Zee Avi: Jazz, Americana And Island Pop Take one part Billie Holiday, two parts Doris Day, toss in a little island indie-pop and you get Zee Avi, a 23-year-old singer-songwriter from Malaysia who's just released her eponymous debut album. Avi talks to Guy Raz about her musical influences.
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Zee Avi: Jazz, Americana And Island Pop

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Zee Avi: Jazz, Americana And Island Pop

Zee Avi: Jazz, Americana And Island Pop

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(Soundbite of song, "Bitter Heart")

GUY RAZ, host:

Take one part Billie Holiday and two parts Doris Day, toss in a little island, Indie pop, and you get this.

(Soundbite of song, "Bitter Heart")

Mr. ZEE AVI (Singer): (Singing) Sun rays come down as seen when they hit the ground, children spinning around till they fall down, down, down. I wait for you…

RAZ: This song, "Bitter Heart," is off the debut album by 23-year-old singer-songwriter Zee Avi. And while she sounds vintage Americana, Zee Avi was born with the name Izyan Alirahman in a tiny village on the island of Borneo.

She spent most of her life in the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur. And less than two years ago, Zee Avi started posting videos of herself performing her own songs inside her family home.

Those videos went viral, and in a matter of months, she was flown out to L.A. by the manager of the White Stripes. And the result:

(Soundbite of song, "Bitter Heart")

Ms. AVI: …bitter heart, shadows will help you try to hide. Bitter heart, my bitter heart is getting just a little fragile. Bitter heart, bitter heart of mine.

RAZ: Zee Avi is on tour in the U.S. with Pete Yorn, and she's here with her ukulele in the studio.


Ms. AVI: Hi.

RAZ: I want to ask you about how you got started, because there are plenty of stories about YouTube sensations but not so many from Malaysia. You posted a song on YouTube. It was called "No Christmas for Me," and that's how you came to the attention of record labels and managers in Hollywood.

I want to listen to a bit of that song for a moment.

(Soundbite of song, "No Christmas for Me")

Ms. AVI: (Singing) No there won't be Christmas for me this year for the simple reason being you're not here.

Yeah, that was my call center headset-quality video.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: What's the story behind why you decided to post your music online at first?

Ms. AVI: I guess, you know, I mean, I've always just been an observer on YouTube. I - you know, there's many musicians on there that I followed, and it was a point of time where I actually wrote a few songs, and I had a - I scored my first gig, and then one of my friends missed it. And so, you know, I really valued his opinion, and I was just, like, I have this song that I want you to listen to, and, you know, he said: Why don't you send me an MP3 of it? And I said: I don't really know how to do that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

And so, you know, I just put this quick video up, and I was just going to - I was going to delete it right after he listened to it. But he said, well, why don't you just let it sit there for a little bit and see what happens? And so, I did.

I started getting comments, you know, which motivated me to do - to post more videos, and…

RAZ: And eventually, you were on a plane to Los Angeles.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. AVI: Yeah.

RAZ: What were you thinking when you were being flown out to L.A. to meet with, you know, these managers and record label owners?

Ms. AVI: It was pretty daunting, but at the same time, I was just thinking to myself, wow, this is a really long flight.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: Zee Avi, English isn't your first language, right?

Ms. AVI: Sort of. I've been speaking it my whole life.

RAZ: English and Malay, and there's a track on your album called "Kantoi." Am I pronouncing that right?

Ms. AVI: Yeah, "Kantoi," yeah.

RAZ: And it's a mixture of Malay and English, which is actually a language that exists, right?

Ms. AVI: Manglish.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: Can you play us some of that song?

Ms. AVI: Sure.

(Soundbite of song, "Kantoi")

Ms. AVI: (Singing) Semalam I call you, you tak answer. You kata you keluar pergi dinner. You kata you keluar dengan kawan you. But when I called Tommy he said it wasn't true.

So I drove my car pergi Damansara. Tommy kata maybe you tengok bola. Tapi bila I sampai you, you tak ada. Lagilah I jadi gila.

So I called and called sampai you answer. You kata sorry sayang tadi tak dengar. My phone was on silent, I was at the gym. Tapi latar belakang suara perempuan lain.

Sudahlah sayang, I don't believe you. I've always known your words were never true. Why am I with you, I pun tak tahu. No wonderlah my friends pun tak suka you.

So I guess that's the end of our story. So I guess that's the end of our story. Akhir kata she accepted his apology. Tapi last last kita dapat tahu she was cheating too with her ex boyfriend's best friend - Tommy.

RAZ: Tell me about the mix of languages in that song, Malay and English. Do a lot of people understand it?

Ms. AVI: Yeah, I mean, all Malaysians and everything, all Malaysians are at least bilingual. I speak four languages myself, and, you know, that song, that version of the song, it's actually - it's not pure, pure Malay, but it's, you know, a modernized, you know - it's how this generation of, you know, Malaysians speak. And we alternate English and Malay in a sentence, and you know, the guys told me, yeah, I've heard you do that, and, you know, my band mates tell me, I've heard you on the phone with, you know, your parents or your friends or whatever, and, you know, it sounds kind of like, I kind of understand what you're saying, but it's just sort of in and out.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: Yeah, I mean, I understand you talking about your cell phone and a couple other things. Now, what's the song about?

