We had the pleasure to chat with Demir Demirkan, a 25+ year veteran Turkish singer-songwriter/guitarist.
Beginning at age 19, Demir Demirkan has produced and released close to 50 solo and collaborative albums and singles ranging from blues, rock, metal to film and TV series soundtracks composed for symphony orchestras, choirs and Anatolian instruments.
His life and career has been a journey igniting from Turkey, through Europe and to Austin, Texas – USA where he now resides with his wife and son.
His latest works reveal that he is back into where his roots are, Metal.
While building his career from ground up in Istanbul, he recorded and performed with Turkish musicians and bands mainly as a member of the Turkish Heavy Metal band The Pentagram a.k.a. Mezarkabul. Internationally, he recorded and performed with world-renowned names like Mike Stern, Al Di Meola, Dave Weckl, Trilok Gurtu, Omar Hakim and Phil Galdston to name a few. However, you likely now him best for the only Turkish song that won Eurovision Song Contest, Demir composed that song for his girlfriend at the time, Sertab Erener. Sertab Erener is a pop singer whose first album sold over 1 Million copies.
This interview is PART 1. PART 2 will be about his music, his thoughts about business business, success, his desires..and how it all affected his life.
Thanks for taking the time to chat with is. First of all how did you end up in Austin, TX?
We knew we wanted to bring our kid up in America. So we said, “Why don’t we go to New York for about a year and we’ll do our research to pick a place to set a home. My brothers live in Virginia, Maryland and Florida – so we started with that. We went to three different places in Florida and North Carolina. We have two Professor friends there – a couple – they are music professors. We tried Maryland, different places in New York and Santa Fe. I used to live in Los Angeles, so I knew that I didn’t want to live there. We stayed in Manhattan for two years.
Then I called a friend of mine, a guitar player, who lives in Austin – Lance Keltner. We met years ago in Europe when he was playing with Mike Tramp. You might recall him from White Lion (hard rock band). Lance was the only American on that tour.
It really helps when you know and like someone for years like that. So your friend Lance said what…
I finally called him: “Hey, man, what’s it like down there?” and he says “Well, come check it out.” I told my wife, “Hey, you want to do Austin?”
She goes, like, “Where is Austin?”
I said “In Texas.”
My wife says: “Okay, why don’t you go there and kind of vent out and party with your friend. Come back and we’ll take it from there. And call me if it’s really, really happening so I can get there with our son.” So we did that.
Three days later she came down, liked it – this was two years ago. We rented this house in downtown Austin for about a year before we bought a place in Oak Hill.
We are curious what prompted you to go from Turkey where you’re very well-known and now you come to the States and you go like, “All right, now I’m here but now what?” So how did that happen? That’s pretty challenging.
It is. But I always went back and did the tours, released material and kept on with my productions for different artists. I did not leave Turkey for good. We still have business investments running there and my career still is going on. The idea was to keep that up and also bring out material in English and expand into America.
I released a bunch of English songs, a five-song EP and a full-length album and I did some tours of playing around and all that. But the whole thing got so complicated because, until that time, I never released material that sang in English on.
And my audience in Turkey was like, “Okay, is this how it’s going to be after this?” and I had to stop doing that and actually start another project with a different name for the English material.
We had many reasons to move to the USA.
I lived here before. My wife studied in Pittsburgh and graduated from Duquesne University in advertising. Our son was four or five months at that time. We wanted him to grow up in either Europe or America. I have the green card so this was the easiest option.
I have family here, we both know the country and we speak English. We also considered France, Italy, and Holland, and maybe the UK.
So now you’re in pandemic world in Austin. How do you survive? What do you do?
Well, I’m just glad that I wasn’t in New York during the whole thing. When the whole city shut down… My friends were sending me pictures.
I was looking at the pictures on social media and the news – it was horrible there. I thought we were lucky to be in Austin, TX. If you think about the density of the population, it’s not like New York or Chicago. People are kind of spread out in Texas. It’s a million people in Austin. You think about 17 million people living in one city. This is just kind of like a village compared to that. I lived in Istanbul for 20 years.
My best friend in New York, he owns a club. He caught Corona. It didn’t turn into pneumonia or anything like that, but he says, “Man, that was horrible.” But he already had underlying condition. He has stents in his heart and all that kind of stuff. He’s lucky since he got over it. He’s okay now. There’s no problem.
The whole thing is politicized so I cannot really relate to what’s real, what’s the truth. Seriously, now it’s more like a political issue to wear a mask, social distancing or say whatever thing that you say about this whole pandemic thing. That’s a big problem. I’m trying to figure it out. When I look at all my friends in Turkey, it’s business as usual. Everybody’s at the beach. There’s no problem. Everything is open. Nothing is wrong with anything. I mean, everything works. So who’s dying? What, they don’t report cases? I don’t know anybody who died and I’m asking around. “Do you guys know anybody who died of this?” They go like, “No. We know people who got sick, but we don’t know anybody who died.”
