Liza Owens is a half-Cambodian, half-British singer who lives in London, but grew up in the southeast of the UK. Her Cambodian mother and British father met in Paris after her mother fled the Khmer Rouge regime of the 1970s. The 21-year-old’s first single, Young Guns, will be released in the UK in February, and is influenced by Cambodian sounds. She spoke to Emily Wight about her musical background, influences and connection with Cambodia.
When did you start singing?
I’ve only ever wanted to be an artist. I’ve had the same dream of making it big as a singer since I was seven years old, but have been singing ever since I can remember. I was going to different performing arts schools at the weekends and then started working with a producer when I was 13, which was my first taster of being in a recording studio and writing my own songs.
What was your biggest learning curve?
When I was 18, I joined a girl band called The Dolly Rockers and we were signed to a record label. I had an incredible experience during that time and learned a lot about the music industry, mostly how hard and cut-throat it is. We posted a lot of covers online and got more than 20 million YouTube hits, but in the end decided to go our separate ways because we wanted to do different things. But I made amazing contacts, learned a lot about myself as an artist and how hard you have to work to make it, so now I feel like I’m ready to make it happen.
How does your music reflect your Khmer heritage?
In my first single Young Guns, I use a sample of monks praying. I can’t wait to see what Khmer people think of it. There are other Asian influences, in terms of the instruments used and the melodies I sing. I really embrace being half-Asian, and wanted that to come across in my music. My party and hype songs have big rhythmic drums, chants and Asian-sounding samples. Everything I do creatively is influenced by my Khmer heritage so naturally I want to include musical touches from my mother’s country wherever I can.
Why is it so important to you to use Khmer influences in your work?
Even though I’ve lived in England my whole life I do feel very Khmer, as my mother started to take me to visit family in Cambodia since the age of seven, so I’ve lost count how many times I’ve been there. It’s part of my mission to bring some influences of Khmer music and tradition to mainstream music in the Western world. A lot of people in the UK don’t know a great deal about Cambodian culture and history, so I really want to wave the flag and share the beauty of Cambodia with people here.
Have you thought about breaking into Cambodia?
I would love the opportunity to do a concert in Phnom Penh after I’ve released my music next year. Cambodia is a small country and I feel like we support each other when we try to do great things around the world, so hopefully they will show as much love for me as I do for them. My cousins and friends over there love hip hop and Western pop music, so I think they would love for a half-British, half-Khmer artist to cross over and be successful.
Who is your role model?
My mother is the president of a London-based charity called CASUNIK. It supports Cambodians living in or visiting the UK. My mum has always taught me to embrace my Khmer heritage and to be proud of it, and how could I not be with an incredible role model like her?
What interests do you have other than music?
I have a huge love of fashion – I actually work part-time as a stylist when I’m not in the recording studio. I’m a very artistic person and I find that fashion is a great way to express yourself – you can be a different walking piece of art every day. I think it comes hand in hand with being a musician: the style in which you choose to express yourself through music, lyrics and images defines you.