It turns out the cliché is true: Good things sometimes do come in small packages. For instance, take diminutive Malaysian singer/songwriter Zee Avi, who plays at the Loft at UCSD on Sunday, and at M-Theory earlier in the day. Born Iyan Alirahman, the petite 26-year-old songstress has a beautifully big voice, and it doesn’t hurt that she has buckets of charm to go along with it.
It wasn’t until four years ago when she posted a YouTube video of herself (for a friend who missed a show) that others began to take notice. The routine “sorry you couldn’t make it” posting turned into a classic case of “one thing leads to another,” with industry folks passing the link around like a red-hot demo. Now Avi is on Jack Johnson’s record label, Brushfire Records, and just released her sophomore effort, Ghostbird, while working with Beastie Boy producer Mario Calado Jr. and DJ Cut Chemist during the process. I recently spoke with the incredibly charming singer before a gig in Seattle about the new album, Public Enemy and her role as a storyteller.
Scott McDonald: How are you today? Zee Avi: I’m actually feeling a little under the weather. My body is finally catching up with all the craziness for me lately. But things are good, and I think they’ll be really good by the time we get down there to see you.
SM: I think the last time I saw you was at the very last Street Scene in San Diego. ZA: I remember that well. I had to finish up quickly because during my second-to-last song I heard, "And now -- It's Chuck D. and Flavor Flav!" So I had to end it right there. A) I couldn’t hear myself, and B) I had to go over and watch Public Enemy like everyone else. I mean, how could you not?
SM: Kind of cool that this all started by posting a video. ZA: It’s been crazy. And what’s even crazier, is that back then, YouTube wasn’t even really a household name yet. The whole concept, layout and format has progressed and changed a lot since my time on YouTube. I still use it, but have moved on to things like Twitter, which I use a lot more these days. To me, that’s actually one of the cooler things about music in 2011. It really gives power to the artists to present what they want, when they want and gives them their own way of showcasing all that we bring to the table. Everybody gets their 15 minutes again.
SM: It seems like you’ve had more like two hours. ZA: [laughs] I sure hope so. But so far, so great.
SM: Did you have a musical household growing up? ZA: Not really. Sounds funny, but we were more like a “jammy” family -- the kind that likes things like karaoke. But my grandfather was a multi-instrumentalist who played the upright, accordion, guitar and piano. I hope that’s where I get it from and that it does actually run in the family. But it’s something I’ve nurtured, although I’ve never really considered myself a musician. I always tell people that first and foremost, I’m a storyteller.
SM: Does that role move beyond what you do when writing songs? ZA: Storytelling is also a great way to interact with the audience. But honestly, I would prefer to just sing the whole way through during shows. However, because interacting and connecting with people is so important, I do what I can do to feel audiences out and make that a part of it.
SM: Must have been fun to work with Lucas [of Cut Chemist] and Mario on the new album. ZA: I honestly couldn’t have dreamed up a more perfect marriage for this record. Everything about it was right. It was an amazing experience that was quite rewarding -- and I learned a lot from it. Mario is just one of those people who I was always on the same page with, and most of time, he was two pages ahead of me, so it worked out wonderfully.
SM: Definitely a different sound on this record. ZA: I always want things to change. I never want to stick to one thing or variety or variation. But I never change things just to change. I just try to open up more paths for direction and let it happen naturally. I don’t want to just wander but am open to detours when they come up. All of the songs have their own story, and sometimes they just go in their own direction. But I wouldn’t want it any other way.