Ms. AVI: It's a funny song. It's, you know, it's a funny song about, you know, getting caught because kantoi directly translates into busted.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: When did you first pick up the ukulele?

Ms. AVI: I think it was mid-last year.

RAZ: So it wasn't an instrument that you were familiar with growing up, or was it?

Ms. AVI: I mean, everybody knows the ukulele. But, I mean, you know, it wasn't, you know, a common instrument. I just love the sound of it. It's the most jovial-sounding instrument I've ever played. I know when I bought it, I couldn't put it down.

RAZ: What were your parents listening to in Kuala Lumpur?

Ms. AVI: Well, you know, my parents were teenagers back in the '70s. So my first concert was Deep Purple. My dad took me to it, you know, their reunion tour back in the '90s, and I like classic rock. I'm a classic rock girl at heart. And I always say without, you know, Howling Wolf, you wouldn't have bands like Zeppelin. So I like taking music back to their roots and see what they were listening to to come up with their sort of sound.

RAZ: I don't hear a lot of Zeppelin influence on this album. I guess that will be your next album.

Ms. AVI: Oh, it's going to be - it's going to have a 15-minute ukulele solo, yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: You cover a song by Morrissey, who's the former lead singer for The Smiths. It's called "First of the Gang to Die." Why'd you pick that song?

Ms. AVI: Well, "First of the Gang" is, you know, a song that reminds me of - you know the movie "The Warriors," from the '70s? It's one of my favorite movies, and every time I listen to that song, it sort of reminds me of "The Warriors," and, you know, it's this love letter to the East L.A. scene.

Also one of the reasons why is because there's this indie club back home that I frequent, and, you know, and I would go with a group of friends, and that was sort of like our anthem. And it's just sort of like a mini shout-out to them as well.

RAZ: Let's hear some of Morrissey's version first.

(Soundbite of song, "First of the Gang to Die")

Mr. MORRISSEY (Singer): (Singing) You have never been in love until you've seen the stars reflect in the reservoirs.

RAZ: And I wish we had a camera in the studio because you were lip-synching along with that here.

Can we hear some of your version? Let's take a listen.

(Soundbite of song, "First of the Gang")

Ms. AVI: (Singing) And you have never been in love until you've seen the dawn rise behind the home for the blind. We are the pretty petty thieves. And you're standing on our street where Hector was the first of the gang with a gun in his hand and the first to do time, the first of the gang to die.

RAZ: What a beautiful version. Are you already working on your next album, or is it too early for that?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. AVI: See, the ukulele is a pretty portable instrument. So, you know, there's long drives.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: So you're writing as you drive, writing…

Ms. AVI: Yeah, a lot of inspiration from the road.

RAZ: Well, is there a song you want to leave us with that we didn't hear and maybe tell us a little bit about it before you play it?

Ms. AVI: Sure. I'm going to play "Honey Bee." It's actually one of my favorite songs off my album, although my songs are like my children, but I'm not playing favorites.

(Whispering) Just don't tell the other song.

"Honey Bee" is about two non-conformists finding each other and, you know, just trying to struggle with, you know, what society wants them to be. But, you know, it's also a tale, a metaphorical tale about them helping each other out.

RAZ: Zee Avi with us here in Studio 2A. Her self-titled debut album is out now on Brushfire Records. You can catch her act on tour this summer.

Zee Avi, thanks for coming in and good luck on the tour.

Ms. AVI: Thank you so much for having me.

RAZ: Let's hear some of "Honey Bee."

(Soundbite of song, "Honey Bee")

Ms. AVI: (Singing) I am a honey bee shown out from the colony, and they won't let me in. So I left the hive. They took away all my stripes and broke off both my wings. So I'll find another tree and make the wind my friend. I'll just sing with the birds. They'll tell me secrets of the world.

But my other honey bee, stuck where he doesn't wanna be, but my darling honey bee, I'll come save you even if it means I'd have to face the queen.

So I'll come prepared. My new friends say they would help me get my loved one back. They say it isn't right the bees have control of your mind, but I choose not to believe that.

So we'll meet in the darkness of the night, and I promise I will be there on time. We'll be guided by my new friends, the butterflies, bring us back to our own little hive.

Oh, my other honey bee, no longer stuck where he doesn't wanna be. Oh, my darling honey bee, I have saved you, and now that you're with me, we can make our own honey.

RAZ: Before we say goodbye today, we wanted to thank everyone who put fingers to keyboard in the last month and sent in stories for our summer writing contest, Three Minute Fiction.

We asked you to send us original works of fiction that can be read in three minutes or less, and you obliged in spades.

We've received more than 5,000 entries. Now, submissions are closed for this round, but we're looking forward to announcing our first winner soon. Stay tuned.

That's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Have a great week.

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