Interview: Zee Avi

Even before the fame she has been compared to everyone from Billie Holiday to Cat Power – as big of a compliment you can get when you were initially only armed with a ukulele and a webcam. Now signed by US label Brushfire Records, Zee Avi is an international name with a successful debut under her belt. She continues to expand her musical horizon with the upcoming sophomore album Ghostbird, which sees her finding inspiration in a folk artist, a turntable god, and her Borneon roots. JUICE talks to Zee, attempts levity, possibly annoys her in the process, and witnesses some of her dry witticism as a result…

What’s new with Zee Avi?
Having some coffee right now. Not a new album, that’s for sure. Or do I have one? I can’t remember.

Ghostbird is quite a different entity than your debut, what’s the inspiration behind the more Brazilian/Samba feel to it?
Well I wouldn’t say that. There’s something for everybody. I won’t say it’s any type of specific feel. Much like the first album, it’s diverse, and is an assorted bag of everything for everyone.

Ghostbird is a literal translation of burung hantu, what’s the significance behind the name?
Burung hantu is a creature that defines wisdom, mystique, and observation. Which is hopefully what my music would convey.

Being a Malaysian act based in the States, is there pressure to prove yourself as still Malaysian to locals (like mentioning how much you love sambal)?
I don’t feel pressured to do anything. I’ve never ever felt the need to prove anything to anyone. Especially when it comes to proving I’m Malaysian. My passport is still red, everyone knows I was born and raised in Malaysia and oh, I love sambal and Hang Tuah, and by Hang Tuah I mean M Nasir.

You referenced Kierkegaard in your last album, are you a bookworm? Just to check your literary cred, name us a Kierkegaard work too.
I love that question. I’m very much a literary person. My books, for a very long time and still is in a lot of ways, are my friends. My favourite would probably be selected pages from his journal The Soul of Kierkegaard.

And now you’re referencing Morris Johnson, a folk painter, on your new single. How has art beyond music influenced your work?
A lot of my influences come from everyday life. Morris Johnson was more than just a reference. The song itself is actually his words from his paintings. Art has everything to do with everything. Living is an art. So that is a major part of my influence.

What’s it like to work with turntable deity Cut Chemist on the new record?
Mario C sent the track over to Cut. Like a bawse. I didn’t actually meet him, but the fact that he agreed to work on the song was wow!

Does this mean there’d be more hip hop collabos? Who’d you want to collaborate with (we’d love to hear you work with Q-Tip)?
Me too. Or J. Cole, or Nicki Minaj, or CSBTEA, haha! I dunno, whatever comes in my way.

We were wondering, what’s the origin behind your original stage name Kokokaina? Why did you changed it to the Semite-sounding Zee Avi?
We’re still talking about that? It’s just a YouTube name that got stuck. It’s an abbreviation of my real name. People abroad don’t even try to pronounce my name, it’s apparently too hard to pronounce internationally. And I’ve been known as Zee since I could remember.

Can mee kolok lead to world peace?
I really do think so. If Lady Gaga tries it and loves it, it probably can. I think this calls for Operation Get Lady Gaga To Try Mee Kolok.

What does pint sized Zee Avi like to drink in a pint?
Coffee, lots of coffee. Teh O Ais Limau… and sambal.

You went from Youtube star Kokokaina to recording artist Zee Avi, what’s next for Zee Avi
World domination… in scrabble.

Not a question, but tell us something in your native dialect.
KAMEK SAYANG KITAK!

Kamek pun sayang kitak juak!

Ghostbird hit stores on 23 August. Check out how she’s doing in the States at www.zeeavi.com.