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An Interview with Jimmy Kiss

Jimmy Kiss is a 28 year-old singer-songwriter from Phnom Penh. JACK DIAMOND spent a fascinating hour with Jimmy before his smash performance with Songkites at The Amazing Acoustic Picnic II. In his first full English-language interview, Jimmy talked about joining Dub Addiction; the lessons he has learned from his famous singing father; and why he is happy to be known as 'The Wildman' of the Cambodian music scene.

All photographs courtesy of Jimmy Kiss.

Who is Jimmy Kiss?

I was born and live in Phnom Penh. However, I spend more time in the Cambodian jungle and other places around Cambodia than I do in Phnom Penh. I do a lot of travelling around Cambodia because I work as a tour leader. I take customers of the tour company around Cambodia. I often take foreigners from Laos, Phnom Penh, and Siem Reap. The feeling I have when I am in the jungle, compared to being in the city, is so different. I am too young to live in the jungle now but if I have enough money from playing music I will go back to the jungle life and write songs.

Your hairstyle is quite different...

Most Cambodians don't wear their hair long. I don't understand why they don't like curly hair because, as you may know, you can go to Angkor Wat and see lots of carvings that have curly hair like mine. If you go to the provinces then there are a lot of guys that have curly hair but I wear it long – so people say 'you look different'. My father has the same hair.

Which area of Cambodia do you like to visit on your tours?

Kirirom Mountain. It is just 1.5 hours from Phnom Penh. Its on the border between Koh Kong and Kampong Speu provinces. It really is a beautiful place. I have made a lot of friends there. Most of the people who live around the top of the mountain were Khmer Rouge. It is not so far from Phnom Penh but most Cambodian people are scared of the jungle. However, I believe it is just so beautiful. The most important thing is you have to be friends with the people you meet there.

When people think about Kiriom mountain it is usually about the Cham Bok community or about the waterfall and pine trees. However, when I arrived there I met a Khmer Rouge family and we became friends – probably because I brought my small ukulele. I asked them a lot about their land and their home and, as such, we found a lot of beautiful places which other people don't know about. When people go to Kirirom they just go to the pagoda and the waterfall but there are also some places there called Jerooa P'dat Chivet and Tmor Loy – they are so beautiful. We also found a place called L'ang Cheeum D'ap - 'bleeding cave'. There is a lot of blood on the stones.

I want all the schools in Cambodia to give students the opportunity to spend more time in the jungle and to not feel so scared when they are there.. I want the students to love the music of the birds and the trees and to learn how beautiful life is next to the jungle.

When you sleep in the jungle, the sounds that you never hear in Phnom Penh will appear to your ear. Relaxing sounds, meditation sounds. That's why I like to stay in the jungle more than Phnom Penh because it helps create my songs. I usually take a small ukulele and when I get there I forget everything about Phnom Penh. There are good smells, beautiful views, the feeling of smiling faces around you and this creates a good environment for writing new songs. There are so many sounds of birds in the jungle and they are all so different. These sounds make music in your brain automatically. The sound of an animal [makes animal sound] becomes... [sings] 'Baby I'm Sorry'.

Can you remember the first song you wrote?

'Jom-riang Thmei Jam Srey Vilvinh' - It means 'A New Song is Waiting for You When You Come Back'. I was a Christian, I was in a church and a team of people from Singapore came to meet us. It was the first time for me to see a foreigner. Then a spirit came into my brain, it was the first time I made a new song. I made that song and I thought 'I hope she's coming back' then I will show the song to her - but she never came back ! I was around 19 or 20 years old. I'm 28 years old now. I have loved singing since I was a very small child.

My father was a very famous singer before the Khmer Rouge period. Unfortunately, he had to burn all his albums and photos and throw them in the river. He did this to protect his life. If they had known that he was a famous singer then they would have killed him. So he cut off his hair and made his skin very dirty and no-one knew he was a famous singer. He's still alive today. Now he is 62 years old. I think people of his age will know him well. His name is Vor Sarun. 'Bontorng Ksaey Ko Sak Seiy', that's his song. Also a very famous one is 'Maxi Songha'.

It's hard for me to understand his life. Some television channels ask him to perform and some bands ask him to join them but it seems that he just wants to be a farmer. He lives on the Kirirom mountain and has a farm. He enjoys working with his tractor and his cow. He enjoys that life. Maybe it is the Pol Pot period that made him feel that way. He used to be a very famous singer but after the Pol Pot period he changed a lot. Most of his friends and his band were killed by the Khmer Rouge. Maybe this broke his heart. He still likes singing and he taught me a lot about how to do it. He also taught me a lot about how to be a good person for Cambodia, but he doesn't care much for singing in public any more - for me I love it. I have to do it!

Jimmy's Father, Vor Sarun
My father taught me how to sing and he showed me 'the feeling of the singer'. He said it's very important to put real soul into the song. Sometimes if you lose your confidence on stage then the song is not your song at all - it becomes something else. The most important thing is that you have to put the real story into your soul and then you feel that 'oh, it's my problem' and then your heart beats at the right speed. Sometimes I cry when I sing. I use emotion - it's very important.

