Kak Chanthy’s mood had shifted dramatically. The singer from Prey Veng stood at the boarding gates at a Melbourne Airport terminal, bound for Sydney to record her trademark sultry 60s melodies with Astronomy Class: a bevy of Australian hip hop heavyweights including The Herd frontman Shannon Kennedy, better known as the gregarious, opinionated Ozi Batla.
“I felt powerful, independent, liberated – and like I could get to work,” she muses.
Not long before she had stood in the leafy lawns of Montsalvat, an artists’ colony in the bohemian belt in the north of Melbourne and felt uneasy.
For the usually vivacious frontwoman of psychedelic rock band The Cambodian Space Project, the cackle of kookaburras, the powerful, heady scent of eucalyptus saplings and the quiet, cool halls were foreign sensations.
In April, she and her creative partner and CSP guitarist Julien Poulson were afforded a wonderful opportunity: to spend six weeks as artists-in-residence living inside the mud brick studio cottages. He was to pen his personal tale of discovering Cambodia’s golden age of rock ‘n’ roll, and she to write lyrics for the band’s new album, to be recorded in Detroit with guitar guru and subject of the Academy-award-winning film Searching for Sugarman, Dennis Coffey, in just over a month.
She was laced with guilt, she says: rather than feeling inspired to write she felt exposed and anxious and wanted to leave.
For Poulson, Montsalvat was laden with meaning. Years ago, against the same stained glass windows Chanthy posed for photos next to, he had given a poignant eulogy for a young, close friend he had spent “significant, life-changing times” with in Cambodia.
Poulson was writing furiously each day, but for a woman at ease amidst the cacophony of Phnom Penh’s traffic and the humid, thick air of the country’s rice fields, Montsalvat was not conducive to the creative process.
Moreover, she was grieving, after suffering the tragic loss of two unborn babies.
“I didn’t do much there. For better or worse I don’t know. I didn’t feel productive. I had too much time to think, it wasn’t good for me.”
Within days she had left for Sydney. “The old world artist’s colony of 1930s Melbourne didn’t offer her the same ‘space’ as it provided me,” says Poulson.
A few months before, the pair were in Phnom Penh eagerly anticipating the trip. They’d performed a string of well-received shows around Cambodia and were about to embark on a four month trip around the globe – Australia, Scandinavia, France, Spain, and the icy northern reaches of the world – Estonia and Finland. They were also delivered with the news that they were going to have twins.
Already the mother of her biggest fan, eight-year-old Makara, Channthy was almost four months pregnant. Although the pair wanted to keep the news quiet their elation was palpable. They had planned appointments with midwives, discussed where the babies would be born, how Chanthy would cope on tour with pregnancy associated changes: appetite, lethargy, emotions and nausea.
Then, just weeks before their trip, Chanthy suffered a miscarriage. Doctors couldn’t explain why it had happened. An armed burglary on a tour in Battambang had upset her greatly, and this second lot of bad news, just days later, had been heartbreaking for them both, Poulson says.
Australia was a time of bereavement for the pair.
“We both took it slow and worked through it together. And were able to then continue with the tour,” Poulson says.
Chanthy’s response was to leave Melbourne to dive headfirst into a five-day recording session with Kennedy and Astronomy Class. Music became a coping mechanism, she says, and a way to feel at home again, writing Cambodian stories.
“I was sick in Australia… still sick from Phnom Penh. I craved home, something that I knew,” she says.
The outcome was music loaded with metaphors and her views on a plethora of Cambodian issues: gender equality, land rights, and the more universal themes of love and loss.
Poulson is particularly fond of Cook Angry Birds with Ginger, a witty social commentary about an owl that steals from a smaller bird – an allegory for the encroachment of other cultures, or something more political?
“She sees it as acting and responding to the environment where she lives…these are things that affect her tremendously while she’s away, she’s always on Youtube looking up videos of Cambodia the whole time,” Poulson says.
Woman Wants to Drink, is Chanthy’s response to the gender inequality she and her peers have witnessed and experienced - the tale of a young, pretty village girl that is celebrating her freedom in the city for the first time, yet men label her promiscuous and drunk.
“Men look down on her for drinking, but she’s having one drink, why shouldn’t she be allowed to? She’s not drunk…she’s independent, has a broken heart but she won’t [wallow],” she says
Astronomy Club’s Kennedy says Chanthy’s contribution had been invaluable: “[She’s] a wonderful person, and was very easy to work with. She brought some great ideas to the studio and sounded great on the beats, even though it was her first time singing over hip hop. Her knowledge of the golden era songs and her voice were real blessings for the EP…we were hooked straight away.”
Kennedy says it was an invitation to perform at the Phnom Penh-based Tiger Translate event last year that spurred an interest in the vintage 1960s sounds of Sin Sisamouth and other golden age singers.
Further interest was piqued after Klap Ya Handz sent a compilation of old “catchy, dreamy and funky” songs they’d never heard before and they began sending demos and tracks back and forth to Poulson and Chanthy. They will release the record in Australia later in the year.
Cambodian Space Project, meanwhile, will record five 60s and 70s classics and five of Chanthy’s originals in Detroit - standouts are the weird and wonderful Trip to the Moon, with the singer inviting the animals from Noah’s Ark to ride past the Khmer constellations with her into space and Whisky Cambodia, an epic ode to Cambodia’s liquor of choice.
