In the first of an occasional series, Miranda Glasser profiles Jennifer O’Sullivan
From the fast-paced world of the American music industry to being a DJ at Love FM, long-term Reaper Jennifer O’Sullivan has been on quite a journey, taking in waitressing, motherhood and yoga teaching along the way.
Last year marked her tenth anniversary living in Temple Town, and she says she has never been happier.
New Jerseyite O’Sullivan first came to Siem Reap in 2003 after spending 15 years working in the music industry, providing music for film and TV soundtracks. Having progressed from archivist at Warner/Chappell Music to talent scout, she became vice president of creative at Cherry Lane Music Publishing in New York where she supervised music selection for various films.
“I would show different artists or record companies movies we were working on,” she says. “Basically you get a script, figure out where the music is going to go and then in post-production you sit with the director and pick out the scenes – what kind of tempo, what kind of artist, what are you trying to convey.”
One of her favourite film projects was American Psycho, despite finding the book horrifying.
“I was apprehensive about it at first, but the director did a fantastic job with a potentially gruesome story,” she says. “I'm proud of that soundtrack and Christian Bale’s dialogue to introduce some of the tracks is really amusing.”
She also worked on the Pokémon video game franchise when it first came to the US.
“This was before American Idol,” O’Sullivan says. “We had all these kids come in and audition. We put together this cute little band and released a record – I think it went gold in America and platinum in Canada.”
Another highlight was consulting on the entrance music for WWE wrestling star Mark William Calaway, aka eight-time world champion ‘The Undertaker.’
“I helped them with the scoring session for The Undertaker’s theme and now when I see it being played here in Cambodia it cracks me up because I was there,” she says. “I helped book the musicians and it was this great, dramatic piece of music.
We had a string section in the studio and a big screen playing the video clip of The Undertaker’s entrance. They’re all playing along to it, smiling and that’s the kind of thing that I just loved – being able to take people to a totally different setting.”
In 2001 Los Angeles came calling, and she started working in creative development for Jive Records. One of her first projects took her to the set of Crossroads, where Britney Spears was singing "I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman", the climax of the film.
Except there was something slightly off about it.
“The funny thing was, it was a real rush job and the guy who wrote the song couldn’t find a female demo singer in time,” O’Sullivan says. “So the first time I ever heard the song was Britney lip-syncing it but with his voice, because she hadn’t recorded it yet. It was just hilarious. Now every time I hear it on Love FM here I think of that.”
Looking back, O’Sullivan describes her career as “ridiculous” and “kind of surreal” – a world of awards ceremonies, film festivals and hobnobbing with A-listers, where it was perfectly normal to hop on a tour bus with the Barenaked Ladies, or attend the Grammys.
“I guess the bottom line – and the one reason why I’m here now – is I really like helping people,” she says. “Whether it’s putting together a lyricist with a track person and have them come up with a really good song, or finding a song that you know is perfect for a scene in a movie and seeing that marriage happen – it’s a thrill.”
In 2003, however, O’Sullivan felt it was time for a change and decided to travel to do volunteer work in Southeast Asia where, she says, she “fell in love with Cambodia”.
Her first job was bar tending at Angkor What? Bar, where she met her husband, Alex Sutherland, with whom she has two children.
“I was just going to stay for six months but then decided I really liked it,” she says. “After I got here, it’s funny – I realised that what I was really trying to do all along was simplify my life.”
She later taught yoga at Peace Café but before that a job came up, of all things, DJ-ing at English-language radio station Love FM.
“I worked there in 2004 when it first opened,” she says. “I did the drive-time show; I was DJ Jenny-O. We were supposed to play love songs and talk, to help people learn English. I played everything from Kiss to Elvis. I loved it.”
O’Sullivan says moving to Siem Reap gave her a “totally new perspective,” and made her realise just how much unnecessary stress she had in her old life.
“Now I get it,” she says. “It’s just what you make of it, and whenever I go back it seems like everybody’s really tired and stressed – it doesn’t seem like they’re having as much fun as we are.”
Nowadays, O’Sullivan volunteers promoting the wildlife conservation organisation, Sam Veasna Centre and is Siem Reap’s consular warden for the US Embassy.
She has seen many changes over the years, particularly regarding the expat community.
“It’s grown a lot – and for the better,” she says. “There are lots more families and things for people to do, whereas before it just seemed like if you didn’t want to live this dissipated lifestyle you were kind of just stuck home watching TV.
“Around 2005 I noticed old people for the first time – before that it was a lot of backpackers. Now you see people of all ages and it’s an extremely popular spot for single women travelers because it’s deemed a safe place.”
She adds that when fellow-Americans ask why she lives here, she says it’s “like Mayberry but with interesting people” – Mayberry being the fictional small town of 60s TV hit The Andy Griffith Show.
“Everybody knows everybody, and if everybody knows everybody and is friendly then somebody’s got your back,” she says. “It’s got this real small town sense of community, and I really like that about Siem Reap. I can’t think of a better place to live.”