Zee Avi could be, and just may very well be, the biggest export to the international music platform from this corner of the world – Asia.
Discovered on YouTube by Patrick Keeler, the drummer of The Raconteurs, who passed along the video link to then-The White Stripes manager Ian Montone, the whole story ends up with Emmett Malloy (one-half of the directing talent duo The Malloys) signing her up to Brushfire Records, partly owned by Jack Johnson.
This Malaysian talent has definitely come a long way, and is in no way slowing herself down. And if you think her musical journey just ends right there, she already has two full-length albums under her belt, with her latest offering Ghostbird charting at #129 on the Billboard Hot 200 Albums Chart.
Interviewing – or rather chatting – with Zee Avi is an all new experience for me. For one, she is really humane, in her mannerism and her responses, and it feels like she doesn’t have to put on a front to gather more attention or buzz around her; she isn’t trying too hard, simply put. Her answers were direct, and her voice is thickened with her deep Malay roots across the border and even at a point, she may have accidentally used Singlish!
The only downside to the interview was that the venue, TAB, was blasting relatively loud music throughout the interview. Not a fault of anybody’s, of course, but it doesn’t really helped that Zee is a relatively soft-spoken person, in her petite kind of way.
Below is the interview, and thank you to Universal Music Records for arranging this. Do check out Zee Avi’s latest album, Ghostbird, which is already out in music stores.
Roundtable interview with Zee Avi
*Transcript from recording of roundtable interview held on Monday, 21st November 2011. The actual words used may vary from the text below, but the meaning and the most and best appropriate words had been used for those that were unclear of.
Q: You’ve got lots of fans in SP [Singapore Polytechnic], and they’ve been coming up to us with questions. We’ve actually sort of got rid of those that have asked for your number.
Z: 323… (obviously, teasingly giving out a fake number)
*laughter all around
Q: One of your fans asked how old were you when you actually decided that you’d do music?
Z: The day I got the e-mail from the record label. That is a serious answer.
Q: How did you decide on which musical genre you’d go into?
Z: I didn’t, and I still don’t. I actually don’t have a genre. People asked me what my style is, and I tell them I don’t know. My style is I don’t have a style. I think it allows more freedom, as an artiste and a songwriter to… “let’s see if you’re okay to it”. You don’t want to restrict yourself…
Q: We actually heard that you write a lot of love songs. What kind of guys do you like, material wise?
Z: (lets out a girly, flirtatious outburst) Ooooh! Haha. You know, when I was younger, your criteria and your preference is like, I want someone who is big, who is mysterious… After a while, when you get older, you realize that, you just want someone with a good heart, warm, a good conscience and a good smile.
CJ’s intervention: I heard you said older, but you’re not that old now.
Z: That’s what you think. Good surgeon.
Q: Everyone has a shower song. What about yours? Do you listen to your own song and go, ooh nice song?
Z: (begins singing live) Torn between two lovers, feeling like a fool. Mary MacGregor’s Torn Between Two Lovers.
Q: What inspired you to write Kantoi? Was it based on a breakup and a true story?
Z: It’s based on my friend’s story. I was just talking about that just now. It’s been a while since I revisited that writing process, which was one of the most incredibly fun writing process I’ve ever had. She was hanging out over at my house, and she was like (exclamation in Malay), and I had a ukulele in my hand, (Semalam I call you, you tak answer). It was a fun kind of jokey song.
Q: You are very sure that it’s not yours?
Z: I’m very sure.
Q: Why the name Zee Avi?
Z: My name is Izyan, and it gradually turned into Zee. It’s just 5 letters, people, and now it’s 3. And Avi is an abbreviation of my last name (Alirahman), because anything more than 3 syllabus is a mouthful, apparently, in some countries. And I actually just found out recently that Zee means sea in Dutch. So if you put an E at the back of Avi (Avie) means sea of life.
Q: Are there any craze for K-pop bands that you are crazy with? Any closet love for K-pop bands?
