Cansu Kandemir, Musician | University of St.Gallen MBA

Cansu Kandemir, Musician

26 May 2021

Cansu Kandemir portrait

Before you did the MBA you were in a band, can you tell the story about that band?

Yes, we had a girl band in Istanbul, called “Woo Hoo” throughout our university times in Istanbul, where I grew up.

 In 2007, a bass player friend of mine asked me if I would like to play keyboard for a girl band, and I was very happy to join! She also reached out to other girls like me and eventually we formed “Woo Hoo”. None of us were professional musicians; at the time I was studying Bioengineering, bass player Cansu Özkul was in Interior Architecture, guitar player Elif Duyulan was in Business Administration, Vocal Hazal Kazancı was in Public Relations, and drummer Gözde Oktaş was in Political Science. We got together mainly to have fun playing pop, funk, disco tunes like Madonna, Michael Jackson, Kool & the Gang, Beyonce, and so on, and to play small gigs for our friends occasionally.

Soon after, had our first gig in a small venue and we realized that we actually really enjoyed a live gig, and vice versa, the audience liked us too! In the following months, our playlist, audience and network expanded quickly. We started playing in major music venues with seasonal agreements, having regular performances every weekend, first as an opener band, then later as the main band starting at midnight and going until 3am or 4am.  

Our audience was mostly university students and we played in almost all of the university festivals Istanbul, plus some other cities. At times, our audience reached 700-800 people. We also got invited to mainstream TV shows in prime time.

Although we mostly played cover songs, we wrote few of our own songs too. When we were dreaming of our next steps, we received an offer from a major music label. We really contemplated the offer, but decided to turn it down because I guess we were not fully satisfied with the commercial image the label proposed to us. Also, our own fields of study in university predominated the option of being “famous” that way. So, as we moved forward, other priorities in our lives slowly started to prevail.

 But I don’t see it as the closure to our story! I think it was an appropriate decision in that time that we stayed true to the image in our minds. Perhaps, if we had the media, technology, the recording possibilities of today, we might have been connected and grown much differently in the industry. Maybe later! We are still each other’s best friends. We each pursue different musical and professional endeavours in different countries. We share our projects and creations with each other for feedback, and keep dreaming about getting back together to continue where we left off. We are even discussing a new gig opportunity these days.

How do you continue to incorporate music into your life now?

Besides listening to a lot of music, I mainly spend time making songs, playing keyboard, and singing at home, and I collaborate as much I can. I also started improving myself in vocals in recent years. Sometimes I take the chance to sing at open mic sessions or in small events. But, the most major part is making music at home on “Ableton” – a digital audio workstation.

By the way again thanks to the university times, with some of my friends we founded the “Electronic Music Club” at Istanbul Technical University, where we studied. I taught music harmony, and my friends taught music production programs in several workshops we organized. It opened a whole a new world to me, and laid the foundation of how I am integrating the music into my life now. Especially when I left Turkey to go to the USA to study bioengineering, I could not get into as rich a music community as what I had in Istanbul right away. So, I focused my free time on learning music recording programs, mainly Ableton Live.

As I was launching myself into my brand new life in the US (and later in Switzerland), I went through a lot of different emotional stages, that was a mix of excitement, melancholy, freedom, introspections, hopefulness, loneliness, curiosity, observations… I had to process them in some way, and I did this by converting them into music. I put together melodies, vocals, sound recordings from the streets, guitar recordings from my friends, in Ableton. Ever since, all of this conversion cycle slowly became a habit, and an integrated part of my life. Today, I work full-time, 9-5, in Switzerland, and I can’t say that work and music are totally separate segments of my life. They both stimulate and help each other in this way.

What kinds of tools are out there for you to create on your own? How has technology enabled you to continue to make music part of your life?

There are many software options out there in which you can work with virtual instruments, digital sound libraries, samples, and effects; to write, record and arrange your own music at your studio or home. I think the most popular ones are Ableton Live, Logic Pro, Pro Tools, FL Studio, Cubase… My own small set up is made of Ableton, an audio interface for plugging in other instruments, and hardware that can directly be plugged into to the computer, and good speakers and a headphone. With that, I’m good to go!

