Band of the Day

2012.03.13

Zee Avi

Jazzy Malaysian indie pop from a former YouTube star
Bitter heart, bitter heart tries to keep it all inside. Bitter heart, bitter heart, shadows will help you try to hide.
lyrics from Bitter Heart

Izyan Alirahman, better known as Zee Avi, is a Malaysian singer-songwriter, guitarist, and ukulele player. Born in Miri, Sarawak on the island of Borneo, Zee was raised by a liberal family who encouraged her musical abilities; her grandfather was a singer, guitarist, violinist, accordionist, and double-bassist in various bands. At the age of 12, Zee moved to Kuala Lumpur, and has been based there since. She began learning guitar at the age of 17, before moving to London for four years to study fashion design at the American InterContinental University. Upon returning to Malaysia, Zee began writing songs, performing with a band, and posting videos on YouTube. The videos went viral, and one clip was discovered by Patrick Keeler, drummer for The Raconteurs, who sent it to Ian Montone from Monotone Label. Zee then flew to L.A. to record her self-titled debut album, which was released on Brushfire Records in 2009. It was an instant hit, earning the #2 spot on the US Billboard Top Heatseekers Chart. Her second album, Ghostbird, was released in August 2011, making its way to the #1 spot on the Heatseekers Albums Chart.

Five years ago, Izyan Alirahman was an art student in Malaysia who played music as a hobby. When a close friend of hers wasn't able to attend one of her concerts, posted a song ("Poppy") for him on YouTube. The video soon went viral, propelling Alirahman into YouTube stardom. One of her new fans was Patrick Keeler (of The Raconteurs), who sent it to record exec Ian Montone, who immediately signed Alirahman to his label. Taking on the stage name Zee Avi, her self-titled debut album was released in 2009. On “Just You And Me,” Dixieland jazz-style horns swing merrily along with a ukulele melody, sounding like what might happen if jazz had originated in Borneo instead of New Orleans. Avi's lyrics are subtly clever and playful, like rhyming “where you're reading Kierkegaard” (a reference to Danish existentialist philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard) with “something that almost broke my heart.” And with her honeyed voice on lines like, “Let's pack our bags and lie on the easy stream/feel the water on our backs/where we can carry on dreamin',” the Malaysian tourism industry should take note—Avi could easily convince someone to book the next flight. On 2011's Ghostbird, there seems to be an underlying theme of honoring nature. The album's title comes from “burung hantu” in Malay, meaning “owl,” and there are secret owl calls hidden in certain tracks. “Stay In The Clouds” has nighttime cricket chirps, while “Roll Your Head In The Sun” has Avi chanting, “thank you, sun” almost like a mantra. The album was even recorded using 100% solar energy in Jack Johnson's Solar Powered Plastic Plant studios. Avi's sultry jazz songstress persona comes back in “Madness,” highlighted by muted trumpets wah-wahing with an upright bass riff. “Concrete Wall” is one of her most stunning songs to date. Vocalizations of “boom-she-clack-clack” are present throughout the whole song, layered under Avi's a capella singing. It also features subtle turntable contributions from Lucas MacFadden, the DJ better known as Cut Chemist (from Ozomatli/Jurassic 5). While the internet is to blame for making people like Rebecca Black famous, there's still something awe-inspiring about how it's launched the careers of truly talented musicians like Zee Avi—whose music might have never made its way outside of Malaysia.