Z: I used to listen, back in ’98, there’s a girl band named S.E.S. I know that they are a Korean girl band (begins singing). But K-pop, no. But recently I went to Korea, and they were telling me about this band called 2PM? It’s like 12 of them or something?
Q: No, 6.
Z: Oh, really ah?
Q: That’s a really small size for them.
Z: Yeah, cannot make football team.
Q: Your concert here in Singapore, what would you like your fans to take away or understand from it, cause obviously your fans had heard your album quite a few times, so the actual performance – what would be the difference?
Z: For me, I find that the real creativity lies in live performances. Luckily for me, my band – it’s nice to work with actual artistes and not just actual musicians. And we work together, we collaborated together, putting together this kind of force, putting more life to the songs, live performance wise. What I want my fans to take away from that is whatever they choose to take away with them, I hope that they take it away with a smile.
Q: Your album is written over in the US. How will fans in Asia and Singapore relate to songs with inspirations from over there (US side of matters)?
Z: Yeah, but it’s universal! I mean, how do you relate to I Will Survive by Gloria Gaynor? How do you relate to Never Say Never by Justin Bieber? Or Spice World by Spice Girls? As long as it has a universal message that people can take away and people can relate with, I think the key ingredient to that is to still have sincerity of some sort in your music and in your words. And people watch movies from other countries, people read stories from other countries, and it’s a matter of transporting as a storyteller. It’s a matter of transporting someone through your words, to where you were and what you were feeling at that time.
Q: Obviously the album is pretty fresh in Asia. So how far after this tour will you be thinking of getting intergradation for new songs for another album?
Z: Cause I already have it in me. It comes in spirits, it’s sporadic. The intention of writing new material is there, although I feel that Ghostbird is still taking its nice little slow pace to show itself to the world, and I am still dawning them in the best light I can, and sort of enhancing it and sharing it with the world still. New material definitely comes about and pushing.
Q: Could you give us some specific examples as to what they are?
Z: It’s quite premature to talk about. Two years ago, I was like, my second album is going to be bleak, and then this comes up. I always say a lot can happen in an hour, let alone a year. So you never know.
Q: So nothing is concrete yet?
Q: A different tone from the second album?
Z: Well, probably. You know, it all comes with experience, it all comes with lessons, it all comes with obstacles that I’ve really been through and learnt, so the growth in that may be different. If I were to tell you something really concrete, then it may be something really different… then. I don’t know, techno.
Q: How do you differentiate yourself with artistes that you have been compared with? How will you see yourself different from these other artistes?
Z: The difference is we all experience things differently, and we all choose to feel certain emotions differently, we choose to embrace different situations differently, we are all very different. Being compared to any other artiste is inevitable, because people always want a sort of comfort, to know that they can relate with this person. But, as an artiste, we are all out there to create, to have a sense of authenticity and originality within itself, and I find that everything has been done, just it matters how differently you do it, and being compared is flattering, very, very flattering, to be in the same cycle as those artistes, I would never in a million years dream this night would be… and now my name is here (right beside all these other artistes), written down. I just feel that we all have our own voices.
Q: How much does your native culture influence your music making, besides the obvious songs in Malay?
Z: People always ask me that, what is it being Malaysian, or being Asian, mean to you? And I am like, everything! I was born and raised here, therefore my upbringing had a lot to do with it, therefore my mentality had a lot to do with it, as well as being abroad, and travelling around and meeting different people from other cultures kind of chizzles that down a little bit, and sort of altered and is custom for me. That has a lot to do with… just because I sing in English, that’s it; but the way that I think and the way that I feel is definitely from the lands which I came.
Q: If your time as a musician has come to an end (touchwood, literally, Zee touching the wooden table) which would be your proudest moment?
