Singing sensation Laura Mam is making waves in the music industry with her fresh take on Cambodian pop
By Daniel Besant Photography by Sam Jam
Laura Mam is a woman on a mission: to change the face of popular music in Cambodia. And this 29-year-old American-born singer-songwriter could be just the person to do it.
Born in San Jose, California, to Cambodian parents who found refuge in the US after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, tasting success as a performer amongst the Cambodian diaspora came as a surprise. Mam was initially set on a career as an archaeologist – one with an interest in Angkorian civilisation – but in 2008 she began to travel down a different path.
Heartbroken after a break up, a close friend encouraged her to start writing music. She eventually posted some songs on YouTube.
“I’d put out some covers, some Cambodian stuff,” she says while sat in a popular Phnom Penh cafe, “and I kept getting messages from Cambodian people from all around.”
The messages were clear. They encouraged her to make original music for the pride of the country. “It was echoing the feeling that I think Khmer people share, that we have a bit of shame when it comes to the fact that we copy a lot of music and haven’t had original music for a long time.”
The final push came when she discovered that a professor of ethnic studies in San Francisco had been set on a path of reconciliation with his father – who was once a traditional musician in Cambodia – through listening to her songs. “I realised then that music has the ability to create dialogue,” she explains. “It has the ability to cross boundaries in human relationships that are often very hard to cross in other circumstances. That’s when I was introduced to the ability of music to heal.”
Mam had discovered that music was her vehicle and that it could help her effect change. “Music is not necessarily my greatest passion, but it’s my tool and it has proved to be very useful,” she reveals with great honesty.
The young musician has a deep, innate bond with Cambodia. When she first visited the country in 1994, she was overwhelmed by the love she received from relations she had never met. Straight away, she felt a strong tie.
“I remember feeling a warm sensation in my stomach. I felt this weird connection to the ground, almost as if my DNA was reacting. I still feel it every time I get off a plane and arrive in Cambodia,” she reveals. “I remember feeling that this place was not home, but something felt right.”
Since moving to the Kingdom permanently in 2010, she has built up a strong fanbase with her considered output of what she describes as “modern electronic pop, but with a traditional base”.
Mam is no newcomer to Cambodia’s ancient melodious traditions though, having attended Khmer dance classes as a child, where she became familiar with the sounds and idioms of the country’s music. However, with parents in love with American culture, the songs of Santana, The Beatles and James Brown also found their way into Mam’s household, proving a sound basis for cross-cultural sonic experimentation.
However, her method of releasing music slowly and steadily goes against the grain of Cambodia’s current pop music scene, which typically features an unending treadmill of recorded karaoke-style covers.
“What I want to show, and with my last album I think I proved, is that you can produce original music and get paid and it can be popular,” says Mam. “The difference between karaoke and my model is that they’ll do an album a month and lots of singles.
I only did three singles and videos last year, and that model worked pretty well for maintaining popularity. It broke the idea that you have to be out there with a public face every single day to stay popular.”
Mam has now started her own production company, with the aim of providing Cambodian artists with an outlet for releasing their music and earning an income.
“I’m using my model for artists here who want to put out their own work and to start integrating them into an original model to see if it works for an already established star,” she explains.
While time will tell if her master plan works, her faith in Cambodia’s people is rock solid.
“While I’ve been here I’ve seen the face of hope,” she enthuses. “What I see is massive potential every day I am here and that makes me love Cambodians more.”
For a taste of Laura Mam’s music check out “Kyom Min Sok Chet Te” from her album In Search of Heroes.