Rising Istanbul jazz singer Şirin Soysal is no stranger to the arts. Though she has spent the last few years dedicating herself to music and putting out a fantastic full-length album, she has long been a lover of screen and theatre, earning a Master's degree in film while studying in Dublin. Music, however, has always been the "little voice in the back of [her] head," a form of artistic expression in which she wished to work. "It finally got to a point where it was either going to happen, or it wasn't," she says. Luckily, for all of us, she decided to pursue those ambitions. The Guide recently caught up with her in Taksim to discuss her influences, the new album, and her never-ending search of ways to "tell the story."
The Guide Istanbul: Your parents were diplomats, which led to an upbringing in which you were constantly abroad, changing cultures, languages, and friends quite frequently. How has that experience influenced your music, if at all?
Şirin Soysal: Well, it was always me being the odd one out, abroad or here in Turkey, that is really what shaped my character, and it's probably the main thing that has shaped my music.
TGI: Your songs have been described as inhabiting a jazz and cabaret style. Did you always know you wanted to work in those genres?
ŞS: I didn't have an idea of the genre previously, I just knew I wanted to sing. I got connected with Randy Esen, Aydin Esen’s wife, who is a great jazz singer, and started training with her. She's a very good technique teacher, and from there I started singing jazz songs.
TGI: Your album, "Bir Şeyler Var," is actually quite challenging and dark at times, though not in a depressing way. People often put on jazz albums for background music and atmosphere, but I felt like this was a much more engaging and active listen.
ŞS: I’m glad that came across, because it’s not meant to be depressing. I've always been into the cabaret side of things, artists like Edith Piaf. That edgy and dark style that is actually hopeful, but in a dark way. And that's even the kind of art I like in other fields, like movies. David Lynch is dark, for example, but I really enjoy his films.
TGI: In the past you've talked about using your artistry to "tell the story," whether in film or music. What is that process like for you? What story are you trying to tell?
ŞS: Rather than thinking about the musicality and structure of a piece, I'm feeling the story. What I want to tell, it's like glimpses of memories or awarenesses in my life. Like blowing up certain moments. I don't sit down and have something ready. If I try to sit down with the objective of writing a song, it just doesn’t happen - sometimes a melody comes that I like, and I have to wait, because I don't have words for it at that moment. It's about letting go.
TGI: You sing in a few different languages. Do you prefer one over the other, and do you utilize them differently in your artistry?
ŞS: I actually really like writing in Turkish, which is strange because my English was always better, even though they are probably about the same now. I like singing in Turkish as well, I love the sound, I think it suits this kind of cabaret jazz well, but I don’t necessarily have a preference. Though I don’t speak French well, I can sing it. For example I love singing a song by Kurt Weill called “Youkali.” It’s a bit of a sad song because it describes this location, a sort of utopia, and then in the end, he takes it away, says it doesn’t exist (laughs).
TGI: All artists have to deal with criticism and being reviewed. Obviously it can be difficult to put something out in the public sphere that you’ve worked on so hard – how do you handle criticism, and does it affect you at all?
ŞS: I hate being criticized. When it’s [from] someone close to me, I shout at them (laughs). But, obviously, if it’s creative criticism, I accept it, I have every respect for that. Website reviews have been worse than print publications here in Turkey - one thing pissed me off from a site when someone claimed that one of my songs was stolen from a King Crimson piece. But I listened to it and saw that they had nothing in common.
TGI: Let’s talk a little more about your album. It has a very experimental, textural feel, and percussion plays a huge role. There’s a nice juxtaposition where your voice sort of floats over the top, balancing that out. Towards the end of the record, the tracks have a very atmospheric and vocal emphasis. What was the recording process like in this regard?
ŞS: I would say that Şevket Akıncı, the producer, who also arranged it along with [guitarist] Cansun Küçüktürk, had a part in that. Şevket is probably the only one of his kind in Turkey, and if you listen to his own music, it’s often very experimental, so perhaps his influence over the album is what gives it its character. There were no plans – the more ambient songs were actually more improvised, ones we hadn’t practiced, and later the effects were added.
TGI: As someone who has experience in film and music, what are your future artistic plans? Will you branch off into film or are you concentrating on music these days?
ŞS: I’m really focusing on the music right now. But, as a part of that, I’m using my acting experience in the performances. For example, we shot two videos for the album, and I really enjoyed the acting in those. I’m going to get back to the film side of things at some point, but for now, it’s music.
Şirin carries an unassuming air around her, and gives the impression of someone who cares about art as a form of expression. We’re glad she is out there, helping shape and redefine the city’s music scene. Make sure you check out her fantastic new album, "Bir Şeyler Var," and catch her live throughout the fall and winter season:
October 3 at Alt in Beyoğlu: Bir Şeyler Var Album concert
October 4 at Mekan Kalamış: Jazz trio performance
October 27 at Borusan: Bir Şeyler Var Album concert
December 14 at Borusan Müzikevi: “Şirin Soysal Sings Kurt Weill”