Please briefly introduce yourself and Cambodian Space Project.
My name is Channthy, full name Kak Channthy but sometimes I’m called Srey Thy – this just means Miss Thy in Cambodia. I’m best known as singer/songwriter with The Cambodian Space Project – a cross-cultural mix of musicians first formed by myself and Australian guitarist Julien Poulson around December, 2009.
When did you find yourself interested in music? Have you ever got academic training in Cambodia before?
I’ve never had any academic training, this is near impossible for anyone who has grown up in my situation, my parents and most of the people in my province Prey Veng have mostly had extreme hardship from war and poverty. Being the oldest girl (two others died during the famine shortly after Khmer Rouge years) I have had to work from a young age to help my family and look after baby brothers. I found my love for music from birth really, from my mother and my father and from listening to the old songs the radio played in the early eighties… I was born just after Pol Pot quit Phnom Penh and after the Khmer Rouge – the regime had outlawed music and killed many artists but by the early eighties music and community dances had returned, I was born into the biggest baby boom in the World’s history. Even after Pol Pot left Phnom Penh the civil war continued for many years. My Dad was an army tank driver, we moved around the conflict zones and there’s a picture of us at this time where we are both listening to the radio, later I learned that Bong Sak (our Cambodian Space Project drummer) had also served in the army with my father.
What jobs did you do before you became a professional singer? How did you feel when you had to do things you did not like to make a living everyday?
I have always had to work for my family’s survival, no time to feel bad about this, just keep going. I have at times had very scary situations, you learn to grow-up and look-out for trouble from a very young age, not much time to be a child. I recall times working alone in the rubber plantations when there was still many bandits around or later, in Phnom Penh, I labored on building sites then after a while, an owner of a beer garden hired me to sing, I got $2 a day and felt lucky about this. Other bad things happened, once I was tricked by the owner of a beauty salon, kidnapped and tied up to a bed in a room where no-one could hear me scream but I kept yelling out and later a woman came, I still don’t know who she is, and helped me escape, she gave me 5000riels ($1.50) to escape.
I read the summary story of you and Julien from RTHK website and I am so touched. Could you please tell me about it in details? (How, where and when did you meet Julien? How Julien helped to you to form a band and make your dream come true? How you two work together in music creation? etc.)
Julien came one night to a beer garden where I had just started working, it was a hostess bar where foreigners would come and as I had never worked in this place before, I asked a fortune teller what would my future be. Coincidentally Julien had also met this fortune teller, a card reader, just 2 days earlier but he just wanted to film him because the guy was a foreigner working on the streets of Phnom Penh. When I met Julien I could not speak English and he didn’t speak Khmer but he did come with his headphones and laptop and played me his collection of old Cambodian music – I couldn’t believe a foreigner would be interested in this, my music. Julien wanted to know if I was a singer, so I invited him to hear me sing with a group at another beer garden where there was a regular band and singers like myself performing every night. I sang a Cambodian classic Somlang Gitar which Julien was very moved by, he knows the song as Johnny Guitar by Peggy Lee. We met again but Julien was leaving Cambodia, he promised to come back in 6 months and to help me by making some recordings, later we fell in love, formed a band and became known as The Cambodian Space Project.
How is music industry developed in Cambodia nowadays? Can you tell me more about ‘Cambodia’s music’s golden age of the 1960s and ‘70s’? Does the government still not support arts and culture to develop nowadays?
I think there is now a strong music industry in Cambodia but I don’t really have a lot to do with this…this is mostly very commercially driven production houses making Karaoke for the local scene and creating pop stars based on styles from Korea. The show the Voice is very popular in Cambodia and Cambodian people love music and dance so yes, there’s an industry. But many think today’s artists are nothing on the quality of the Golden Era singers of pre-war Cambodia. I agree with this, I find it much more fulfilling to try and write and record music that is influenced by great artists who clearly write and sing for heart and soul and really express something true and meaningful.
As for the government supporting the music scene, it’s only very small support, mostly for the kind of music or arts that make the government look good. Most of the support I have received has come from foreign arts organizations and this is good because it helps build our emerging artists and culture at a time when our country and the government is still developing.
I see many scenes of your MV are surreal but also show some real street view in Cambodia, such as 5 lady cows. What message do you want to express through this kind of MV? May I describe your MV is ‘cult’? And what is your inspiration to create this kind of MV? Who is your favorite director?
I’m not sure what you mean by cult but yes, my videos for CSP are a mix of techniques. Sometimes animation and sometimes a montage of vintage graphics and videos. Mostly our videos are very lowbrow because we don’t really have a budget to spend a lot of money on videos, we’d rather put money into our recordings and band. The videos are fun because it’s really a group effort to get together and make these. We have some really creative people in our team and it’s more a family than a band. 5 Lady Cows is a good example of this, filmed by videographer Samy Nine who was following the band for a 30day/night tour and edited by Julien who likes to make our graphics and videos as his own art. The song is my story – It’s about going to the city, forming a rock’n’roll band, making money from gigs then using this to buy cows for my village. Last year I bought 5 girl cows, they’re the best because they nurture baby cows and now I have 20 cows.
