Inspiring Conversations

Boundless as the Zee

  • SumoMe

Suffering from a massive case of jet-lag, having fun at Noise Talks and plugged up on coffee (and chilli crabs), the ever talented singer-songwriter, Zee Avi was kind enough to talk to Penny’s Daybook before her sell-out set at Stereolounge on Friday for the Mosaic Music Festival.

by Penny K & Penny V

Up and coming New York-based Malaysian songbird, Zee Avi, rather favours the maxim, “Music knows no boundaries”; she reiterates it several times throughout our chat with her. But it’s really no surprise why since it was her music that first caught the ear of Patrick Keeler of The Raconteurs which brought her the opportunities and platform to become the artiste that she is today.

Music also knows no boundaries because born in Sarawak, Malaysia, Zee is now based in New York and is rather loving it there. But because music knows no boundaries, she has already performed twice in Singapore and tours around the US.

Perhaps it’s the boundless and seamless way in which the Internet connects people which helped Zee get the big break she needed, perhaps it’s the way her music speaks to you as much as to the next person, but one thing’s for sure, the girl will go wherever her music takes her.

What are the challenges you face as an Asian artiste in a Caucasian dominated industry?

I’ve been asked this a few times and I just want to say that there really is no difference. Music knows no boundaries, it knows no races, it knows no gender; it’s a universal language. It shouldn’t be about all of that. At the end of the day, as long as it (music) speaks to you in a certain way and you know you can relate to someone’s heart and someone’s experiences, that’s all that matters.

You have a song called Kantoi and it’s a hybrid of English and Malay; would you be recording a Malay album anytime soon?

Actually I don’t speak Malay fluently, as my mother tongue is Bahasa Serawak and it’s completely different. Where it comes to Malay, I can only do short phrases like, “You kat mana?” or “Tak makan?” (Laughs) I can’t do it like they do on the news! But really, I’m just more comfortable writing in English since it’s my first language.

When you’re creatively zapped and you’re back home in Malaysia, what do you like to do, to get back into the groove?

Eat! (Laughs) Back in Malaysia, my room is my sanctuary – I’m actually a recluse, a hermit if you will. I also like to spend time with my family because I don’t get to see them often. But to get into the zone; my room has a view of the city and the mountains and I just like to sit on my couch with my guitar and take it all in. Sometimes I write in my bathtub – all dry! I’m in clothes with my guitar!

So what inspires you to write your songs? Bubbles and bath salts?

Bubbles and champagne, mmm. (Laughs) Erm, well everything really. Heartache, heartache, falling in love, falling out of love, unicorns, bunnies, coconuts!

Is there a particular singer that you would love to collaborate with?

Hmmmm. He’s no longer with us but, Serge Gainsbourg (legendary French singer-songwriter who died of a heart attack March 2, 1991). Amazing, amazing man.

How about someone alive though?

No! All the good ones are gone! No, no, I’m kidding, Tom Waits for sure.

Is there a new album in the pipeline?

Err, well, Currently I’m still working on the ‘experiencing’ part and then comes the writing part. So I’m definitely writing a lot. I’m very excited to lay down some demos. So definitely a new record will be in the works sometime later in the year or the next.

How is it going to be different from your current album?

As an artiste, no matter what your medium, if you’re a painter, writer, poet, you evolve quickly because everything around you excites you. I feel like down the road, after travelling and meeting people and experience so many different things, I think the second album, while not moving away too much from my current sound would have a lot of different things for everybody. A little bit more in depth.

You were previously a fashion student, how do you think that has helped you to shape your image as an artiste? Like for instance, what you’re wearing today.

(Imitating Ris Low) Oh you mean my leopard preens? It’s Boomz! You know anything that shouts ME! (Laughs) Well you know, I’ve always been the kind of person to like mixing and matching different things. I like vintage and mixing that with modern, I’m really into the whole hobo-chic – that’s what it’s called right. But fashion is another form of expression; my music has a lot to do with that. But generally I like whatever makes me feel comfortable. Like this hat is hiding my really bad hair! (Laughs)

Would you wear a baseball cap then?

Backwards! Like Limp Bizkit!

From recording from your home, to getting signed and touring in America, what are some of the best parts or lessons you’ve learnt and how is 2010 going to top 2009?

Pack the right shoes! (Laughs) You just have to have an open mind when you’re on the road, because the road is your home and the van is your bed. You just have to keep yourself grounded. What I’ve learnt is that it’s hard living out of a suitcase and it’s hard to keep relationships, so I don’t do that, I don’t even keep a fish, which is what I would love to do. At the end of the day, I live to experience and I think that’s all that matters, the good and the bad.

So there isn’t a man in your life?

My dad and my brother. (Laughs). My guitar!

Oh, your guitar is man?

Oh yeah, his name is Monty and he’s a good listener. (Laughs)

Did you name your Ukulele?

Of course, her name is Gabby.

What made you decide to pick up the Ukulele? Did you learn it on your own?

Yeah, I did actually, with YouTube it’s so easy and you know the interweb! Everything is so easy to find. I had a couple of friends from YouTube, like a little community there who persuaded me to buy a Ukulele and I did and couldn’t put it down for 3 days. It’s a jovial instrument and it’s hard to be super-serious like the guitar or piano.

Some of your songs like Bitter Heart, they sort of a reflect a very down-to-earth vision or love and relationships. Is that how you are in a relationship?

Yeah, you know what, I kinda see myself as a modern woman when it comes to relationships and I just roll with the punches, but I’m quite passionate as well. You know what guys, don’t mess with songwriters, because we will call you out and if you’re lucky, we’ll say your name – like Taylor Swift for example.

Would you describe yourself as a romantic and what do you like in a guy?

Well, Bachelor number 1 (Laughs)… Well I am a romantic person, I like everything that is sensual and passionate. Here’s my formula for my perfect guy, he’s gotta have a good heart, good conscience, good morals, two parts shy, three parts good-hearted and one-part badass. And a good smile! If that’s not too much to ask! (Laughs)

What’s the nicest thing a fan has ever done for you?

It was after one of my shows in Seattle and I make it a point to meet and greet everyone who comes, because you know if it wasn’t for them…and so you know I was at the Merchandise table, signing autographs and this woman comes up to me and she’s like, ‘Hey, I wanted to say that I enjoyed your set and I really believe that your song, Honeybee was written for me and that special lady over there.’ That touched my heart so much because that’s what I want my music to be, to no boundaries, no gender, as long as it speaks to you. It was just really nice.

Any pre-show rituals?

(Mimes drinking) I’m kidding! (Laughs) Usually I like being by myself before a performance; I just sort of collect my thoughts and clear my mind.

Do the nerves still hit you?

Oh yeah, every single time. Big crowd, small crowd, I heave a lot before shows (laughs). Terrible, it’s so classy.

Since you’re always on the road, what are the 3 things you always take with you?

My sanity, my patience, no, (Laughs). Erm, my iPod, my laptop and my sketchbook…with crayons because I’m cool like that.

You are indeed cool like that Zee. We wish you all the best and look forward to your new album – and more of your antics!

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