Sunday, August 16th, 2009
Zee Avi natural and unaffected
By Margaret Apau
YOU can argue that some artistes are only famous because they have the right connections, the financial backing or simply, are packaged for stardom.
Much like Borneos best kept secret, however, what producers Ian Montone and Jack Johnson found in Izyan Alirahman, was the natural and unaffected talents of a young ingnue who first received attention from posting short bedroom sessions on YouTube under KokoKaina and then, Zee Avi.
I just started posting my music videos because I genuinely just wanted to share, she said.
The last video she posted on YouTube No Christmas for Me garnered 3,000 comments from users worldwide.
One of them was producer, Ian Montone, who eventually flew her to LA to make her recording debut with producer Robert Caranza at Brushfires Solar Powered Plastic Plant.
No Christmas for Me was then featured on the holiday charity album This Warm December, A Brushfire Holiday, Vol 1.
Id never been in a studio before but everybody at Brushfire was so warm and generous towards me. I am so thankful to the talented musicians and professionals who taught me a lot.
Since then, she had released her self-titled album on May 19 and is now traversing the US for her opening act with alternative rock singer-songwriter, Pete Yorn, and will soon be hitting the road for No Depression Festival and Street Scene in August.
Before signing with Monotone-Brushfire records, Zees onstage experience included at least 20 indie gigs in Kuala Lumpur.
While performing in KL is nothing to scoff at, doing it throughout the US, the worlds musical cultural centre, should rattle her nerves somewhat but she was able to maintain an enviably calm and relaxed aura.
Its all the result of nerves. Im usually such a nervous wreck before going onstage that when I finally do perform, Im in a trance.
The daughter of an energy consultant in Miri, Zee Avi resided in Lutong and attended school and tuition in Mandarin before the family moved to KL when she was 12.
At 17, she pursued law for a short time before studying fashion design in London an aspiration that was short-lived and saw her sitting at home, figuring out what she should do for the rest of her life.
Taking a brief hiatus from fashion, she breathed new life into her forgotten ukulele and wrote songs in 2007. Today, she travels with two to three notebooks in her bag to jot down her thoughts and lyrics.
While her immediate family may not be musically inclined, she attributes her latent musical abilities to her late grandfather who used to sing, play the double-bass, accordion, violin and guitar in bands.
A big listener of music, she didnt know how to play any musical instruments until she finished her SPM.
I owe a lot of my musical career to boredom, she said with a laugh, explaining that the brief period of intermission after fashion design gave her time to teach herself to play an RM18 ukulele from a chord book she bought.
At the time, I was on a weekly allowance, and so I bought this small ukulele because it looked nice, she recalled, joking how she hid it from her parents initially so that they wouldnt ask her why or what she was doing with a musical instrument she didnt know how to play.
Although shes a self-claimed rock chick, what surprisingly emerged was a singer who has been likened to Ella Fitzgerald with the bitter-sweet qualities of romance and a crack left open for hope and optimism.
Although you wouldnt expect it from Zees calm and matured outlook, she went through her own growing pains like many teenagers.
In high school I was a total misfit I didnt blend in with my peers.
Its a well of inspiration that forms her lyrics today.
For so many of my songs, they are me and to be able to share that with people is really great. I got really good feedback before during and after my shows and people had come up to me and said my songs had touched something in their own lives and I thought, Aw, Im not alone!
Even though Zee is just as comfortable in English as in Malay or Mandarin, Kantoi is closer to her authentic side.
A tongue-in-cheek break-up song that blends English with Malay, kantoi, according to her, is a way to express her roots.
It may not really be written in bahasa baku but theres no fronting and I wouldnt know how to write the lyrics in really flowery Malay language anyway. It blends Malay with English, and it would be how I would speak to my friends, she explained.
On her roots, she admits to getting a bit annoyed when people tend to assume that Borneans still live in trees.
Whenever they ask me a question like that, I just brush it off by saying we still communicate by using smoke signals too, she laughed.
On a serious note, however, I hope through my music, Ill be able to teach people about the truth of Sarawak and Malaysia.
One can critique that shes not completely Sarawakian because she has spent her time away from here and is singing un-Malaysian songs.
In the music industry, you have to steel yourself against criticisms, and you cant take everything said against you seriously.
Asked whether she had any philosophy to guide her through life, she replied: I go through everything I do without having any expectations at all. With higher expectations come more disappointments so I take things as they come.
After finishing her stint in the US, shes looking forward to coming back to Sarawak and performing here.