Z: My proudest moment – well, I hope by the time I have a long list of it, but for now, I think, just sort of seeing my parents in the crowd and seeing how proud they are of my achievements, because all of this – like my family and I have been waiting for a while to figure out what am I supposed to do, but when the whole thing came together, they’re like okay, now they know why I’ve got my eccentricity and it all makes sense now, and my proudest moment would be to see the pleased faces of my parents.
Q: How was the process of making Ghostbird like? Did you already have the sound in mind or was it very go-with-the-flow?
Z: It was go-with-the-flow, much like everything I do. Half of the songs were written in Brooklyn, and then the rest of it was written in Florida, Everglades, in the Sampath. It’s a very contrast feel, so you have the hustle and the bustle of the city, and then you have the stillness and the calmness of being in an open environment in the water, so I was left alone with my thoughts for a while, and that made everything very smooth, and flow really nice.
Kevin: You are actually living the dream of many Asian artistes, having a US label and so forth. Do you have any advice for people in the same position with that kind of aspirations?
Z: My advice would just be keep doing what you do, and again I can’t stress this enough, I think the 3 main ingredients that I find worked for me as an artiste are honesty, simplicity and sincerity, for sure, and do not have any expectations. I mean, I am aware that people try very hard to just sort of be out there and to be noticed, but a part of the manifestation of it is to just to do it because you love doing it, and not because it is something that you strive for. And if you work hard enough, someone, somewhere out there will hear your call, and it will definitely be your destiny. So I think a part of that is definitely to just keep doing what you’re doing, because of passion and reason.
CJ: We are writing for Power Of Pop. So you are part of the Asian music scene as well…
Z: Am I?
CJ: Sort of.
CJ: In an international kind of way. So what’re your views of the Asian music scene in the big picture (international music scene), and how do you fit in?
Z: Well, how do I fit in? I never fit in before, anywhere, haha. I think the Asian music scene is so vast, and there’s just so many different, you know… it’s definitely quite advanced, if you ask me. Like with the K-pop, and then you have the traditional singers. And you have girls like Joanna Wang from Taiwan, who’s like doing her own thing now, and you have Thao with the Get Down, Stay Down from the States as well. And you have Dengue Fever, who’s this Cambodian group and amazing, amazing. You know, it’s very tasteful at the same time, and I think how I fit in there is just to bring the way that I was brought up, which is to be courteous and considerate, and aware of my surroundings; and at the same time, being warm and welcoming to whoever is around me. Through artistry, it allows me as an Asian woman to have more freedom in expressing myself.
CJ: Share with us something that you face while you’re pursuing this musical journey , like something difficult or an obstacle or something.
Z: Yeah, it’s a huge industry, and everybody knows everyone, and it’s a small world in this industry, but the challenge is just knowing how to feel another person to see if the vibe is well. For me, I embrace everybody just the same. Secondly, when you’re on the road and everything’s amplified, what would take much slower in real time, so you have to grow up really fast. For me as well, I have never been in this industry before, and you have to learn really fast, mental strength. And third is being away from home. Like sometimes it’s hard, because when you’re on the road, you don’t want to eat at Denny’s all the time, you don’t want to go to Waffle House all the time. I want my belacan and my nasi lemak!
CJ: What’s your outlook of life in general and what’s your next goal?
Z: My outlook of life is that life is a grand reception of oneself. Life is your own party, and it’s how you make it.
CJ: So what’s your next goal perhaps, after this album Ghostbird?
Z: After this album, I hope that I would be blessed enough to still be doing this. And hopefully, I will have a third album under my belt, in my belt, or under.
CJ: It’s highly likely that you would have a third album.
Z: Ah, I hope so, haha.
CJ: Any covers that you would like to do next, because you have been doing covers for a while – You had covered Interpol, and you had covered Morrissey. Who would you like to cover next?
Z: There’re so many covers that I would like to do, but I respect the artistes so much that I don’t want to touch them anymore.
CJ: Just one that you would like to touch?
