Artistic Symbiosis: How Deniz Kurtel’s Music And Art Feed Each Other

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All photos by Kerian (kerianphotoandfilm.com)

A lot of my friends say that my music is a bit dark, not in a negative way, but maybe a bit more emotional. Middle Eastern music has that same quality.

If you're looking for equivalency outside the world of underground house music, releasing your first two albums on Crosstown Rebels and Wolf + Lamb (respectively) is on par with being plucked from the streets in the mid-‘90s to release on Death Row and Def Jam for your first two hip-hop records.

But the comparisons stop there as Turkish-born Deniz Kurtel is not the brash teenager that Snoop Dogg was or the brooding, easily misunderstood talent of Eminem. Instead, Kurtel grew up in a very tranquil beach town in Western Turkey, and by her own admission, simply fell into the two things which now define her creatively: art and music. And her disposition in both areas reflects her mellow upbringing.

That's not to say she was handed anything. It came more from the artist acumen instilled in her from a young age by her mother, an art student and later, a collector. Her friendship with Gadi Mizrahi and Zev Eisenberg of Wolf + Lamb is unquestionably the most influential in her life next to her mother's as they gave her both her first LED lighting kit (her preferred medium) as well as the software and know-how to produce house music (her chosen genre).

And produce she has done. Music Watching Over Me was her debut artist album in 2011, released on Resident Advisor's #1 label of the same year, the now-ubiquitous Crosstown Rebels. She also has numerous EPs released on Wolf + Lamb, which will also be the home for her upcoming second album, The Way We Live featuring The Marcy All Stars (due out in early July).

Throw in some high profile remixes (No Regular Play, Dinky and Seth Troxler tracks to name a few) and remixers (Jamie Jones and Dixon) and she has firmly entrenched herself in the scene-du-jour as an artist who doesn't need to think outside the box because she concentrates solely on residing completely outside of it.

We had a chance to talk with her for about 45-minutes while she was taking a break from touring and hanging out with her family in Turkey.

I definitely think its a big risk, but at the same time, thats where I am, thats what excites me at the moment… The key for me is to not get stuck in any one style.

Tell me a little bit about growing up in Turkey and how the country and its culture has influenced both your music and your art.

I lived in Turkey until I finished high school. Most people associate Turkey with Istanbul, that's the main city that everyone knows about. I'm actually from a smaller city called Izmir, on the west coast. It's the third largest city in Turkey. It's definitely not like Istanbul. It's not suburban, it's by a beach (like a seaside town and a bit more relaxed), not so cosmopolitan. I had a pretty gentle, relaxed upbringing. We always went to the ocean; I spent four or five months of the year by the sea, most of my summers. For me, it was a very pleasant and calm childhood.

Culturally, I was influenced by my mother a lot because she's an artist and she was very heavily involved in the art scene when I was growing up. She was studying art and then she was teaching art and she was always traveling around Europe and taking us with her. I guess that was one of the main exposures that influenced my art.

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Turkish culture, like in terms of the country's culture, it's hard for me to pinpoint it but I'm sure there are traces of it in my music. Maybe the fact that I use a bit more minor notes, that might come from a cultural background. I might be doing that subconsciously. A lot of my friends say that my music is a bit dark, not in a negative way, but maybe a bit more emotional. Middle Eastern music has that same quality.

How often do you get to go back?

For me, I come here very often. I'm actually in Turkey right now. I come here at least four or five times a year. I try to spend as much time here as possible. Usually, when I'm touring in Europe, I try to have my parents place as a base and I go tour on the weekends and keep coming back to Turkey. I'm very strongly tied to my family. I can't say I'm very strongly tied to Turkey as much as my family because I don't really get to...like when I come here I just miss my parents and sister and niece, it's very concentrated. I devote all of my time to hanging out with them. I feel very calm and happy when I arrive here.

You keep coming back to how calm and tranquil your upbringing was in Turkey and how being with your family there now is. Do you think that has influenced your choice in making music on the deeper, more daytime side of the house spectrum?

Definitely...I totally agree with that. Even more so on my new album, which is way more daytime listening. There are only maybe just a few tracks on there that DJs would play in clubs. It's very low tempo, very calm, a lot of ambient sounds, much more listening than club music.

Being a relative newcomer compared to a lot of the big names making house music, do you think it was a big risk having your second album be much less club-friendly?

Even when Im overwhelmed with music, having another creative outlet when I want to take break from music, thats one huge advantage to having another artistic medium.

