An Evening with Zee Avi: I Interview One of My Idols (And Take Her Out for Primanti’s And a Beer)

Zee Avi and I (Joey Nolfi), September 28, 2011 at Club Cafe, Pittsburgh

The following is an article I wrote about Zee Avi prior to actually meeting her. We’d spoken on the phone, on Twitter, and through email a few times prior, but nothing can compare to actually meeting her, as I did after her show here in Pittsburgh last week. She’s a genuine sweetheart and is filled with artistic knowledge, insight, and is just an all-around good time. We chatted in the green room of the Club Cafe on Pittsburgh’s SouthSide for hours, I bought her a beer at Primanti’s (a Pittsburgh institution, mind you) after. It was more amazing than I could have ever imagined, truly a perfect night. Thanks for everything, Zee!

Zee Avi

By Joey Nolfi

A renegade moped sped along darkened city streets amidst the shadows of a brisk September eve. The driver had exited the Thunderbird Café in Lawrenceville, just north of Pittsburgh, only moments prior. The act had been a rousing one; a laid-back singer-songwriter took over the stage. She unleashed a voice tinged with kisses from another era as if Billie Holliday’s undying cadence seeped through modern day speakers from a sonic limbo, craving center stage once again.

Despite its other-era smokiness, the sophistication of the voice brooded from a pocket-sized frame that was barely a quarter century old.

Said voice was also safely holstered to the back of said moped until its wranglers had the audacity to coerce it (and its containing body) back onto the tour bus. 

 “My tour manager was like ‘We have to go!’,” says Zee Avi, accomplished Malaysian musician, lyrical storyteller, owner of the voice in question and, apparently, rogue musician-gone-wild during tour stops.

She says that night in Pittsburgh, now a hazy mental souvenir from her performance in the city last Fall, is one she’ll never forget. And one year later, with a voice still as timeless as ever, Avi is returning to the Steel City for more.

The seemingly demure brunette says Pittsburgh brings out a much darker side of her; an animal attraction for everything Pittsburgh has to offer, if you will. She’s drawn to the city, having performed here two times since her first appearance at the Three Rivers Arts Festival in 2009. So naturally, exploring the city streets with a starstruck fan (Was the name Aaron? Was it Sanjay? She can’t remember, but it’s the experience that counts) was like the gateway drug into the depths of an intoxicating Pennsylvania metropolis.

“I love Pittsburgh because I have so much fun there,” Avi says. “Everyone is just really warm there. I love the grittiness of it. [I’m always there at] the right place at the right time.”

On her third visit to the city on September 28, she’ll be playing songs from her latest LP, “Ghostbird,” which released in August. Drastically different from her eponymous 2009 freshman effort, “Ghostbird” mirrors its creator’s affinity for and the easy breezy, toes-in-the-sand, laid-back stylings of the beach bum mentality with a twist of her signature quirkiness and sophistication.

But then again, one look at the singer’s exotic, calculatedly-ruffled, busy clothing choice (one that she calls “whatever chic,” mind you) will tell you that, too.

Talking to the infectiously relaxing voice that’s usually crooning on sweet studio-produced melodies immediately places one on such beaches, drink in hand, straw hat covering lazy eyes as they rest under the summer sun looming just above the shorefront horizon.

“[“Ghostbird] is inspired by everything and nothing. I create something out of everything or I create something out of nothing,” the 25-year old musician says, charming accent (with hints of coastal origins) in tow. “But it’s not just writing about heartbreaks anymore. Everyone does that.”

Lyrical content on “Ghostbird” ranges from observing personified animals in nature on “The Book of Morris Johnson” to the fear of eviction after a domestic dispute in “Concrete Wall”, with complimentary island-esque production that grounds the album in a natural, earthy sense that wouldn’t feel entirely out of place on a late Bob Marley album. One track in particular, “Stay in the Clouds,” even incorporates the sound of rain drops as they lazily kiss the ground in a sonic dream as free flowing as her hair as it lashed her cheeks on her moped excursion.