5 LADY COWS MV
Who is your favorite director? I can’t really say who my favourite film director is, before, I didn’t watch a lot of films – I’d never been to the cinema until I joined CSP – but I did love old Hong Kong films and Chinese opera on TV. Today I’m working with filmmakers and theatre directors and I love this work and the people I’m working with, I’m learning a lot from this. I like the Blues Brothers, I love the Amy Winehouse documentary and also the Searching for Sugarman and the film about Tina & Ike Turner. I’m happy to see the work of new Cambodian filmmakers reviving the golden era of Cambodian cinema and King Norodom Sihanouk’s films of the 1960’s.
Where do you get inspiration when creating music? Who is your favorite famous singer?
When we started I didn’t know any foreign music only Cambodian. My inspiration has always been the great Cambodian singers of the 60’s such as Pan Ron who is my favourite then Ros Sereysothea, Houy Meas, Yol Alarong and of course Sinn Sisamouth – the great singer and producer of this era and these singers. All were killed during Pol Pot times. I still work regularly with Sinn Sisamouth’s grand son, Sinn Sethakol, he is also a singer and my soundman.
I’m also influenced as much by these singers as I was by my Mum, she’d wanted to be a singer and teacher but war cut this short, she’d always sing to me and she believed in my dreams too. Since forming the CSP, I’ve been able to travel the world and as Julien says “this is my University”… I have learned so much and discovered so many singers and musicians, my favourites are Motown singers but also the first really great female r & b singers like Tina Turner and Aretha Franklin then others like Nina Simone through to Ester Phillips and contemporaries like Amy Winehouse. I got to work with Dennis Coffey who produced my third album Whisky Cambodia – Dennis was in-house guitarist at Motown and is best known for his work with Marvin Gaye, The Temptations and even Sixto Rodriguez through to the funky wah-wah soundtracks for Bruce Lee movies. It was strange but very cool to bring my Cambodian music to Detroit to work with Dennis and the musicians of Motor City, I learned a lot and I think they did too.
Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock’n’Roll film
8. I have been Cambodia last year, I love this country so much, but see many social problems, such as wide gap between rich and poor, lack of source in education, and females are not respected in society. Do you think your music can help Cambodia to develop? Have you ever tried to show those social problems in your music or MV to make people think about it?
Yes, you’re right, there’s much to love about Cambodia and of course, I love it too, it’s my country, my people. But there are so many social problems and mostly because of poverty and the gap between rich and poor. I have since lived in other countries and I feel so sorry for our people, mostly living very hard lives with few opportunities to overcome poverty. I don’t know if music or art can really help in the short term but for me, music has always been a solace, bringing hope and love and helping to overcome hard times.
Could you please share your latest experience of having music show or music creation? (Such as, what did you expect to get from this show or album, what was the biggest challenge during your creation and how did you conquer it? How is the result? etc.)
Right now I’m back home in my village in Prey Veng, not far from the border with Vietnam. It’s a good time to be with family as it’s Khmer NY. I’m also here with my new band Channthy Cha Cha – this is a bit more local style than CSP and it’s been great to show the band to my community. They love what I’m doing and see it as something very special, it makes me feel very proud too. Before they called me ‘black bird’ but now see me as a great singer and say I’m ‘Hong’ – a golden mystical bird like a ‘Garuda’. At the last concert some old people were crying, they told me they wished my parents had lived long enough to see what I have become today. This makes me feel very happy and strong but I still have much work to do and need to keep working on my professional career – not so easy as CSP self-produces and needs to make money to make recordings or tours to make money. Still, I’m very happy with what we have achieved so far, it’s still amazing and surprising to me too.
Cambodian Space Project documentary
Which song or album is your favorite one? Why?
Do you mean from CSP? If so, then my favourite album is one I recorded in France a couple of years ago, it’s called Electric Blue Boogaloo and is only available on Bandcamp but will soon be re-released along with our other albums. EBB is full of songs that are very personal to me and also covers such as the track by Shocking Blue called Demon Lover – I love this song. The favorite song in the CSP set for most people is still Whisky Cambodia and this is one of the first songs I wrote. Another song that I wrote more recently is Never Fall Down – this really means a lot to me, it sums up the struggle of people coming from backgrounds like my own and reinforces the idea that you must keep going.
Never Fall Down
Electric Blue Boogaloo https://cambodianspaceproject.bandcamp.com/releases
Do you have any new project? If you have, could you please share it?
I have a few new projects, lately it’s been working up a live set with my Cambodian band Channthy Cha Cha. Meanwhile The Cambodian Space Project is doing a lot of studio stuff, we’ve almost finished an album we started nearly a year ago, it’s called “Spaced-Out in Wonderland” and is a mix of old and new songs – music that will be used in a new musical we’re developing called Yesterday Once More which is about events surrounding the disappearance of Khmer singer Pov Vannary who vanished (probably murdered) in the Killing Fields in 1975. CSP is also recording a cover version album as a tribute to Iggy Pop, a track-by-track interpretation of Iggy Pop’s 1977 release Lust for Life. This is an interesting project and I’m learning a lot, I’m only just discovering Iggy’s music now, mostly because I heard he played our music on his own BBC radio show but also the guys in our band and many others in the scene love Iggy Pop also his name looks a bit like mine Channthy Kak. The project almost fell over because a cat burglar broke into Jason Shaw’s (CSP guitar) room and stole his laptop and back up hard drives with all the recordings… we offered a cash reward and the HD of recordings came back so now, let’s hope, this will get finished and show our Cambodian version of a Western rock’n’roll icon as CSP’s 5th album.
Thank you for writing and asking about my story and my band The Cambodian Space Project, I hope we’ll make a trip to China soon.