In the beginning of 2012 graphic designer Rhiannon Johnson, 26, moved from London to Phnom Penh and started a career as a jazz singer, finding herself very much in demand…
1. Can you sustain yourself as a singer in Cambodia?
If I wanted to make a living from singing I would have to gig every night. But I don’t want that anyway, because apart from singing I also paint and teach. I haven’t met one musician who doesn’t have other interests – and another job. Not just because of the money, though.
2. How was your first gig in Phnom Penh?
One of my first gigs was at the Key Hotel. I was the stand-in for someone who was gone for a while. The great thing was that this event was regular and I got less and less nervous before every gig. Being nervous is a good thing though, because you can redirect nervousness to excitement.
3. Is it hard working while others have fun?
I chat and I socialise at the gigs, but I am not having a night out and I stay sober. Obviously, I am at work. That becomes especially apparent when I have to get up at six the next morning to prepare for the next gig. I have to make a conscious effort to stay healthy and make sure to always eat enough antioxidants and drink a lot of water. My first working week in Phnom Penh, I thought I’d lost my voice because I did not take enough care. I swore to myself that this would never happen again. There is just so much smoke everywhere in Phnom Penh and I wasn’t accustomed to singing in such an unhealthy environment.
4. Have you experimented with Cambodian music yet?
I am looking forward to working with Khmer artists, but I haven’t done that yet. There is one interesting project coming up that aims to revive Khmer music from the 60s. I have some Khmer music to listen to at home but I am not particularly familiar with it yet. I am always thrilled to work with different artists from different backgrounds, and I never say ‘no’ to anybody.
5. Does Phnom Penh get culturally boring at some point?
I miss galleries, museums, paintings and big concerts. But here you can be creative yourself and share your work, so it doesn’t feel so limited.
6. Would you recommend other foreign artists to come to Phnom Penh?
I guess it is easier for creative people to make a start here. London was intimidating, and when you see TV shows like The X Factor, where millions of people want to be stars and artists, you become aware of the fact that you are a small fish in a big pond. Phnom Penh is a small pond. You can create your own projects and join other projects easily. I have a talented friend that is putting together an art exhibition in Phnom Penh. She’s confident that she will do it. Back in the US she didn’t feel confident. People are very supportive here.
7. You say it’s easy. Does this mean you can have no artistic skills and still make it in Phnom Penh?
You cannot just get away with anything and be a bad artist just because you are in Phnom Penh. There are very capable artists here. They are not successful just because they are here but had already accomplished something before they came. They are in Phnom Penh and they are successful. Apart from that, Phnom Penh is a very small place, as I already said. That means it is easy to do what you like but you have the responsibility to do it well. Everybody knows everybody, and if you weren’t any good word would spread and nobody would book you anymore. Phnom Penh is a too small place to be dishonest. I would like to believe that.