It enabled me in a way that is very flexible. The programs and devices are designed to be very user friendly, responsive and good looking, and YouTube is full of tutorials for them. Therefore, it’s possible that I just come home from work, turn them on, and start playing with what’s inside my head, either by directly recording them with my keyboard or microphone. One day, I will crop a sample from a song I like, place it in my arrangement view, and start singing on it. Another day, I will just write a drum line, play some bass on top of it using my midi keyboard. A third day, I will browse through virtual synthesizers and get inspired. I do these whenever I want and as long my own time allows. I export and share the songs with other musicians or with my friends via Dropbox or Whatsapp, I get feedback, quickly change it, re-share it, and then just go and upload it to my SoundCloud.

Without these tools, I would have needed a band, a professional recording studio, to carry my own instruments, have a record label, etc. It would also probably have taken us more time and budget to come up and play around with a draft or an idea. So, they make a big difference for someone like me who doesn’t have the readily available resources as such. Although I must say that the taste of a collaboration and playing with other people, with real instruments is not comparable. But, let’s say, these tools, have not only optimized how we create music, but also opened a whole new myriad of creative and connectivity opportunities to express more volume and diversity of ideas, more instantly.

You grew up classically trained in piano. To continue to play music now, do you feel you had to re-learn things, or learn new things? What was the skillset evolution you had to go through to utilize these new technologies?

Both re-learn things and learn new things! For instance, in the music conservatory, we were educated on a strictly defined schedule and a strictly defined technique, with highly disciplined teachers who teach, coach, and grade you on a strictly defined program. Each week, we built things pieces by piece, one bar, four bars, right hand, left hand, one sentence, one page, … Then at the end of the year, we would perform those classical pieces in front of a jury, who had very specific expectations. There was of course joy, nice sounds and room for some freedom, creativity and dreaming in the process, but also tears… Those final exam jury performances were actually my nightmares and were so stressful for me as a kid. Later when I graduated, I had to forget some of those rigid experiences to re-learn to let myself play more freely.

A comfortable environment with my friends, having a keyboard with various sounds helped me discover new creative possibilities. Watching other live bands, seeing other artists mastering their keyboards inspired me to dig more into my own keyboard. For Ableton, I needed some technical information – such as, how to connect my device, what different settings in Ableton mean, what is a synth wave, how does it change, different frequencies, what does each effect device do – first through learning from my friends, and later on my own. The key skills that helped me and that I improved were self-organizing and self-learning skills, and owning my own learning without anyone else’s pressure. Of course, there are robust learning programs in institutions for those who later become real industry professionals. But, thank you YouTube tutorials – they’re helping us home musicians to enjoy producing music.

In this process, breaking things down into pieces, patience, focus, attention to the details, and getting excited and curious about the final piece, were common for both learning paths. Owning my learning curve and pace was new.

What about the need to be creative? How much of making music, for you today, is just: ‘I need this outlet; I need to let it out’?

Most of it. Sometimes I think to myself, “Pheww… I’m lucky I have music! what would I do if I didn’t have something like this in my life?” Music is a great tool and a friend. I enjoy consistently converting, synthesizing thoughts, reflecting on my experiences in the form of music, and sharing them. It also helps me connect with others in a way that otherwise I might not be able to.

I see making music first-and-foremost a responsibility towards myself, as a thing that I love and should do for myself. Creating something, just because I can, just because I want to be playful, is a self-actualizing, assuring feeling that I’m there, alive, and I still am. Then, when I put some of my music out there for others, and it resonates with someone and gets a reaction, I really get thrilled.

It’s not only a nice way of experiencing myself, but also my surroundings, or the other music I love, in a more active way. For example, I drop some songs into my Spotify inspiration playlists and take notes, like, “Cool idea in this song, these seconds, sample this, play chords like this…” Or, I run into a nice instrumental that lets me sing along my feelings from that day. There are also times that I have a difficult situation, or a conversation, that affects me. It will probably end up as a song. Those challenges actually increase my creativity. Having an opportunity to convert them into music calms me down and helps me make a meaning out of things. I don’t see difficult situations in my life as purely negative. Sometimes I even say, “Oh cool, I have new material now.” It makes me become more constructive and I feel like different parts of my life connect with each other.

Let’s go back to when you were a kid. Where does your desire to be musical originally come from?

Before I was even born, my dad saw a piano for sale and decided to buy thinking maybe one of his kids would play it in the future. So, I opened my eyes to a piano. My parents say that I started playing melodies I heard at around age two. So, I’ve actually been playing it since I’ve known myself. After they decided that I had talent, they made me start private piano lessons when I was five. Later, I auditioned for and got into the conservatory when I was eight. I studied classical piano there as a part-time student for eight years, next to my regular education. I also got into ballet, too, in the conservatory, which gave me more of a music – body – rhythm flows and feelings. Later we switched the ballet with creative drama, where I could practice improvisation and performance in front of people. So, creating, performing, and music, became a part of my system. The lack of it makes me very unhappy.

