Kalben is an independent woman who has strength, is talented enough to turn her joys and traumas into creative products, at peace with herself and her past, able to see the problems of the society she lives in and beyond, has a few things to say about these problems, has a high sense of observation, and is hopeful and fearless about the future. We meet in Beyoğlu on a sunny day which holds tight onto summer but is chilled with an autumn breeze. We sit in a quiet corner surrounded by lush greens in Soho House’s garden for a long and unabating conversation. Kalben is wearing a vibrant dress which reflects her inner colors. And an ever-present smile on her face. She’s just returned from New York, the most beautiful city in the world, where she had been for the first time. She also had a concert there. Having welcomed many Turkish musicians, Drom in East Village hosted Kalben this time. Our conversation begins here.
“I’m hyped about having reached some place through music,” she begins to tell. “I’ve never been to New York before. I didn’t have the financial means when I was studying or working. But music enables me to do this. In New York, there were people who loved our music and sang our songs even though Turkish was not their mother tongue. I’m very thrilled about that. It’s as if I made my mother proud… As if some of the things that happened to me during my childhood finally did some good… As if even people who entered my life and hurt me have some meaning… As if life isn’t only about good and evil, or black and white… Thanks to music, I have a lot of pink and grey areas in my life. I started to see more delightful and carefree things among those black and whites.”
Kalben has traveled a lot not only for music but also due to her parents’ occupations and has lived in many cities. We start talking about how the cities she’s lived in has influenced her musical creativity. “I’ve lived in Izmir, Ankara, and Istanbul for eight years each. Before that, there was Edremit, Iskenderun, Tatvan, and Osmaniye. I barely remember those times. My mother is a teacher, and my father is a military officer. I’ve traveled a lot due to their jobs. I was the child of a couple who never hammered a nail into the wall and called it home. They have this sweet sense of rootlessness. Wherever they go, they are attached to their students and soldiers. This is how my story begins. Whenever I’m getting attached to a place, I’m actually getting attached to the people there. I’m affected not by how long I live in a city or how I become fellow towns people with others but by who I meet, which books I read, and which musicians I listen to in those places.”
Pointing out how she’s lived in different cities in different times with different feelings, I ask her which time she longs for with a sense of happiness. “For me, the most special ones will be those days in Ankara where I saw students from Ankara, Bilkent and Gazi universities and ODTU wander the streets without paying any regard to socioeconomic differences, dance until the morning, create music with freedom, go to the libraries, dress and behave the way they want whether they were man or woman, and when nobody was judged because of who they fell in love with or everyone became free. In those days, no matter how many mistakes you make, you know you will survive this because you’re young. You are mortal but still very young. I will clearly remember that distance.”
I will always remember how far I was from that state of limited adulthood.
Kalben’s life changed rapidly. After garnering a huge interest thanks to her performance at Sofar Sounds, she gained serious popularity with her two albums (Kalbenin 2016 and Sonsuza Kadarin 2017), busy concert schedule, and the children’s books she wrote. We start talking about what she has learned about herself, about life and about music in this short period. “I learned that I need to protect music. When you love something so much, you should also know how to protect it. I love music so much,” she says to set her priorities straight. “But I’m not savvy about music bureaucracy. I have no idea about copyrights. I don’t know anything about record companies or managers. I don’t know how, when you’re in a relationship, the increase of love you feel from other people will change the balance in that relationship. I’ve been bombarded with so many things I don’t know that I had to learn everything all at once.” She overcomes all these challenges thanks to her connection with music. “I believe music should be independent.. As a female musician, I believe that I should be able to practice my femininity and humanity independently. I shouldn’t feel like I have to pretend to be someone else, to pamper people, and to behave according to what others might think. Now, I feel a sweet contentment.”
While achieving all this, Kalben also dealt with some ups and downs in her personal life. She’s left behind some serious relationships. When we start talking about them, she remembers something her father said, “You can’t force it,” and adds, “I understood what he meant over time.” She starts talking about her fears. “I fear that if I be myself, I will lose that person. Like I say in the song ‘Yalakanım Bebeğim.’ Being someone else is strange. You always tolerate and act as if your past doesn’t exist. I’ve lived a life. I’ve been hurt many times. I’ve been happy many times as well. I’ve fallen in love with people. I’ve had relationships with people I never fell in love with. I realized I could never see myself clearly, never properly mourned a relationship, was always in a rush and feeling as if I was missing something. Now, I’m relaxed. I don’t have to fall in love with anyone.”
