Zee Avi is just 23 but she’s an old soul. A huge talent in a petite frame bringing a universal message from the unlikely birthplace of Borneo, an ancient island east of Malaysia which remains an untouched, natural paradise, an apt description of her songs.
How Avi came to record her debut album in L.A., the first joint release from Ian Montone’s Monotone Label and Jack Johnson’s Brushfire Records, is a true 21st century tale of the way the Internet has transformed the music business and shrunk the globe in the process.
Born in the tiny town of Miri in Sarawak on the island of Borneo, Zee grew up near the South China Sea in a liberal, encouraging household where her father owned an energy consultancy. “I was bred to be a lawyer,” she says, but music was in her blood. Her father’s father sang and played double-bass, accordion, violin and guitar in bands.
At age 12, Zee moved from Borneo to Kuala Lumpur where she has been based since. At 17, Zee started locking herself in a room for hours on end to learn to play guitar. Guitar took a back seat for 4 years while she was studying fashion design in London. When she returned to Kuala Lumpur, she picked the instrument back up and began writing songs and performing with a band.
Zee began recording her songs on a webcam and posting them on YouTube for a friend to hear. “I remember getting so excited when there was one new comment from some random person I didn’t know… One read ‘I’m lost for words - I shall favorite it and ponder if that’s OK,’ ” which was written by Kris Rowley, a U.K. singer-songwriter with a YouTube following under the name Zzzzzzzzap. He began posting her videos on his site, which began a viral snowball effect.
The day before her 22nd birthday, Zee posted what she intended to be “my last video,” a holiday song, “No Christmas for Me.” By the time she checked her e-mail Avi had almost 3,000 messages including a slew of label offers. One email came from Ian Montone, who had been shown the YouTube clip by Raconteurs’ drummer, Patrick Keeler, prompting Montone to get in touch and offer to release her music on the Monotone Label.
Before she knew it Zee was on a plane to L.A. to record her debut with producer Robert Carranza at Brushfire’s Solar Powered Plastic Plant. “No Christmas for Me” was then featured on the holiday charity album, This Warm December, A Brushfire Holiday, Vol. 1.
With an eclectic pool of influences that range from such eccentrics as Cat Power, Regina Spektor, Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, Jolie Holland, Daniel Johnston and Chris Garneau, to jazz greats Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, to classics like Velvet Underground and Led Zeppelin, this self-described “rock lover at heart” captures the dark, bittersweet qualities of romance with a crack left open for hope and optimism.
From the sensuous scat singing on “Honey Bee” to the sultry break-up song, “Is This the End,” recalling the existential longing of Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is,” Zee is hopeful of finding love, but equally aware of lurking heartache.
The songs on Zee Avi’s debut are about an outsider’s desire to belong and the tentative hope of moving on, filled with regret and loss, but boasting an impish, worldly wise sensibility. “I tend to be a loner,” she nods. ” ‘Honey Bee’ is about a romance between two nonconformists who are different from the rest of the hive, and are trying to avoid the pressure to be like everybody else.”
“Just You and Me,” the first song she wrote on ukulele, has a ‘20s New Orleans swing jazz vibe.
“I get my melodic feel from the simplicity of classic jazz, people singing what they felt with straightforward lyrics and not too many harmonies,” Zee says. “Just a lot of honesty. I’m a girl of simple pleasures.
The elemental acoustic guitar of “Story of…” is enhanced with an Eno-like ambience that add to its shimmering quality, while “Poppy” is autobiographical “with a little bit of poetic license” that looks back at the demise of a two-year relationship.
“My stuff is pretty dark,” Zee admits. “Most of my songs are about the reality side of romance, outlets to vent my emotions.”
While her live experience amounts to playing gigs in Kuala Lumpur, Zee appeared this January on From the Basement, the U.K. TV webcast/broadcast that has featured Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, Damien Rice, the White Stripes and the Shins. From the Basement will also air on the U.S.‘s IFC Channel.
From Malaysia to Los Angeles, Zee Avi is enjoying the ride and ready to take on passengers. “I’m still pinching myself” she gushes. “My parents always told me it’s important to keep yourself grounded. I’m thankful, but at the same time, I just want to jump through the roof. It’s been a pretty amazing journey, getting to work with some really wonderful people, a blessing, really.”
Zee Avi’s Monotone/Brushfire Records debut returns that blessing…and then some.
Monotone Records is owned by Ian Montone, whose Monotone, Inc. manages the White Stripes, M.I.A., The Shins, Vampire Weekend, the Raconteurs, Against Me!, Cold War Kids, Crookers, among others.
Brushfire Records is owned by Jack Johnson and his manager Emmett Malloy and is home to artists like Rogue Wave, Matt Costa, Neil Halstead, Money Mark, G. Love, Mason Jennings, ALO and Zach Gill.