Back again in Phnom Penh this month is Billy Page, a UK singer-songwriter who has been stopping in Cambodia every year or so for as long as anybody can remember. Over the years he’s played at many venues – some, like Talking to a Stranger and Equinox, are long gone – but he keeps finding new spots each time. He sat down with LengPleng to chat about his journeys and where else his songs have taken him.
Billy started out in theatre, and came comparatively late to the guitar. “I went to Germany when I was 18, and I ended up getting involved in a theatre company, dance and music – it was really cool. I didn’t pick up the guitar until then. Within a couple of months – I could still hardly tune it – I was offered a huge university gig. And I remember the crowd going absolutely mental. I think it helped being English as well. That’s how it all started really.”
And it’s been pretty much music ever since, apart from a brief period as a dental technician (“I used to have nightmares about teeth and so decided perhaps it’s time for a career change.”) and the travel that went along with it. “I’ve probably been to 35 different countries, and around 30 of those involved music. I lived in Germany, travelled around Europe, America – particularly a lot in Asia in the last few years. It’s allowed me to hone my craft.”
His theatrical background provided him a with comfort on stage from the start. “Once I did a gig at a big festival in England – a band had dropped out and the festival called me, at a day’s notice, can you do it? I said yes. And I walked up thinking I’ve got to follow a full band, replacing a full band. There were probably about 1,500 people. Going into the second song I put the capo on the wrong fret, and when I realised I knew that when I got to the middle eight I’d stuff it up, what am I going to do? So not breaking time with the song, I said “Key change!” and I moved the capo, and the crowd just roared. Because I showed a little vulnerability, they were suddenly on my side. After that I stormed it, it was an amazing gig. It’s not about being perfect, it’s about being real.”
After many years of touring, his first visit to Cambodia was in 2004. “My first gig was Sharky’s, and I played on top of a pool table with wobbly legs. On the same trip I went down to Sihanoukville, and was doing a regular gig at a place called Uncle Bob’s on Serendipity, and they used to put fliers up along the beach. At the time I did about 50/50, my own stuff and covers like Oasis and REM, The Beatles and so on. One night I had an amazing gig, all the backpackers were dancing, and this English girl came up to me and said what’s all this about? It says singer-songwriter on the flier. I said yes, I am a singer-songwriter, why are you so agitated? She said: you should advertise what you do, not try and deceive the public. And it annoyed me, it kept me awake – and I thought I’ll show you. So the next night I just sang all my own tunes, and it went down really, really well. And at that point I stopped doing covers. Not because I didn’t want to do them, but I found that I could do without them. I had to prove a point, and I ended up just doing my own stuff. If she’s out there somewhere: thank you.”
And what is his own stuff about? “Relationships, connections with people, love. I think a song has got to be from the heart, and not contrived, and not sounding too much like somebody else – I like to think when I’ve written a song that it doesn’t sound like something I’ve heard before. Melody and a message, a sentiment that people can connect with. I always think songs are little stories.” The titles tell stories themselves – I’m not scared, One life, Hope, Dissolve the chains; a more recent song, Slave to Devices, questions the contemporary obsession with smartphones and the like.
For Billy, being open-minded and free-spirited are the keys to keep the creative flow going. “The important thing is never to deny the crap, because that’s how you get the good stuff. Usually I chuck different ideas down, I used to fill up cassette tapes with nonsense – now I use the iPhone – and I would say probably 80% of it is nonsense and I cringe at it. Amongst all that there’s – oh, I like that line. And then build from that.”
“The great thing about wisdom and experience is you learn what to dodge. I’ve learned through my journey of life that sometimes we engage with people who want to crush our spirit, or that are jealous of what we’re doing – and what I’ve realised now is that you have to surround yourself with people who get you and love you for who you are, and forget the rest. Your journey is so short.”
Billy Page Trio (with Phil Javelle and Gunther Hofmans) play Alchemy on Saturday night – expect more gigs to be announced in the next few weeks. Visit billypage.com for further information.