This article is from Issue 53: Sept/Oct 2011

Zee Avi

The eclectic, soulful artist believes happy songs are her calling.

It wouldn’t be a stretch to liken Zee Avi to a hummingbird. The petite, energetic musician’s life is a cycle of flitting from place to place, punctuated by cheerful, creative pauses. But Avi herself would offer another comparison.

“I think I would most likely relate to the owl,” Avi states. The 25-year-old singer-songwriter was so taken with the creature, she named her sophomore album Ghostbird, a translation of the Indonesian term for “owl.” She even buried owl calls throughout its songs. Why the obsession?

“They symbolize wisdom, they symbolize mystique, they symbolize mystery, they symbolize a lot of things. They’re nocturnal creatures—but most of all they’re observers,” Avi says. “I kind of see myself as that, where you sit back and not say much, but you just take everything in.”

Perhaps Avi is observant, maybe even wise, but one thing is certain: She has never done much “sitting back.” Once upon a time, the Malaysian native bounced from Kuala Lumpur to London, studying fashion and art while penning poetry on the side. But her free spirit was still restless.

“I thought to myself, why don’t I just turn my poems into songs?” Avi says.

Something clicked. The nomadic twentysomething settled into her songs in a way she hadn’t anywhere else.

Avi began developing the style she is now known for: equal parts eclectic and classic. Despite her youth, Avi has an uncanny way of blending the wispy indie-pop of today with the robust sounds of 1920s jazz or the raw fervor of 1960s folk.

It’s a precious musical concoction that could please a wide range of ages and ears. If Billie Holiday, Mama Cass, Cat Power and Feist all joined hands in a circle, you’d likely find Avi spinning around in the middle.

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"Projecting a little light from yourself doesn't hurt."

“I think music is a universal language,” Avi says. “It has a sort of power over people that visual stimulants can’t. It just touches people in a certain way.”

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