Z: Um, probably a Malay song, like it’s been done already, but I would like to have my take on it, and it’s Getaran Jiwa by P Ramlee. You know Getaran Jiwa? P Ramlee? Okay, check it. (Proceeded to spell it out for the courtesy and stupidity in me) It means fluctuating of the soul; it’s about deep passion for music and melodies.
(while an interviewer prepares himself and his mobile phone for recording, Zee teased him on how he has got some tweets and someone BBM-ed him)
Q: This is the third time you are in Singapore, I understand, first time was a concert in Timbre in 2009, and in 2010 it was a showcase in Stereolounge. So how do you feel about coming back to Singapore again, for your very third time?
Z: It’s great. I have been waiting to play Singapore for a while now, cause everytime I come back, the audience are so… you know, like the exchanges of energy that we have when I’m on stage, and they’re just sort of projecting, so it’s like a mutual love, and that’s one thing that I love about performing in Singapore. And you know, Singapore is like up there with Tokyo, a lot of great artistes come by here, that doesn’t come by Malaysia. Being here, to play here is like an honour. Our neighbouring countries.
Q: So how would you compare Singapore’s music scene and the music scene in Malaysia? Are they like parallel?
Z: I think they’re sort of parallel. I have a lot of friends who are in bands, and they roll around the same circuit like the Singapore bands as well, when they come over there, they are all buddies, and when they come over here, they are all buddies. But I think Singapore has an advantage in a way in terms of music, because there are more opportunities here, I find, in terms of venues, events – you guys had, like Laneway, and so many different types of festivals. I think, when was the last time I followed my friend, One Buck Short, to this festival at Esplanade, a couple of years ago. Was it Beats (corrected to Baybeats by the rest of us)? You guys had that, and you invite Malaysian bands as well, like all good in the hood man.
Q: You were discovered on YouTube by the drummer of The Raconteurs, Patrick Keeler. For artistes, if there wasn’t YouTube and this technology, do you think you would have made a name for yourself without technology?
Z: Well, one thing is going to be my conclusion, is that you can’t fight progress. It’s just inevitable that we will eventually evolve into, like an evolution that will have technology as a necessity. For me, technology, especially the Internet. The cool thing about 2011 – I can’t stress this enough – is the fact that we do have all these outlets on the Internet, like Soundcloud, Bandcamp and YouTube, the power is given back to the artiste, and they are allowed to display their music, their gifts without third parties. So you can still do that, with the help of the Internet, which is basically how I did it. I mean, I did it without any intention of it being a marketing or a promotional tool, but I know of a lot of other people who had gotten discovered through MySpace, because it is there. The Internet is like this huge treasury chest, so many jams, and now people know where to look. And you just look for the jam that speaks to you, and you pick that up. Now record labels are looking for artistes through the Internet, or not even record labels at all! Sometimes you gain followers just by being there, and they are following you – and everybody’s on Facebook now, and Twitter. At the same time it is cool, because there are no filters, no walls in terms of you and your appreciators.
Q: How do you find the food in Singapore?
Z: Gooooood. I haven’t had ayam penyet yet, so I’m gonna get my fix tonight! But I’ve had nasi lemak from Forum (The Shopping Centre).
CJ: Is it up to standard, to Malaysia’s standards?
Z: (silence, dodgy eyes)
(laughter all around)
CJ: I see.
Z: Well, we all stem from the same seed anyway, we all use the same spices, so it was pretty delicious.
Q: Any other food you are looking forward to try in Singapore?
Z: Chilli crab.
Q: They don’t have chilli crab in Malaysia?
Z: Got, but not the same lah!
Q: What’s the best time you are inspired to write music – is it when you are having your breakfast, or on your bed, or?
Z: It usually happens at night, at around 3am, or in the morning when I have my coffee, if I have my instruments. But sometimes it also happens at the most random of times, like when I’m on the plane, and I have the melody in my head, and I just write down the words that come with it. It’s sporadic. But before I used to do it in a routine when at night, and in the morning when I wake up, it’s something that I look forward to.
Thanks to Universal Singapore for setting up the interview.