Mainstream Cambodian musicians are masters of the cover, with popular karaoke stars often driving their success with regional hits translated into Khmer, stylised, and played over and over.
But this week a BKK1 bubble-tea café was swarming with excitement for original music – singer-songwriter style – when Songkites, the three-month mentorship program for young artists writing their own songs, hosted the launch of its second album, Season of Love. Teens buzzed from counter to counter, phones in hand, selfie-side up. The new pop-rock tunes played overhead.
The program, founded in 2014 by Euan Gray and Carrie Herbert, fostered its first “season” of young artists that year, with an album in September. It was a hit, with a few of the artists becoming sudden stars.
Gray was pleasantly surprised. “It created quite a buzz, and quite a few household names,” he says. Some – Nikki Nikki, Jimmy Kiss and Soria Oung – will perform this afternoon when this year’s Songkites take the stage to conclude the season.
Auditions for the second season took place in June, and Gray says the nine artists selected have a particular passion for songwriting.
“They are really committed not to copy, to the passion to be original,” Gray says. “They have such a hunger for creativity. It makes better songs that way.”
This year’s artists – five women and four men between the ages of 18 and 24 – come from various provinces but are currently based in Phnom Penh. Each gets a song on the album, with one collaboration; just over half are in Khmer, and the rest in other languages. It’s part of the song-writing process, Gray says, to let these influences take shape naturally.
The Songkites project blends both of its founders’ backgrounds: Gray is a musician by trade, and Herbert an arts psychotherapist. (She co-founded Ragamuffin Cambodia, an arts therapy NGO and Songkites partner, in 2001.)
Herbert says the therapy bit is a matter of environment. “The curriculum brings together all elements of being in the music industry,” she says. “But it’s embedded in core values . . . to foster the well-being of the individual.”
She points to the Songkites studio – housed near Russian Market overlooking a green courtyard – as an example. “That’s hard to find here,” she says, and it’s certainly not something offered by the mainstream music industry.
That’s starting to change. Programs like Songkites, and artists like Cambodian-American Laura Mam, are urging support for individual creativity over repetition. “There’s this big push for original music here – this is a way to support that,” Gray adds. “This isn’t an easy journey, to be an original artist in any part of the world.”
One of the artists to find his voice in the Songkites studio this year is Felix Sea, 23, who wrote the lyrics to his track on the first day of the program. “I just sang to it,” Sea says. “And after that, Euan said, ‘That could be a song. Have you recorded that?’”
On Street 63 on Tuesday, technicians mounted a banner bigger than the café storefront advertising the weekend concert to those caught in morning motorbike traffic. Gray laughed.
“This thing has a tendency to be larger than life,” he said.
The Songkites Season of Love concert is on Saturday at 3:30pm at the Black Box Theatre at the International School of Phnom Penh. The album is available exclusively through Smart Music until September 15, when it will be released on all digital platforms.