September 29, 2009


Zee Avi is on the floor with both arms deep in a bag of new clothes. She rifles around for a minute, pulls out a muted grey Loomstate shawl, and holds it to her cheek. “See, when it’s organic, you can just feel the difference,” she says, smiling.

The pint-sized singer-songwriter is in the middle of a whirlwind of New York City shows and press appearances for her debut album on Jack Johnson’s Brushfire Records, heretofore home to an all-male roster of distinctive musicians including G. Love and Matt Costa. The label’s first female signee, Avi will soon be on her way to her new home in Long Beach, a 20-hour trip from where she grew up in Malaysia. But for now, she’s happily taking a minute to punch up her wardrobe in the back room of a sun drenched Soho loft. “I really do have a passion for fashion,” she says. “Just not the industry part.”

She knows of what she speaks. A few years ago, Avi, now 23, was on a fast track to a career in the biz, studying at design school and taking on internships and retail jobs in London. But after returning to her hometown of Kuala Lumpur, her life took an unexpected turn. Discovered on YouTube by Raconteurs drummer Patrick Keeler, who passed her name on to his manager, Avi got a chance to parlay her longtime hobby, music, into a career.

Having played with family and friends since her early childhood on the island of Borneo, Avi had begun to write songs on the side, but it was just for fun. “It started like a diary almost,” she explains in her hint-of-British accent. “I would write songs about things that were happening to me and post them.” The videos that wound up online featured Avi with her face obscured, pouring her heart out in peppy little tunes accompanied by her own old-time jazzy acoustic guitar and ukulele, a formula that eventually won her a featured slot on YouTube’s homepage. “It was insane,” she recalls. “I mean, imagine the traffic you get if you go to and, bam, there’s your video.”

Many of those tunes still live on YouTube, but they’ve also became the foundation of Avi’s self-titled album, a spare, beach-and-brunch-friendly affair highlighted by her distinct alto. On the surface, the songs sound light and crisp, but Avi’s lyrics are deep
and often dark, an ironic setup that adds intrigue.

The song with perhaps the cutest melody, “Poppy,” is actually about a heroin-addicted lover, which Avi will only say is “semi-autobiographical.” She also covers the L.A. street violence anthem “First of the Gang” by doldrums king Morrissey, an obsession from her days as a mourning punkstress. “I had pink highlights, black nail polish, hated the world, that whole enchilada,” Avi admits. “It was one of my many phases, and I’m glad I went through them. I’m glad I met people who brought me through to this broad pool of influences.”

Today, Avi is a ray of sunshine who favors florals and flowing garments by the likes of Tracy Feith and Gregory Parkinson, who provides the wardrobe for the video for her single “Bitter Heart.” In typical Avi style, the song pipes romantic frustration through a confection of jazzy guitar and bright trumpet. It’s the kind of mellow sound that, despite her dark undertones, puts her perfectly in line with the rest of the Brushfire roster. “I bet there are so many singer-songwriters who would love to be a part of this family,” Avi giggles.“I’m so lucky.”

—Cristina Black