After earning a following for videos posted on YouTube, Zee Avi caught the attention of Jack Johnson, who asked her to record an album for his Brushfire Records label. It’s easy to see why Johnson in particular would love Avi, whose catchy and carefree guitar riffs have a spirit much like his own. But it’s also easy to see how anyone would love Avi.
Born in Malaysia and raised in Kuala Lumpur, Avi was studying visual art in fashion when her musical career began. As an teenager, she’d locked herself in her room learning the guitar, and she performed often in Kuala Lumpur. The breadth of Avi’s influences is apparent on her self-titled debut album, but she still creates a unique and extremely charming persona of her own. Avi is perhaps the next heiress in the bloodline of young women with supernaturally classic voices. She evokes Nina Simone, Astrid Gilberto, and Edith Piaf alike.
Her most Nina Simone moment is “Poppy”, the sweetest song you’re likely to hear about losing a boyfriend to heroin addiction. Her classic voice melts over a slide guitar as she laments “the poppy took my baby away from me”. This song’s lyrics also reveal some of Avi’s visual influences in couplets like “he used to love German Expressionism films / now he drinks until he falls”. What’s more, she can actually sing the phrase “German Expressionism films” gracefully, undaunted by the clunky polysyllables. She repeats this in “Just You and Me”, which opens with her singing “You were sitting at the coffee table / where you were reading Kierkegaard / Minutes later you proceeded to say something / That almost broke my heart”.
“Poppy”, like the rest of the album, has an intimate warmth that contributes to Avi’s winning nature. This is partially due to the excellent living-room production that makes songs like “Honey Bee” sound as if they’re emerging from the loveseat across the living room rather than a disembodied sound file. “Honey Bee” is one of the few songs on the album where love triumphs, and it has an innocence about it, especially in a particularly sweet verse where butterflies come to the narrator’s aid.
As much as “Honey Bee” hints at Avi’s youth and bubbly personality, “Is This the End” and “The Story” are vehicles for her soft wisdom. These songs highlight some special treats of Avi’s album: whether you listen for the vocals, the music, the lyrics, or all three, your tastes will be well-satisfied, provided you’re not looking for hard rock. Zee Avi lacks in grit and rough edges, unless you count Avi’s cover of Morrissey’s “First of the Gang to Die”. It’s a brave choice, but it works well in this stripped-down arrangement of Avi’s voice and guitar.
No review of Zee Avi would be complete without mentioning “Kantoi”, a song delivered in “Manglish”, an informal hybrid of Malay and English that is essentially Avi’s native tongue. In the song, as in real-life, words slip easily between English and Malay, even within the same sentence. It’s amusing to hear Jack Johnson-esque ukulele-strumming augmented by full lines like “my phone was on silent / I was at the gym” followed by a flurry of Malay.
While Avi obviously has a lot of things going for her, her youth is perhaps her biggest asset since it hints at so much to come. This album displays a momentum acquired through the grassroots career she was inadvertently building for herself, and as Avi matures and becomes acclimated to a professional musician’s lifestyle, it will be fascinating — and likely beautiful — to hear how her music transforms.