I met Satica in a quaint café in Chinatown, and as we talk, Ari Lennox’s “Shea Butter Baby” plays softly in the background. We connect over being Cal State Long Beach alumni and first-generation Americans. Though she is outwardly bubbly and receptive, I get the sense she’s also meticulous and strategic.
In a way, the Cambodian American singer has two personalities: Her professional résumé lists credits by both April Nhem and Satica. “My brother wanted to name me April after the Ninja Turtles,” she says, giggling. Though her mom decided on Satica, the cartoon-inspired nickname stuck. The theme of identity is front-and-center on her newest EP, dear april, ily, the title for which comes from her former AIM screen name.
As is true for many Cambodians in eastside Long Beach, Satica’s parents emigrated to escape Pol Pot, whose cruel regime killed an estimated 2 million people. Although her family left the brutality of the Khmer Rouge behind, they still carried invisible scars. “My parents were still struggling with PTSD and a lot of mental issues,” she says. “I just needed an outlet. It made me who I am.”
The youngest of six, Satica first started writing poetry in small notebooks to express herself. “I got punked on, so I never had a diary,” she says. “I knew they would look through it and use it against me and make fun me for stupid things, so I always wrote poems.”
This impulse to write led to her life as a solo artist and songwriter. By chance, the Far East Movement—famous for the 2010 hit “Like a G6”—discovered her music through a mutual friend. “The world is smaller than you think it is,” Satica observes. “They were looking for a vocalist, and my friend showed them my work, and then I started working with the Far East Movement.”
Her life could have been completely different. After graduating from Long Beach Polytechnic High School, she went to CSULB to study family life and child development in hopes of becoming a social worker or toiling for a nonprofit. “I wanted to do something that will give back to the community just because I felt I was affected by things going on with my family,” she says. “I would want to help someone else out.”
However, when songwriting became a viable career option, she pounced on the chance. “I got signed with agency Transparency in 2014, and they have a huge network,” she says. “I had a collection of songs already written. I actually had one song out, and they bought it from me.”
Since then, Satica has worked as a songwriter with K-pop companies SM Entertainment and TEN Music Group and as a solo artist with the LA-based Moving Castle. Last year, she even got the chance to work with Tiffany Young of Girls Generation as the singer transitioned into a solo career. “When she came over from Korea, I helped her with everything,” Satica says. “I vocal produced, helped with soundscape, and helped her get in the rhythm of working here. Because when you work as a K-pop artist over in Korea, it’s very different. It’s like an artist boot camp. You have x amount you’re able to sing, x amount you’re able to dance, and everything is a lot more coordinated.”
Analyzing someone from the other side of the booth helped Satica shape her EP, which dropped on Aug. 9. It’s an emotional, personal recording influenced by Bon Iver, Frank Ocean and Julia Michaels, as well as the state of her life after moving to LA and the end of a long-term relationship. Instead of relying on another person, she had to trust her gut instincts and become more assertive. “I had to learn how to love myself,” Satica says. “If you can’t love yourself, how are other people going to?”
While having someone to rely on can be good, giving your power away may lead to unsavory people exploiting you. Satica learned this lesson firsthand when she moved to LA. “I think it’s different when you’re in a city where everyone wants something,” she says. “They don’t always have the best intentions. I have to remind myself that not everyone operates on the same morals that I do.”
During this time, many people whom she had thought of as friends came in and out of her life, another influence on her album’s message. “A lot of it is about growth,” Satica says. “The reason I call it dear april, ily is it’s a reminder to love myself.”
I like to stare at my computer. Occasionally I type words to pass the time. Those words are usually about music.