Singer-songwriter Laura Mam, 27, stumbled into the entertainment world while attending the University of California, Berkeley after one of her original Khmer-language songs went viral on YouTube. After graduation, the US-born musician formed The Like Me’s all-female rock group in Cambodia. Two weeks ago she released her first solo album, Meet Me in the Rain. She spoke to Bennett Murray about growing up Khmerican, becoming a Cambodian star and the future of the nation.
Are your friends back in California surprised that you have become a pop star in Cambodia?
A little bit. They’re like, “When did you become a rock star? I thought you were going to be an archaeologist.” My whole plan before was to come here and become an archaeologist. History was my passion. It’s a part of why I’m here, too.
How did you end up coming to the Kingdom?
I always wanted to help rebuild something here, because I was raised well aware of what happened to my family. They were refugees. I’ve always had this desire to come back here and help out whatever way I can. If it’s not music, it will be something else.
What have you discovered on your North American tours of overseas Khmer population centres?
The diaspora is totally different in every city. They have totally different styles. In Montreal, they’ve got this French flavour and they’re very alive and enjoy life. And Long Beach, you’ve got more of a hip-hop, underground [scene]. It’s a kind of gritty, great community that gets together and they’re working together to build film, and they’re influenced obviously by Hollywood. The [San Francisco] Bay has several different pockets of Khmers. The ones living down in Silicon Valley are in tech, the ones in Stockton are providing small services or farming.
How are your Khmer language skills?
I’m at interview level so I can go on talk shows and TV shows. But I’m still learning. I studied Khmer in college because I majored in anthropology and focused on Cambodia as my area of specialty. But singing is a totally different realm. It’s a higher skill.
How is singing in Khmer different from English?
I know how to bend English words and get away with certain things. With Khmer words, there are only certain things you can do. But the words are also very poetic; the words mean something with triple layers of meaning.
What can we expect next?
I am working on a new full-length album called In Search of Heroes. It’s inspired by all the events here over the last three years. If you compare the last three years, the mind set of the people has been intensely different every single year. Especially this last year. We went from kind of a quieter type of people, just moving along in a survival mind set, to “let’s participate in our democracy – choosing our narrative”.
Isn’t that politically bold?
I’m not for one [party] or the other. You can say [the album] is political in the sense of people participating, because people participated in the elections, but to me that’s not just political, this is cultural. This is a cultural awakening. It is a period of people thinking about what they want and not just surviving. That’s what excites me, because I come from an anthropological background. The parents of the younger generation are entering the age of retirement. And that means that new leaders and young people who will have to take the lead in this country are going to have to get ready to move on.