Nilipek is an Istanbul-based singer and songwriter whose latest album Mektuplar (Letters) perfectly captures the emotional atmosphere of the quarantine days. For two months now, those with the privilege of staying at home have shut themselves off from the outside world to avoid catching or spreading the coronavirus. Trapped between four walls, one is left alone with one’s own thoughts and memories. Mektuplar, split into a Part I released on 24 April and a Part II made available today, offers an acute portrayal of a person’s struggle with introspection and communicate through letters to the people who have shaped her past.
32-year-old Nilipek (Izmir-born Nil İpek Hülagü) has been writing and performing her own songs since 2013. Since then, she has become one of the top names in Turkey’s indie music scene, with nearly a million followers on Spotify. Nilipek manages to be both experimental and easily digestible by the mainstream.
While Nilipek has performed in Turkey’s top music festivals, her songs are widely recognizable from film soundtracks and commercials. Just this week, she appeared in a Mother’s Day advertisement for the household appliances manufacturer Arçelik, in which she makes strawberry jam in one of the company’s devices while performing a song for her mother over video chat. On November 10, 2018, Koç Holding used one of Nilipek’s songs was used in a public service announcement which marked the 80th anniversary of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s death. With her blonde hair, refined demeanor, and Western folk music-inspired singing voice, Nilipek can easily be presented as the perfect manifestation of the secular “white Turk.”
While there were shining moments on Nilipek’s debut album Sabah (2015), at that time it was easy to write her off as another hipster with a ukulele. The album’s first single, which was revived for the Arçelik commercial, featured lyrics such as “Far away, I made tasty jam from tasteless strawberries for you.” As enjoyable as some of the songs are, Nilipek’s early efforts were so sweet as to be cloying.
Yet Nilipek’s musical evolution has proven that she is far from a simple stereotype. Her second album Döngü (2017) featured a wider range of moods and instrumentation. With powerful arrangements of original songs and covers like “Defne,” Havada Bir Hinlik Var,” and “Biz Bize Yeteriz,” the album moved between moving ballads and raucous jam sessions. She also began incorporating more electronic elements into her songs while working with a musical team featuring a talented drummer, guitarist, bassist, and trombonist. This eclectic combination made for powerful live concerts in 2017 and 2018.
In the latest album, Nilipek continues to work with her live band whilst incorporating professional string and woodwind players. Mektuplar is also her third independently released album. It is a mark of integrity that Nilipek continues to release her own music in lieu of a music company that she can trust to be dependable and respectful of her musical vision. These hardships are intensified by the fact that this new album was released in a time where it is impossible to promote music through concerts and other public, in-person events.
Though the songs were mostly recorded and completed before the coronavirus hit Turkey with full strength, thematically there is something remarkably of-this-moment about the album. In interviews, Nilipek refers to this album as her “most personal.” As she told Seyhan Akıncı at Milliyet: “The general world of the songs takes place between four walls. . . There is a feeling of bearing witness to a woman’s marriage, friendships, relationships, fights, and moments of madness through that character’s own eyes.” All these moments are expressed through letter-like songs each addressed to a different person from the woman’s life.
In “Yaprak,” which was released along with an animated music video created by Nilipek herself, this character addresses an old lover: “Can the leaf you broke off from me hold the axis of another’s body?” A song like “Herkes Yetecek Kadar” expresses palpable rage and resentment over wrongdoings committed in the past. The hypnotic drum beat and free jazz-esque trumpet on the track also contribute to its wide emotional range.“Gökyüzü Mavi” is another song that packs a heavy punch. Nilipek sings “The sky is blue, the water is pitch-black / If I jump in, I wonder will it swallow me?”
This contrast between the deep blue of the sky and the blackness of the water is an apt metaphor for the musical and thematic poles between which Nilipek’s songs now move. While the songs on Part I of Mektuplar descend deep into past hardships, it seems Part II will be more buoyant and bright. At least, that is what the first single, “Küçük Bir An” indicates, with its guitar riff reminiscent of 1990s teen love classic “Kiss Me” (Sixpence None the Richer) and with lyrics about the desire to freeze a perfect moment with another and disappear.
Now that listeners have experienced Nilipek’s both blue and black phases equally, even the sweet songs have gained a new depth. As her musical vision evolves, Nilipek provides us with a soundtrack for good and bad days alike.
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