She often talks about her family. We start talking about her relationship with them. “When I grew up, I wasn’t surrounded by a house every child dreams of, where parents kiss each other before leaving the dinner table, collect the tables together, and go into the kitchen with laughs. My parents had some problems, and these reflected both on their marriage and my life. I grew up fooling myself that I could reconcile them and make them happy. I grew up feeling guilty that some things were my responsibility or mistake. If I could go back to my childhood and have the chance to tell something to myself, I think it would be, “This isn’t about you.’ On the other hand, they were very supportive. They paid great effort for me to get a good education, to be a good person, to be fair to others, and to evaluate people not based on their language or skin color but their characters and souls. That’s why I love them from a completely different perspective.”
When you create something with love, you see your childhood and past in a different light.
Talking about her mother, she emphasizes that “She has taught me a lot about friendship and bond between women. If today, I can find the courage to tell young girls that they are beautiful the way they are and have the freedom to live the life they want, this courage was given to me by my mother.” We talk about her relationship with women and how many musicians and women love her. “I think we’ve left behind those days when women were pulling each other down at their skirts, jealous of each other, or would shred each other to pieces for other people or some job. We live in an age when women are aware that they are a part of a revolution and how valuable their freedom is. I feel very lucky to share this legendary time with women. I’m very happy when these women love and embrace me. I have gained many mothers, older and younger sisters!”
I ask her about “Yara,” a song from her second album. Kalben explains it by referring to the shared hurts and sadness of the society. “I’m not sad for being in constant mourning. To be sad, you have to heal first so you can have your heart broken again. My heart has been broken for years. Although we believe in different things, we live the same death. We don’t really live together, we die together. We die together as we go to work via three means of transportation, work from eight in the morning for God knows how long, cannot see our family or be in the house we pay rents for, and imagine the vacations we never took,” she says to refer to our shared cul-de-sac. When I ask what makes her hopeful, she says, “Young women and children make me very happy. They are so brave and free.”
When children become the topic, we start talking about Kalben’s relationship with literature. She has published two children’s books named “Lulu Güneşi Arıyor” and “Lulu Okula Başlıyor.” She is also working on her novel titled “Yetişkinler İçin” for which she has “only written 15 pages,” as she jokingly confesses, and tells us the story of her children’s book, “My office was at Akmerkez. Every day after work, I would take a long bus ride from Etiler to Kadıköy. One day, I felt bored in that windowless bus where everyone feels suffocated by their life. I thought about Lulu. She’s a princess. She’s a young girl who runs around the forest in her pants; she is adventurous, takes risks, and is not imprisoned in her physical body. It was like my childhood. Her mother, the queen, passes away. They tell her that she has traveled to another dimension called ‘Sonra Boyut.’ Lulu then flees from the castle to find that dimension but learns that there is no such thing and that her mother has turned into energy. How does a child mourn? How can you talk to a child about such a loss?”
Kalben lost her mother at a young age. In a way, her first book is a way to mourn her mother. “I’m doing this because to make peace with my childhood and my loss and because I couldn’t properly mourn my mother’s death. On that bus ride, I start mourning for my mother. For the first time, I accept that I lost her, that she will never come back, and that she is not in my life anymore. How would a kid accept this? How would I help him/her? There are many kids who go through this loss. We fail to properly talk to kids about this.” Based on her childhood disappointments, she imagines a world for children. “I wanted to tell while they are unique in their own worlds, how children are made to be the same and part of a giant fault the moment they are in society. Children are very beautiful on their own. We need to talk to them about what they can do and how beautiful they are not about that they cannot do or their ugliness. Even if they have disabilities, we should tell them they have none. I wanted to create a world that has all this.” Talking about her new novel, she says, “I’m considering to include some things I would never talk about normally in this book. There is such a freedom in literature. Music also lets you do this. It’s perfect for my indiscretion.”
She is also busy with other projects besides books and albums. “There’s a theater play I’m very excited about. I got the offer from Nükhet Duru. It’s a theater adaptation of a film loved by everyone. Other than that, there’s a song we made for women with metastatic breast cancer. It’ll be released in the first week of October. I want women to realize how beautiful they are and they will always be when they wake up in the morning and look in the mirror.”
Kalben is clearly a woman who does not refrain from talking about herself in her songs, interviews, and maybe, in her future novel. Towards the end of the interview, I ask if she is every afraid of being hurt for her openness. “I’m not,” she replies without hesitation. “I used to be like two countries. Always at war with myself. Always upset myself. So, rather than being afraid of what others might do to me, I’m more afraid of what I could do myself. Strangers haven’t upset me this much. As Elliott Smith said in his song ‘Alameda’ ‘Nobody broke your heart. You broke your own because you can’t finish what you start.’ Thanks to music, I can finally feel like I could finish something I started. That’s why I’m starting to reconcile with myself.” Kalben is a person who makes beautiful ends for what she started and who reaches beautiful ends. Through her stories, anecdotes and words, she encourages other to “reconcile” with themselves. I hope she never loses that inspiring