It’s interesting to hear that the creative process involves a mix of playing notes, but also hunting through computer folders to find the right sounds. It’s cool to know that is how music actually gets constructed, for you.

Yes, sometimes, I look for a certain feel, like 80s, 90s, or funky, or melancholic pads… sometimes I coincidentally encounter a sound or a sample that creates a feeling that is energetic, and I build on it, layer by layer. In addition, the harmony or lyrics, the sounds, they help complete and connect the stories. As I go through the different sound libraries, the process or story might take a different twist for me anytime in that sense.

When you’re layering like that, do you always start with the beat?

I mostly set up a drum line in the first place, yes. But also, let’s say one day I decide to learn some chord progressions. As I try them out, I end up with a couple of nice of chords that I want to keep somewhere.  I tend to put them on top of a rhythm in order to make a sentence, and stay in a certain bpm. And later, I add other sentences around it. Or sometimes, I just like a guitar riff from a song, and I sample and sing on it. There is actually no one way, anyone could be doing it differently, I wish to learn and try other ways, too.

Let’s look to the future. You continue to make music now and it helps you navigate life, but do you have any plans to pursue music commercially?

I definitely want to make more and higher quality music. I also really miss performing live, getting out there and meeting like-minded people. So, I will continue to try to create these opportunities first. I have my songs, some of which I already posted on SoundCloud, and some I haven’t. I would like to turn them into a live setting first. Also, I have a music collaboration with Rico Micas, called “Oh My Daze”, where we co-produce songs together and release them on digital music streaming platforms. We released a 5-song EP in summer 2019, and we would like to keep releasing the other ones in our ‘pipeline’. One of our other goals is to have a live arrangement of them, either to be played by two of us or as a DJ set. These are not necessarily for a commercial or money-making purpose (although why not!?), but that kind of interaction increases the motivation and gives more momentum and purpose. I am curious myself where it might go.

Going back to when you were playing live gigs in Turkey, what do you like about being on stage? Can you paint a little picture of what makes it so great?

With my band ”Woo Hoo” we performed pop, funk and disco covers, so the purpose was having fun, dancing, and entertaining people. In this context, what made it so great for me was that pure moment of only music and connecting with people around me, without even knowing them, or talking with them. We prepared something, put it on stage, and each night turned out to be a unique one, and you create it there with everyone together. You make eye contact. You watch people change and dance. It’s so real, it’s not an illusion or a dream. That shared, collective feeling of having our moment, our energy together, used to make me really happy.

And as a band on the stage, no matter how much you rehearse, sometimes one of us gets lost in a song or the audience gets tired. Or, the audience gets so excited that we decide to extend a song or skip a verse. How you navigate and flow through all of these spontaneous changes, in a harmonious way, takes a lot of love, respect, trust and communication, which we exchange on the stage, using body, gestures and instruments. It’s a really great thing to experience. It’s special because it’s a very public happening, yet a very intimate relationship.

How do you feel about putting content out on self-publishing platforms – just putting it out there and maybe getting some feedback, versus, really perfecting it and not releasing something until you feel like it’s perfect?

This actually might be a challenge for a lot of artists: where to stop, how much is enough?

With “Oh My Daze” for example, once we start spending so much time to perfect something, I guess we’re also starting to destroy it.  

When collaborating, sometimes we have a high energy level – let’s say we both had a difficult week and can’t wait to get together and start doing some music in the weekend. With that momentum, we are both excited, putting beats in there, throwing lyrics. We eventually feel very satisfied that the next week, we already finish and post it! There are also times we cannot finish something for months. And after half a year, suddenly an idea pops up, and we use it and have an “OK! It’s ready now!” moment. There are also seasonal aspects. For example, if we think that the weather is nice and the current song we are working on fits it perfectly. We will start rushing to release it. So, even the weather might give a push on answering, “What is necessary? Good? Ready?” There are times when we try a new sound pack, and as we try it out, we create a finished song that we didn’t anticipate. So, it depends. At the end, we push ourselves to keep creating as much as we can, no matter what – starting or stopping things, however good or bad it sounds. It is a bit experimental.

I have to mention that currently we are not making a living out of this. This is our passion project. For professional musicians who are tirelessly making a living out of their art, the process I just described might not be case. They might have completely different, realities conditions and disciplines.

You can find some of her music here: