Zee Avi Brings Her Personal Lyrics From Malaysia to Costa Mesa

One From the Heart
YouTuber Zee Avi brings her personal lyrics from Malaysia to Costa Mesa

The first single from her self-titled debut album may be called “Bitter Heart,” but Zee Avi sure sounds happy.

“I wait for you, itNs been two hours now/youNre 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 doesnNt 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, INd say, ‘Listen to Nighthawks at the Diner.N”

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 sheNs 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 thereNs 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 JohnsonNs Brushfire Records, a tour with Pete Yorn, and festival spots on both San DiegoNs Street Scene and San FranciscoNs Outside Lands, alongside superstars such as Pearl Jam, the Dave Matthews Band and M.I.A.

ItNs 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 hasnNt really had time to reflect. “INve learned to take it one day at a time and not let it overwhelm me, but itNs 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. ItNs really hard to commute because I donNt drive. So when I was [in Costa Mesa], I was using the buses and stuff.”

AviNs 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. “ThatNs where everything started. I get told all the time, ‘ItNs the classic 21st-century story.N”

Vocally, Avi has drawn comparisons to Billie Holiday—something that, unsurprisingly, she deems “very flattering.”

“INve grown to love the simplicity and the honesty of jazz,” she says. “ItNs just crazy to think that these jazz greats like Ella, Doris, Peggy—theyNre all basically singing the same songs, but itNs a matter of how they actually convey it through their melodies and the projection of each word and each note.”

AviNs musical influences run deeper than just jazz legends and Tom Waits. Her album features a cover of MorrisseyNs “First of the Gang to Die,” and sheNs 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 donNt 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, INll tell you INm a punk rocker. If I play death metal, INll tell you INm 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 canNt 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.


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