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The first single from her self-titled debut album may be called “Bitter Heart,” but Zee Avi sure sounds happy.
“I wait for you, it’s been two hours now/you’re still somewhere in town,” Avi lilts in the first verse, shielding any sense of resentment behind a distinctively jazzy register and genial acoustic guitar, later joined in the bridge by upbeat horns and scatting.
This kind of thing doesn’t happen by accident. It comes from listening to old Tom Waits records.
“He infuses jazz with melancholy and dark lyrics,” Avi says via phone from a tour stop in Portland, Oregon. “If I could describe what I do, I’d say, ‘Listen to Nighthawks at the Diner.’”
Waits is probably not the first or second or 8,000th name to pop into your head when listening to the smooth, sweet songs on Zee Avi. But she’s all about surprises. A native Malaysian who moved to America in March, 23-year-old Avi speaks with only a slight accent and with a deft command of the English language.
Then there’s the matter of the much-publicized way Avi was discovered—when Raconteurs drummer Patrick Keeler came across the fuzzy performance videos she started posting on YouTube in the fall of 2007 under the name “KokoKaina.” This led to a deal with Jack Johnson’s Brushfire Records, a tour with Pete Yorn, and festival spots on both San Diego’s Street Scene and San Francisco’s Outside Lands, alongside superstars such as Pearl Jam, the Dave Matthews Band and M.I.A.
It’s all happened so quickly—Avi announced her signing to Brushfire via YouTube last December, and the album came out in May (she had her CD-release show at Fingerprints in Long Beach)—that the singer says she hasn’t really had time to reflect. “I’ve learned to take it one day at a time and not let it overwhelm me, but it’s all a really surreal experience,” she says.
She performs as part of a trio these days, backed by bassist Harris Pittman of Costa Mesa (full disclosure: Pittman is the significant other of Weekly Web Editor Vickie Chang) and drummer Gabriel Palmer of Huntington Beach.
Of choosing to live in Costa Mesa, Avi says, “I kind of wanted to be just a little farther from LA. And a little bit closer to the beach.
“My band mates live pretty close, which all worked out very, very well,” she says. “I do quite like Costa Mesa. Very peaceful there. It’s really hard to commute because I don’t drive. So when I was [in Costa Mesa], I was using the buses and stuff.”
Avi’s not ashamed of her viral-video origins, embracing her digital roots by continuing to post clips from the tour. She has even inspired fans to post cover versions of her songs. Success means moving past any danger of simply being a “Chocolate Rain”-esque Internet novelty. “YouTube has always been my home,” Avi says. “That’s where everything started. I get told all the time, ‘It’s the classic 21st-century story.’”
Vocally, Avi has drawn comparisons to Billie Holiday—something that, unsurprisingly, she deems “very flattering.”
“I’ve grown to love the simplicity and the honesty of jazz,” she says. “It’s just crazy to think that these jazz greats like Ella, Doris, Peggy—they’re all basically singing the same songs, but it’s a matter of how they actually convey it through their melodies and the projection of each word and each note.”
Avi’s musical influences run deeper than just jazz legends and Tom Waits. Her album features a cover of Morrissey’s “First of the Gang to Die,” and she’s also put her own spin on songs by Interpol, the Beatles and the White Stripes. She has resisted rigid genre classification, as when a recent NPR report labeled her music “island pop.”
“I try very hard not to be pigeonholed,” Avi says. “The island thing, I don’t know. Maybe it is because of the ukulele or the way I strum, or the fact that I am from an island. For me, most of the songs sound different than each other. If I play punk, I’ll tell you I’m a punk rocker. If I play death metal, I’ll tell you I’m a death metal-ist. I play what comes naturally to me.”
Her lyrics are quite personal as well, from “Poppy,” about a loved one dealing with drug addiction, to the considerably more positive “Just You and Me.” With plans to move to New York City soon, her recent total life upheaval means plenty of potential material for new songs.
“Being on the road, inspirations come from everywhere,” Avi says. “I can’t wait to sit down and actually let creativity take the wheel.”
Zee Avi with M.I.A., Thievery Corporation, the Dead Weather, Silversun Pickups, Of Montreal, the Faint and more at Street Scene, East Village of downtown San Diego; www.street-scene.com. Sat. Doors open at 4 p.m. (Show also runs Fri.). $65; two-day pass, $122. All ages. Zee Avi can be found online at www.myspace.com/zeeavi.