A jet lagged Laura Mam took to the stage last Saturday night at the grand opening of Rokku, a new five-storey sushi bar, club and performance space on the corner of Phnom Penh’s Sisowath Quay and Sihanouk Boulevard.
Fresh off a flight from the US, where she had just finished recording a new EP in San Diego, she rallied to perform at the glistening black and red venue – which she co-owns – only the latest of the busy Cambodian-American singer and entrepreneur’s various musical and business ventures.
Patrons sipped Moet and Hennessey – the event’s sponsors – and ordered from a Japanese-fusion menu with two items bearing the singer’s name: a cocktail called the Yes Mam and the $12 Laura Mam Rock and Roll sushi roll, which features spicy scallops, tuna and baked clams.
Then from a balcony overlooking Rokku’s fourth-floor lounge area, Mam performed two songs – “the fun ones”, she said – from her 2014 album In Search of Heroes, as two backup dancers accompanied the music with jaunty, elastic moves.
Much ofIn Search of Heroes was written when Mam was living in the US and “dreaming about Cambodia”. But her new recording, a sequel titled In Search of Heroes Part 2 EXTENDED, draws on her experiences since becoming a full-time resident of the Kingdom a year and a half ago, a move she calls “the best decision of my life”.
The EP, due for release next month, will showcase a distinctly Khmer sound. One track, For My People, pairs a thumping kick drum and handclaps with a cheerful lead melody played on a Cambodian gong, plus a loop played on the tro, a Khmer stringed instrument, which she sampled from a traditional dance piece.
The song is currently in English, but Mam plans to record Khmer vocals at her home studio with the assistance of her mother, Thida Buth Mam, who she calls her “main Cambodian lyricist”.
“Speaking and reading Khmer has been incredibly important for me to connect here with both the land and its people,” said Mam, who has been studying the language in earnest since college.
In the song’s rousing chorus, Mam delivers a lyrical message aimed squarely at Cambodian youth: “I just wanna dance for the people in my nation”.
For the pop star, whose populist appeal recently landed her a gig as the face of a Smart Axiata billboard campaign and a slot opening for British singer Jessie J at a concert that drew thousands to Koh Pich in December, attaching her name to an upscale sushi joint may seem like an unexpected venture.
But Mam, 29, doesn’t see the move as a left turn. Rather, it’s another step in her quest to cultivate a new generation of Khmer musicians. “The Khmer art scene is so young that it should be open to influences,” she said. “And we should be open to allowing it to grow with the world.”
She envisions the restaurant’s fifth-floor performance space as a launching pad for up-and-comers, including those she has begun fostering through Baramey Production, her new record label and artist management firm.
Though Baramey’s roster of artists is still under wraps, Mam has recently collaborated with Kmeng Khmer, a group who appear on her most recent single, Navanny Ku Kyom.
“They write their own lyrics and music, rap, sing, dance, everything,” she said. “They are talents that I believe in and want to support as much as I can.”
Mam produced the Navanny Ku Kyom music video, and said she will also provide creative direction for her upcoming music videos, one of which she plans to shoot at Rokku.
But while the playful classroom setting of Navanny Ku Kyom is clearly aimed at a broad swath of Cambodia’s youth, it’s not quite as easy to imagine Rokku, whose floors bear the names of upscale Tokyo neighbourhoods, as a backdrop for the same.
Asked whether the venue, with top-shelf alcohol and entrees running as high as $28, would be accessible for all of her fans, Mam replied, “I think the price point is really competitive.”
With a “college night” and other youth-friendly ventures in the works, she said Rokku was a space “for everybody”.
While it’s too soon to say whether Rokku will successfully pair fine dining with homegrown music to bridge Phnom Penh’s stratified nightlife, Mam clearly has her heart set on creating a culture of inclusivity.
Later in the evening at the grand opening, Mam relocated to Rokku’s intimate fifth-floor stage and played a second set, this time of relaxed acoustic covers.
She selected a pair of songs that have been landmarks in her artistic career: Tamia’s Officially Missing You, one of the first songs she ever learned on guitar, and Pan Ron’s Sva Rom Monkiss, which Mam’s band The Like Me’s originally recorded in 2010.
It was the viral popularity of that cover, she said, that led her to launch her musical career in Cambodia.
Now, more than five years later, Mam seeks to extend her influence far beyond her initial success as a YouTube star. She has an opportunity to shape the next generation of art in Cambodia, and she knows it.
“There’s so much room for creativity in every sector: restaurants, music, film,” she said before taking the stage. “It’s this very special transition for Cambodia right now.”