Working in the city is an opportunity Poulson is thrilled by.
“I grew up on Detroit music, from Motown to Iggy Pop and the Stooges, then you’ve Eminem and Madonna in the middle, The White Stripes…and now Thy wants to do her Amy Winehouse in Asia, Ike and Tina, R‘n’B thing.”
While on tour in a Spanish town in the Pyranees, Chanthy rifled through old Latin and Tina Turner records and danced the cha cha and the mambo. “It was so similar to Cambodia…I can hear the influences. These are things I didn’t realise,” she says.
But it was Helsinki, in Finland, that Chanthy formed an intense connection with, embraced by the small but passionate Cambodian Diaspora community living there. Many of them are political dissidents living in exile or as refugees: the former journalist and editor of 1990s newspaper Serei Pheap Thmei (New Liberty News), the wife of slain unionist Chea Vichea and Sam Rainsy Party activist Sok Yoeun, who fled to Thailand after being accused of a rocket attack on the Prime Minister in 1998.
“The person who put us up was Sophorn Sar [the former New Liberty News editor, a very kind and humble man,” says Julien.
“They got us there early to meet the Cambodian community and then we realised we were in a library in Helsinki full of exceptional people. It’s a place of strong Cambodian stories at the end of the world really - the very north.”
Their music, too, was met with a warm welcome.
“There’s a major alternative world music festival in Helsinki, Maailma Kylässä, it kicks out that whole Peter Gabriel idea of world what music is, you know wooden instruments and the like. The Finns do things a little differently. The city of Helskini has put it on since the 60s, it’s absolutely huge, about 80,000 people there and a huge response for us. The worst and the best thing about that particular performance was that Pussy Riot were playing a set at the same time – the two free members – we thought ‘oh no, everyone will go to see them’. But they didn’t appear for security issues, you know it’s so close to Russia there. A lot of Cambodians came to see us.”
Chanthy says she was shocked to see colossal portraits of her and the band plastered to buses in the city.
“I never realised we were going there as Julien kept saying Finland and in Cambodia we call it Funland! The community were so close knit and warm and embracing. People were really curious about Cambodia now, and more importantly they responded to the music, music that brought happy memories for some of them. They made lots of Cambodian food - fish soup, but also Finnish pancakes, and invited us into their homes.”
“Watching a group of young girls in the front row in Helsinki was great,” she says.
“For these people to seek Thy out is very special,” Poulson adds.
Yet she seems surprised by recognition. In Singapore, the band had exceeded the luggage allowance on their cut-price Tiger flight – a Cambodian-Singaporean female fan on her left and a group of Indian fans on her right piped up and said they were star struck and their bags were waved through.
Is it important, then, as a performer with an international reach, to have a message?
“Yes of course, but outside of Cambodia I can be stronger with that, you know.”
She says what is hardest is leaving her large family, who she supports (“My heart and soul is Prey Veng”) and fears a widening distance as she travels and experiences things they have not.
“It’s hard that [the people of Prey Veng and other far flung areas] are rarely going to connect with our music. That is hard. I’m anxious to go back,” she says.
Their next biggest performance, this Saturday at the FCC, will mark the 100 day ceremony marking her uncle’s death which she will not attend.
“Everyone now has to make these sacrifices, I understand, but it doesn’t make it easier.”
She’s close to her father, who shed tears when she returned from the recent tour, but the death of her mother, from tuberculosis, in 2011 had a profound impact on her life. The family were devastatingly poor – Chanthy worked as a child in rubber plantations .
Prior to a Christmas trip to Australia in 2010 – Chanthy’s first to the country – her mother fell ill but was adamant that her daughter go on the trip. They took her to Calmette hospital, where friends took a laptop in and they Skyped daily.
“When we got back we had a month together,” says Chanthy, remembering what she calls “the hardest thing”.
“We had planned to take her to Kep – she had never seen the sea- but then suddenly the doctors said it would be days. We got her in a car…I wanted her to be on her own Prey Veng soil…but she passed away in our arms at the ferry crossing at Neak Leung.”
Poulson points out it is Chanthy who determines much in the creative direction of the band: from the lyrics, to dances, film clips and her kaleidoscopic costumes.
“When I go back to the village with a barang, they don’t understand what I do and want money. They don’t realise I work for myself, I’ve built this career, I manage myself and take creative control.”
“Here there isn’t really a culture anymore of people writing new music and stories that challenge people to think. For women,with music, its more likely to be a beauty contest or pageant. They don’t write songs to move or make people think or feel something. That’s what she does- picks up little things- a bird, an old man on a hill in Mondulkiri- metaphors and symbols.”
Poulson sees something unique and special in Chanthy and the band and he’s on a mission for the world to see those same things.
“Just to bring something – this incredible sound - from the rice fields, to export it, it’s why I’ve stuck around,” he says.
“What we do as a band is rough and ready and it taps into the roots - it is special.T hy’s a strong and empowered woman and it’s not easy but we’re doing it and it’s a great trip.”
The Cambodian Space Project will perform at the FCC’s rooftop terrace this Saturday at 8:30pm.