I have played music for 6 years. The most amazing time for me on stage was the first time I sung with Bobby Michaels [American Gospel singing star, did a lot of Christian 'Musicianary' work in Cambodia and Asia up until his death in March 2009]. It was at a concert for Khmer for Crisis. I sang a song called You Raise Me Up. I was very nervous as this was the first time I had ever sang in front of an audience. Bobby told me to take a deep breath and hold it and then I would feel confident. It worked! It was the an amazing because, for the first time in my life, I could sing with love inside my heart and have confidence on stage.

Bobby Michaels
Also, I used to sing with Philippe Javelle at the Topaz Restaurant. I would sing my own original songs, Sinn Sisamouth songs, and Western songs with him. We would sing about ten songs per day then I would go home. My father also taught me Western songs. 'If you want to be a famous singer then you have to learn Hotel California'. If I sing that song then I have to make sure that I have had enough sleep and done enough exercise. There is not much space for breathing in that song.

When I see you sing, it's like watching an Opera singer, you sing with your whole body, very loud. You start by holding the microphone next to your stomach, then bring it up to your mouth and throw your head back. Most singers haven't got that kind of power...

I also need to make sure I get enough sleep and exercise on the day of a performance. This is very important for a singer. When you exercise you make your lungs bigger and stronger. You have to be bigger than the song. 'Baby I'm Sorry' is a difficult song because it has high notes. I have to practice so that I feel that I can reach the notes. If we do a lot of preparation like this then it is easier to sing. You have to be more than the song and then you can control the song. You can do more because your lungs are bigger. I will feel scared if I don't sleep enough the night before the performance. I have to do exercise like Bobby Michaels taught me - take a breath and hold it for a long time. Then I feel good and confident.

Singing with Dub Addiction

Push-ups are good idea – doing push-ups and taking long breaths. Then you hold it and come down again. You make your lungs bigger and stronger. When we sing, we also need to know where is our sound? In Cambodia we call it the 'ghost sound' and 'original sound'. Ghost sound is high and original sound is like speaking. When you find it you can make original sound and ghost sound together. It's not easy.

Tell me more about the Songkites project...

Philippe told me about Songkites. I then went to have interview and I became a member. There are ten members of Songkites and we meet once or twice a week to make a workshop and brainstorm. It's very important to see each other once per week. It's been going around 3 months. I love Songkites so much - it's like we are a family. They offer a lot of experience to Khmer people. I know how to make a song but I don't have much experience. As you may know, we don't have a lot of good quality of musicians in Cambodia because of the Khmer Rouge period. So the people involved - Euan Gray, Charlie Corrie, Philippe and Sebastien [Adnot] use Songkites to help with this problem. I have gained a lot of experience from what they have told me. What they bring for Cambodian people is the real thing.

Songkites has given me a lot of motivation for new songs. The songs come to me like a storm. I have written around 30 of my own songs, but, for now, I have only performed to people around fifteen songs. For New Song Production I gave them about ten songs. People use them for recordings. It seems that trying to sell new songs does not meet with a lot of success - maybe Cambodians like cover songs.

I write songs not only for Songkites but also for other organisations. For example, I am also a freelance artist manager at JTone Productions. I also made a movie called Kon Dap Dia Krung Pas Jong Kung Jun Na Bot. It was released around 3 months ago. I am also a Bokator [Cambodian Boxing] student. I was a boxer for about one year but I did not do this on television because my family did not like it. Generally I just went to the provinces to fight.

Can you see yourself as a star?

I can say that this is my dream. I want to show Cambodia to the world. I really want to be a Cambodian star - but a Cambodian star that can show Cambodian style to people outside Cambodia. I've been around my own country and I have found a lot of beautiful things and that's why I want to be a famous singer. I want to share these beautiful things with the world. Cambodian instruments like the Chapei, for example. Life is not long. Before I die I hope I can do something for my country.

How did the Dub Addiction collaboration happen?

I like that kind of music so much but I had never had experience with it before. Sebastien and Jan [Mueller] called me to join the band and it was like 'wow!' Surprising, exciting. I like it. We just started right around the same time as Songkites. Sebastien was helping Songkites by playing bass. We talked with each other and then we made a song together. They had already made some very beautiful music and they asked me if I could do something. I just took the microphone, closed my eyes and said 'let me use my soul'. The music happened to me. I put the new melody to it and lyrics at the same time. They said 'Wow! You can do it... can you join the band?'

I do sing traditional music also. I try a traditional style with Dub Addiction. Traditional music is not only wedding music but also Sinn Sisamouth songs. Sinn Sisamouth used to put a lot of traditional instruments in his songs. Sinn Sisamouth would sing the Khmer Oeurn style - it means the style of going up and down [in tone]. Jror Lorng Sek Meas is my favourite song - it is so beautiful. Sinn Sisamouth mixes the Khmer instruments with the Khmer singing style. Like monks, we sometimes don't need instruments – it is beautiful just with singing.

My father said the most important thing is knowing what we are singing. If you are Khmer you have to know your Khmer style and then when you mix it with western style it will sound like something interesting. Now, with Dub Addiction, for the first time I am mixing Khmer style with a western style. My first dream has been realised!

Jimmy Kiss plays Slur Bar with Dub Addiction on Friday the 21st February, together with Wat A Gwaan and headliners Reggae Rajahs. On Saturday 1st March Jimmy performs at 'Big Folk' music festival at Doors Phnom Penh. See more of the 'Wildman' at the Songkites album launch concert later in March (stay tuned to Leng Pleng for details).

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