always covered up the inner emotional side to myself. That is how the people around me knew me. It was always me just motivating them. If I am unhappy, then everyone must be unhappy. I lived with the idea that if I am good, then everyone will be good.
Are you afraid of getting older?
No. I am not, because getting older is also good. People always ask me whether I have had plastic surgery. No, I have not. Neither my mother nor sister show their age, so my genes are good. I do work I love, and I do not lose my inner child.
Are you someone who spends much time alone?
No. I have a lot of friends, though none are really new. I do love to be alone though. Every now and then, I retract from the world. But the truth is, I am never really left that alone.