So, it wasn’t that hard on me. I mean, we moved to our new house, right at the beginning of the pandemic. This is like a gated community so we would take walks. Of course I wasn’t able to go to the gym, but I would run outside or ride my bike or something like that. My studio is already in the house. I don’t have to go somewhere to make music. I actually released two songs during this pandemic. I was pretty creative!
The problem was, the schools shut down right after the spring break. My son was going to the preschool. Him going to school actually gave us a break. I don’t know if you have kids, but so we can kind of get on with our agendas, right, like music or my wife with work stuff. My son staying in all the time… I mean, we’re not educators or anything like that. It was pretty hard, and it had an impact on our daily routine. We had to find a way to set the schedule, so I could still work and he could still be happy, keep up with his education and the social development. The isolation has a huge impact for little kids like that ( at age four to six) that they can’t see their friends and their social development and their ability to understand is restricted – by the Boogey man out there! Everything is being written in their minds as reality. My four-year-old son comes to me and asked me, “Can I talk to that little girl? Does she have Corona?” It is really sad.
Yes, that’s really hard for toddlers. They need other kids even more than adults need friends for proper development.
Yeah, exactly. I am really sorry that this happened to those kids. Imagine kids from ages three to six. They are in their social development stage. They are trying to understand the world and all of a sudden, they are separated from everybody. Their relatives and their friends, teachers that they love, their school, and locked in the house because there is a virus out there. They don’t even know what a virus is.
It’s just when I look at all my friends in Turkey, it’s business as usual. Everybody’s at the beach. There’s no problem. Everything is open. Nothing is wrong with anything. I mean, everything works. So who’s dying? What, they don’t report cases? I don’t know anybody who died and I’m asking around. “Do you guys know anybody who died of this?” They go like, “No. We know people who got sick, but we don’t know anybody who died.”
Austin’s official motto is the “Live Music Capital of the World” due to the high volume of venues hosting live music performances in the city, sometimes over 100 on the same night. The lives of all the musicians has also changed dramatically in Austin. No live venues. The City was the fastest growing city in the USA prior to the Pandemic – which also meant rents and property values went up fast.
True. Nobody really knows when the venues are going to open. Nobody really knows when the whole Austin City Limits (ACL) or South by Southwest (SXSW) is going to happen. People are throwing out ideas. Some of the clubs, especially in Europe, they kind of have bookings. They started listing some dates and stuff like that. It’s just, they can get canceled or postponed anytime because you don’t know. If the second wave is real, then it’s going to come in October, like everybody says, okay, we’re going to have another shutdown, which is going to be—– It comes in waves so how many times can we do this? How many times are we going to shut down? How many times are we going to stop the whole system and reboot again? So some of the industries, they’re going to have to take shape.
My expanding into the United States and all that became hard. I stopped. I can plan and think, you know, “What am I doing here? And what’s going to become of us?” Thank God of all the savings and royalties and investments in different industries that we have. We can make a living. We’re not in a bad shape or anything like that, but I’m one of the few having that status in music business. I’m privileged. I’m grateful and I’m very thankful.
However, people in music business need to work. My problem of not being able to expand to America right now is an advanced problem. There are real basic problems that matter much more. People can’t pay their rents. They can’t feed their children. They can’t get gas for their cars because they can’t play.
See what I mean? I can wait, I don’t have to do anything. Those musicians who need a show to get get paid, they’re really in a bad shape. Nobody is going to pay you if you’re not a well-known name. If you don’t have a draw, nobody is going to pay you or advance you or anything like that. You just have to sell your own tickets.
When you started out in music, what challenges did you face, were you immediately attracted to music?
I started playing at 12 and my first band was in high school when I was 17 or something.
I mean, I don’t know if you were good or not, but we were winning contests and the school was backing us up. It was a great school and they were pushing us to get better. I would be excused from a bunch of different classes, like lessons so I could actually start writing. They gave me the key to the conference room where all the gear was in. I could just go there and play anytime, even during the weekend, and they really supported me. I worked a lot, I worked very hard for this.
At that time, I was learning how to write songs and arrange them to the band and write lyrics and play guitar because I started with the acoustic guitar, and then I switched to the electric guitar. They were actually buying equipment like gear, like amplifiers and drum sets and stuff like that. They were really supportive and so was my family.
But – there’s a but – I wasn’t going to be a professional musician.
I was going to come to the United States and study business. That didn’t happen because when I applied for that visa, I was denied. I had to stay in Turkey and study something else. I could speak English.
I was really good at writing stuff like songs and stuff like that – the literature. I had a chance to attend a college in Ankara to study English literature and humanities, so that’s what I did.
We continue Demir’s story – and talk about his music, music business, composing winning Eurovision Song Contest song for his ex-girlfriend Sertab Erener, etc PART 2 soon…Demir Demirkan is a multi-faceted singer-songwriter/guitarist but he also understands business which is a key to survive in music business.
You do not often have a musician who loves heavy music and composes a song that wins Eurovision Song Contest – a pop song. Note: Heavy metal music has only once won Eurovision Song Contest (Lordi 2006)