It's a huge risk and I'm already seeing that. Or maybe I'm projecting...I don't think it's gonna get as much attention as my first album, at least from the crowd that knows about me. It's a big risk and it might not sell as much, or it might take more effort for me to penetrate a different kind of audience. Until now, my support mechanism came mainly from the house/club scene and even my label is mainly, at the end of the day, still a dance music label. It's very DJ oriented...and once you put out an album like this, you're not going to get as many sales on Beatport, you're not gonna have the usual support mechanism that's there for the dance stuff. We'll see how it pans out. I definitely think it's a big risk, but at the same time, that's where I am, that's what excites me at the moment. I think it's important to follow your interests and just be true to your art. I mean, we'll see, we'll see. I think it's gonna take some time to settle into this new...I can't even say that, actually, because maybe in two years from now, I'll be excited to make something completely different. The key for me is to not get stuck in any one style.

Would you say that the risk involved in your new album also came with more reward?

This one for me was very rewarding in the sense that I definitely feel more mature musically. Even in terms of my collaborations with the artists on the album, in the sense that in the first album (Music Watching Over Me), I used a bunch of samples, I was just learning and I didn't really know so many people. I didn't have that many singer or producer friends around me so I was just finding these cool acapellas on the Internet and later on contacting those people to license them. That was also very rewarding and exciting because that was my first album, of course, but right now I feel like I've matured a lot, I have these very fun, cool sessions with art really being present in my studio with live musicians and singing. So that's definitely something that's very exciting to me.

I didnt just one day decide that I wanted to be an LED artist. Thats how it happened with music, too. I guess thats how things usually happen in my life, I kind of take things as they come, I have this creative drive and I try to do something with whats around me.

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Tell me about the symbiosis between your music and your art ventures, how they're connected and how they feed each other.

I didn't really have a specific plan on how to combine the two. In the beginning, I wanted to make an installation that's integrated into my live show like on the stage as opposed to the one that you saw, which was a completely separate piece in and of itself. The one I did two years ago was a piece I built and installed on the stage, but that was a bit difficult traveling with it and the time to install it and the fact that most clubs are not equipped to have these sort of things. It wouldn't even really fit in a lot of DJ booths at all. That kind of proved impossible. It would have been nice and maybe in the future, I could design something a bit more easy to have on stage with me. It's still a work in progress. It's a cool challenge.

I also enjoy keeping them separate and making independent projects. I kind of like having these two separate things going on that creatively affect me and that must be affecting each other in an abstract way that I can't even describe. Even when I'm overwhelmed with music, having another creative outlet when I want to take break from music, that's one huge advantage to having another artistic medium. Video Of Kurtel's LED Installation

Sometimes you have to walk away from something altogether to clear you mind.

Yeah, totally, and being able to do that and still do something else creatively is huge. Most artists have one style or thing that they concentrate on and it can sometimes get a bit heavy, you might need a break, but then you might feel kind of empty. This way, I have something really interesting going on at all times.

They want to know exactly what your plans are for the next five years or want you to find a way to compare yourself to other artists or distinguish yourself or this and that. I really dont want to get into that kind of mindset with music or with lights. I just want to do my thing and see what comes out of it.

Talk about the appeal of the LEDs specifically as a medium for your art.

I guess the way that I like to use it is not purely nerdy or not purely aesthetic, I kinda like to combine both. I like creating physical objects kind of like sculptures that are analog but at the same time, achieving something that almost looks computer generated. I don't know, personally, I like the programming behind it, the challenge to constantly learn, there's endless endless possibilities once you start using it in an interactive way. It's really fun to learn all of these methods of communicating between sound and motion and it's just personally a really cool, mind-developing hobby for me.

At the same time, visually, it's really mesmerizing. The way I use mirrors in the setup, there's really no way to know what it's going to look like until you actually make it so it gives you this really cool motivation and drive to make it to the end. It's really fulfilling and dynamic for me as an artist. I guess it depends on what you do with the medium, I could get into ceramics and do something different with that.

My friend Zev (from Wolf + Lamb), he gave me my first LED set and it gave me this really cool thing to work with, I didn't just one day decide that I wanted to be an LED artist. That's how it happened with music, too. I guess that's how things usually happen in my life, I kind of take things as they come, I have this creative drive and I try to do something with what's around me. I don't think of myself as an LED artist or a producer, I'm very loose about these things. I had some really cool offers from galleries to take it further, the LED thing, and once I started talking to them and had a couple of meetings, it felt a bit too organized. They want to know exactly what your plans are for the next five years or want you to find a way to compare yourself to other artists or distinguish yourself or this and that. I really don't want to get into that kind of mindset with music or with lights. I just want to do my thing and see what comes out of it.

