Srey Thy: Living a better life as a Cambodian rock singer

Srey Thy: Living a better life as a Cambodian rock singer

We talk with Srey Thy about her escape from a life of poverty and abuse to become the lead singer of one of Cambodia’s hottest bands, the Cambodian Space Project

Srey ThySrey Thy.Srey Thy is an artist struggling to make ends meet, but her confidence and beaming smile suggest that after years of difficulty she is finally on the right track. Hailing from Prey Veng, one of Cambodia’s poorest provinces, life has thrown Thy some curve balls.

At 19, she was kidnapped and brutally forced into the sex trade. She says her escape is one of the defining moments in her life. Another moment was a chance meeting with Australian musician Julien Poulsen. Together they formed The Cambodian Space Project, and their 1960s Cambodian-rock Western fusion has been rocking the capital ever since. 

Having played 20 gigs in the kingdom, Thy, at 31, recently received her first passport -- to Hong Kong -- where The Cambodian Space Project played its first international gig. 

CNNGo: When did music first become a part of your life?

Srey Thy: I used to listen to my mother sing as a child at home and at school, where she used to perform for the students during recess. My parents couldn’t afford singing lessons, but I practiced by trying to sound like her, and after a while, I was singing in local restaurants in my home province Prey Veng. 

CNNGo: How did a girl from one of Cambodia’s poorest regions become a lead singer of one of the hottest bands in the country?

Thy: Just over five years ago, I moved to Phnom Penh to escape a life of poverty and a violent husband to pursue a career in singing. I began working in karaoke bars, but it was a difficult time. I earned less than US$100 a month and sent what I could back to my ageing parents and young son. I worked for different people, many of whom swindled me of my money. Then one day last year, I met Australian musician Julien Poulson while I was singing in a bar. We got talking and our mutual interests and talents led to the creation of the cross-over 1960s Cambodian-rock Western fusion style music that is the Cambodian Space Project.

CNNGo: Many people compare your voice to the 1960s legend Ros Sereysothea -- do you think this is a fair comparison?

Thy: I hope so. I love all the pre-war music and Ros Seretysothea is probably Cambodia’s greatest female singer. Cambodia was ahead of its regional neighbors before the Khmer Rouge killed many of the singers and destroyed much of their music, and I am pleased to honor their legacy while at the same time pushing musical boundaries within the country today.

CNNGo: While you sing covers from the 1960s, you mainly write your own music. Please talk a little more about your music and the symbolism of your lyrics.

Thy: My voice suits rock music -- I’m not so good at love ballads for example -- which is why I sing rock. To some degree or another, all my songs are related to family problems, love, dishonesty and desperation. Sometimes, I use traditional folklore to address some of these issues while the message in other songs isn’t as subtle! 

CNNGo: You mentioned desperation, what have been the most desperate moments of your life?

Thy: Being in an abusive relationship and being kidnapped. When I moved to Phnom Penh, I was duped into working in a brothel posing as a massage parlor. I still have a scar on my wrist from being handcuffed in a room. But I was lucky, as one of the other girls helped me escape and gave me US$2.50 to run away with. I don’t know what has happened to her since. 

Cambodian Space ProjectThe Cambodian Space Project from left to right are Gildas Maronneaud, Julien Poulson, Irene Chuon, Ratha Hahn, Srey Thy, Scott Bywater, and Ken White.CNNGo: How has the band changed your life?

Thy: I am more famous now, happier and my English has improved. The public support has given me hope for a better life. But I am still struggling to make a decent living; my income depends on the number of gigs we play. 

CNNGo: What are the challenges of playing in Cambodia?

Thy: There is a real thirst for live music in Cambodia, but the live [English-language] music scene remains largely neglected. It is a small city, so it is important to balance a need to make a living while avoiding over-exposure.

CNNGo: How many gigs have you played to date and which were the most memorable? 

Thy: Since we started in December, we have played over 20 gigs in all sorts of locations from private parties to concerts. I’d say as far as unusual goes, singing at an elephant’s 40th birthday party probably tops the charts. Playing in my hometown was an amazing experience -- the whole village came. I think they liked the music, but the pink suit drummer Scott Bywater was wearing distracted many people! And of course playing at the Hong Kong music festival 2010 was special.

CNNGo: Yes, you recently got your first passport, boarded your first flight and played your first international gig in Hong Kong -- how did it feel?

Thy: I was nervous checking in for both flights. I was scared. It was my first time flying and I cried all the way to Hong Kong.

CNNGo: How did performing in Hong Kong compare to performing in Cambodia? 

Thy: It was very different. I found it hard to express my feeling or emotions, perhaps because everything was so new to me. Unlike in Cambodia, the audience didn’t know who I was and weren’t familiar with Khmer music. I didn’t enjoy the first or second day, but by the third day the audience applauded me and enjoyed the music, so I was much happier. I didn’t see any Khmer people there. 

CNNGo: What are your ambitions?

Thy: To pay back all my debt to my mother; to own a house; and to have a happy family.

CNNGo: What can we look forward to in the coming months?

Thy: More gigs, I hope, and possibly a tour to France in August -- if I can get a visa.

For more information on the Cambodian Space Project and their upcoming gigs check out:


Phnom Penh-based journalist, Charlie Lancaster has been scouring the region’s countryside for stories and adventures since 2007
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