This Friday, 8 November, in the evening at Farm to Table we see the welcome return of Kristen Rasmussen with Pavel Ramirez – she a powerful singer with a penchant (and the chops) for gospel, he an elegant and versatile accompanist on electric guitar – for an evening heavy with the sounds of soul and spirituals.
Although born in Washington DC, Kristen has spent most of her life outside the USA, living as a child in Singapore and Tokyo, and for the last 15 years in Phnom Penh. Her first taste for the stage was at ten years old, when she entered a televised talent contest in Singapore called Twinkle Little Stars. “At the time I was obsessed with Little Orphan Annie – the movie had come out around that time. My sister and I used to put on mini-productions at home, we would dress up with our friends and do songs. I insisted in always being Annie of course. I was Annie for Halloween, so I had the wig, I had the classic signature red dress. And I sang Tomorrow.”
Unfortunately, it was the early days of home video, and while the neighbours taped it, their machine was Beta Max. “I think I watched it once at our neighbour’s house and that was it. [But] the memories I have are very positive. I was delighted obviously when I was chosen to perform. I don’t think there was a winner, we were just featured in the show.”
From there it was choirs, church productions, including Godspell, and at 13 Kristen commenced studies in classical voice that continued more or less for 20 years. At 18, during her gap year, she was involved in a long-running performing arts and community service organisation called Up With People. “We were in the US for six months, Europe for six months, Canada for about a month. Night after night. That was my first experience of feeling a little bit disaffected – you’re doing it again and again and it kind of loses its glamour. Overall it was a very positive experience, the camaraderie that we had as a cast, and the first real experience that I had performing. In Europe we played in huge auditoriums, 1,000 people, in US still pretty large, 300 or 400. So that was how I was broken in as a performer in front of large audiences.”
“When I went to Indiana University I took some courses at the Conservatory there, and I was invited to study full time, but after seeing the attitude and competitiveness of the singers in the classical realm I wasn’t interested. I like classical music, but I’m not an opera fan, I don’t seek it out – and that’s the direction that you go, you end up an opera singer.” Instead it was a Masters in International Policy Analysis.
She arrived in Cambodia in 2004, keen to work in human rights and development, and after a few years she started getting involved with music again, through the Bella Voce choir on one hand, and Bayon Blues on the other. “The first guitarist that I played with was Jonas Hastings, and we had a trio with [harmonica player] Ken White, and that went on for a few years, an unplugged outfit.” They expanded into Little Duke and the Mekong Blues Messengers before folding due to the departure of Jonas.
“I also worked a fair bit with the Curtis King Band – there were some good opportunities, I sang at the Agent Orange Fundraising Concert at the Saigon Opera House – that’s
on YouTube – it’s nice to have that out there. We toured India, did a few gigs in Vietnam at various clubs, and at Sharky’s of course.”
Back in Phnom Penh, Joe Wrigley had come to town, and they formed the (less of a mouthful) Mekong Messengers. “That was probably the favourite band I’ve ever sung with – for me it’s very much about the people. A bigger sound, with percussion, and Joe was a great performer, it was nice to share the responsibility with somebody. Pavel I saw playing at Sharky Bar and approached him – he brought in his rhythm section of Tip and Ten.”
“This was the first time for me having all the responsibilities of having your own band – fortunately Joe did a lot of getting the gigs. I didn’t ever want to overdo it, once I was working full time. The peak was our New Year’s Eve 2015 gig at FCC Angkor, by which time I was already several months pregnant and starting to show, and that’s when I told the band. There was a mix of happy and not so happy, because we were actually on a really good trajectory.”
A few years down the track, having made only intermittent performances, Kristen is starting to get onto stages more often again. “With Pavel we’ve chosen songs deliberately because they’re varied – we also do country, a little pop. My true love is blues, gospel, soul, mostly gospel-inspired, spiritual-inspired. I really like a song that I can sink my teeth into, and really sing with emotion, so it’s usually the soul songs – Sam Cooke, Etta James, these kinds of artists.”
She has also re-embraced her love of choirs, this year joining Musica Felice, and will be performing as part of a special gospel section of their Christmas charity concert at Sofitel at the end of the month. “[Director] Miwako chose these gospel songs – I think she’s been wanting to do it for a time, but the right person to sing those songs hadn’t come along yet. I’m really looking forward to it. It’ll be back to the days of performing in Italy with these huge audiences – the first time I’ve performed before such a large audience, apart from the Saigon Opera House. It’s really nice to be with a choir again, I missed it.
Kristen and Pavel will play at Farm to Table on Friday from 6.30 pm, and tickets are on sale now for the Musica Felice Christmas charity concert at Sofitel on Saturday 30 November.