You haven't been able to spend that much time in the States, but what are some of your impressions or memories that have stuck with you in your time here?

The guys from Wolf + Lamb and Soul Clap and I lived in Miami this winter. It's very different. We decided that we wanted to be in an independent place, eating healthy, being again, very calm (laughs). We had a nice few months together.

I guess before in New York City, I can tell you, since we closed the Marcy Hotel...we had a pretty intense party place going there for about five years. Then it became too big and got too many people. It was a small place that we lived in and we just couldn't fit the people in there, and we got in trouble with our landlord and we were forced to close that down and move out. While we were doing that, we were very heavily involved in the party scene in New York. That was the party ideal: an intimate, party spot that a lot of people said the city was missing for a long time. Since we closed it, people have been saying the same thing, too. There are a couple of big, successful regular events now, but it doesn't have the kind of intimate vibe.

In Los Angeles, it's kind of shocking, but I've been hearing that the party scene isn't as big as I thought it would be out here considering the size of the city. Well, it's more because the bars close at 2 am and things go underground. The club scene is difficult in the US because it has to close early and people don't really get into the mood to party when they know the bar is closing at 2 am At our party in New York, it was our own thing, going until nine or ten or noon the next day.

But in terms of appreciation for the music, the show at Los Globos was great and there were a lot of people and we had a very good response to the music. I'm sure you know about the other parties better than me, but I guess the Droog guys and the Voodoo guys are doing it right. So I guess it's definitely more underground.

Finally, tell me about being a part of the Crosstown and Wolf + Lamb families and how that larger house scene has been a support network for you as you've built your reputation as an artist.

The way I first got into music was just form living with Zev and Gadi and seeing them and their close friends, the DJs who come to play at the parties, just watching them produce and work on music. Slowly, I became interested and wanted to learn and I started paying a lot of attention and asking questions. I'm usually curious about anything that goes on around me. Just living around that 24/7 eventually I got caught up and Zev gave me a copy of the software and I started playing around with it. Initially, they were supportive and were there when I had questions, but they weren't really into the kind of music that I was making.

It’s not just a music relationship. We always call each other up, we miss each other; we’re really close friends and family. I think it’s a very special thing about this label.

Gadi thought it was really dark and weird and Zev didn't really think that they should release it. It was actually Damian (Lazarus) from Crosstown who was the first to want to release it. I wasn't really even sending out music or demos at the time and was just doing it as a hobby on my own. They only people I was showing it to were Zev and Gadi and they weren't so into it. I guess Damian found out from someone that I was making music and he asked Gadi to send him a couple of my tracks and that's how it all started. He emailed me saying that he really liked it and then I sent him a couple more tracks and he suggested that I should make a whole album. I didn't have any plans on making or releasing an album, it kind of all happened really quickly. I had just met Damian, we weren't really close friends or anything—it started out as a professional relationship. Now we're really close friends. I definitely have had amazing support from him and the Crosstown family and I feel really special that he had that kind of appreciation for my music from the start. He encouraged me to do all of this.

And afterwards, after I made my first album, I got that out of my system my relationship with Zev and Gadi evolved by that time where, they maybe they had more confidence and passion that I really believed in what I was doing. They showed more interest in working with me and we started making music together, me and Gadi. We produced a bunch of tracks together and also put out an EP on Wolf + Lamb and did some remixes. And then this last year, I started opening up to the other artists on Wolf + Lamb and a lot of them came to my studio, stayed at my pace and we worked on tracks together. But even at that point I didn't have a plan to put out this collaboration album. We just kinda made a few tracks here and there, thinking I'd release an EP with Tanner, another EP with PillowTalk and when I looked back, I had all these tracks that I made with Wolf + Lamb artists, so that format made sense.

It wasn't a harsh move from Crosstown to Wolf + Lamb at all. It wasn't meant to be any statement. It's just what happened naturally. I still feel close to both, and of course, right now, since it's coming out on Wolf + Lamb and I'm more involved in my shows and on the tour with Tanner and Gadi (Gerber), I've been a bit more involved with Wolf + Lamb recently. But it's not a strict thing. I feel very close to this whole family. All the Wolf + Lamb artists that I work with. It's really a special relationship that we all have with each other; we support each other, not only in our careers, but in our personal lives as well. It's not just a music relationship. We always call each other up, we miss each other, we're really close friends and family. I think it's a very special thing about this label.