“I’m always that girl who’s never quite in touch with whatever ‘reality’ is. Sometimes I wish that people would see things how I see them so they don’t think I’m that crazy” she says (with a laugh) of the track’s inspiration. “It’s basically about the chance for me personally to sort of see things sometimes not as a tree but as a forest, [to] never stop being a daydreamer, [to] never stop being a dreamer in general.”

Avi pursued her own lofty dreams in an unconventional manner as far removed from the beachfront mentality as a webcam and an internet connection can be. After posting a video of herself singing –in which only her sharply defined chin and string-strumming, delicate arms were visible– to YouTube back in 2007, she was signed to Jack Johnson’s Brushfire Records, launching her career in the United States and giving her a much larger platform to pursue her craft in Malaysia, where she’s sometimes referred to as KokoKaina.

“I guess back in Malaysia I’m considered like a ‘pop’ singer,” she says, bashfully speaking of her superstardom back home as if it’s a foreign intruder on her subdued musical stylings. “I have hairstylists and makeup artists [there], I’ve never done that before.”

While parts of her image appeal differently to both dedicated American fans and loyal Malaysian ones, Ms. Avi says most Malaysians actually speak English, so the perceived dichotomy between the two  music markets is actually not as deep an opposition as one might assume.

It’s the genuine affection that she craves and relishes, feeling a connection with her fans that brings out her wild side; a side that can sometimes lead to, well, late night gallivanting atop a fan’s moped.

“The appreciation is all the same with everybody,” she says. “The warm welcome is the same kind of feeling as being appreciated. Everyone is equally accommodating. Music touches people the same way, but it might interpret differently to some.”

Still, her roots as a proud Malaysian woman still find their way into the primarily English-language albums she releases. Songs like “Kantoi” and “Siboh Kitak Nangis” are sung almost entirely in her native tongue, and Avi still finds the time to tweet in Standard Malay to some of the over 40,000 fans who follow her on Twitter.

Most of the activity she has with her fans revolves around Twitter, for that matter. Just before the release of “Ghostbird,” Ms. Avi treated fans to a special preview of the new music online. She spent the time proceeding the preview describing her tears over sharing the new music.

“Oh they just mean everything to me,” she says of her fans. “I never fail to meet everybody after a show. I would sit there at the merch table for three hours if I have to, and I have. It’s just like a connection.”

While she’s certainly grown accustomed to bonding with her fans, as for the typically American comparisons to oldies greats like Etta James, Avi says she’ll never quite come to terms with such heavy juxtapositions.

“I tell them there’s something in their water,” she says with a laugh. “It’s incredible to be, you know, in the same sentence as these great artists. I respect and look up to them so much. It’s still surreal to be compared to that but we’re all out to create something new.”

She says “we’re” in reference to other contemporary artists, many of whom fill the sonic space around Avi when she’s not busy birthing (as she calls it) her own harmonies in the studio.  

“I love Andrew Bird, avant-garde artists, tUnE-yArDs…do you know tUnE-yArDs?” she excitedly asks, perking up from her laid-back demeanor to discuss the peers she views as inspiration rather than competition.

“Music is a powerful thing, a universal language. It goes way beyond love sometimes and is a catalyst for love sometimes,” she says of digesting and creating music. “To be able to provide a soundtrack for someone’s life at one moment, even for a mere second, is a true blessing for me. Anybody who appreciates that, I appreciate them.”

But, things aren’t ever going to be strictly business at her show this year. She fully intends to sing her heart out but isn’t planning on traversing the “safe” road (which would entail, you know, sleeping before an eight hour drive to the next city) with her tour managers this time around…well…again.

“I would love to see the city. If I have time would you show me around?” she earnestly asks. “We can get a round of drinks at a local Pittsburgh brew.”

Have all two-wheeled motor vehicles prepped for one extra passenger, Pittsburgh. Zee Avi is coming for you once again.

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