If you know who Jonny Olsen is, then you are most probably a 15-year-old girl from Vientiane. That's because Jonny is the hottest thing in Southeast Asian pop music right now. Which is a little odd, because he's from LA.
World Music is a bit like abstract art. Unless you know that you're listening to the wedding rites of some Tuareg tribe played on camel femur bone flutes, it just sounds like a bunch of ADD three-year-olds banging beer bottles against an upturned tin bath.
But there's this stuff i heard recently from Southern Thailand and Laos called Morlam. Yeah, it's a bit plinky, but in general it sounds like real old fashioned deep blues. And I really like the blues.
That was when I came across a Jonny Olsen video. I think it was the one where he's surrounded by girls wearing traditional dress, and then it cuts to footage of Buddhist monks and flowers. (Though actually all his videos are like that.) Thinking it a little wierd that a Thai pop star would have such a Western-sounding name, I took a trip to his Myspace where, wonder of wonders, his only two top friends were No Age and The Smell. It turned out that Jonny used to live with Dean from No Age before getting a job in the same vegan Thai place, going to Thailand on holiday, learning to play this weird flute thing they have, and er, becoming better at it than everybody who's actually Thai. Here's an interview where he talks about turning native. Literally.
Vice: So how did you get into this?
Jonny: The first time I went to Thailand was in 2002. I went to Bangkok and then up north. And that's when I found the Khaen. Then the second time I went to the south and I didn't know about Thai or Lao music. But that second time one of the guys I was working with in the restaurant back in LA invited me to go to his village in Laos. That's when I learned to play the Khaen. I stayed for like six months, just playing the Khaen every day. After that I went back again for a year and a half and learned to sing all the folk songs.
Ethnotourism's one thing, but what made you decide to become a pop star?
I wanted to do something different, to turn it into something more like rock, to appeal to a wider audience. 'Cause if I just sang the old-style folk songs I think it'd be boring for people. But I never thought I'd do this. It just happened.
You rap in Lao. Are you actually saying anything that makes sense, or are you just rhyming the ends of the words?
Everything I sing, I know what I'm singing.
What's that song about?
The new one? It's like, about me being American, and everywhere I go people coming up to me and being surprised that I speak Lao.
What are the girls singing to you? They're cute.
Oh she's like, "Isn't it so unusual that this Western white guy is speaking Lao."
Snappy. What else?
Then it's "Kao Kao Bao Lao Kin Ken" which is like, "He's got this white body but he speaks Lao pretty good." And then the second part of the song has to do with all the different accents that there are in Laos. Like I was listening back to it, and I realized that although I thought I knew what I was singing, it could be interpreted differently in different areas. So in the second part they sing to me in all the different dialects, and I answer in each.
Sounds like one for the haters. I don't know if this is intentional, but in some of the videos you look more Asian. Did you get a makeover? That's kind of weird.
You know what, during that time, my hair turned black because I was taking this medicine to stop me going bald. So in Thailand they have this medicine--Monoxodil--so I started taking that and my hair started growing like crazy, and then it changed color.
How do you pronounce your name in Lao?
Well it's the same, but with the accent at the end. Like "JonEE OlsEN."
Cool Jonny, thanks. I think you're great. Good luck with all those cute girls!