For 25-year-old Malaysian singer/songwriter Zee Avi, “Swell Window” is the gorgeous track that started the journey and also the opening track of her second album, ghostbird. “It’s a song about seizing the moment,” she says, “and for me, a new direction and a new voice came and stayed.”
In the two years since her self-titled debut was joint-released on Jack Johnson’s Brushfire Records and Ian Montone’s Monotone Label, Avi’s very free spirit has wandered from major music festivals (SXSW, Outside Lands, Bonnaroo) to huge tours (Lilith Fair) back to her homeland of Sarawak, Borneo Island, where she recently picked up an International Youth Icon Award. For a little perspective, just four years ago, Avi was a former art student in Kuala Lumpur who posted a song on YouTube to catch up with a friend and was quite surprised to find herself the toast of the Internet when thousands of strangers discovered her effortlessly stunning voice. Literal overnight success can easily poison young minds, but Avi is no ordinary mind — while critics were comparing her chilled-out, jazzy, ukulele-based songs to Billie Holiday and Cat Power she was continuing to make visual art and remaining her buoyant, whimsical self. “I’m 25 going on 12 and a half on a good day,” she laughs, flipping through a notebook filled with colorful drawings and lengthy notes.
Avi started writing ghostbird in her Brooklyn kitchen last summer, but followed the wind to the balmy waters of the Florida Everglades where she found endless musings, “with absolute silence and calmness.” In March, she took her fresh batch of tunes to Johnson’s Solar Powered Plastic Plant studios and got down to business with producer Mario Caldato, Jr., best known for his work with the Beastie Boys and beloved Brazilian artists like Bebel Gilberto. It only took two weeks for them to lay down the 11 tracks on Ghostbird (it means “Burung Hantu” which means owl in Avi’s native language), including the closing number on the album, “Stay In The Clouds,” a new addition that was written on the last day of recording.
This album lead Avi to new ideas. “Siboh Kitak Nangis” which translates to “Don’t You Cry,” is the first song in Avi’s dialect on an international album and the poppy groove of “The Book of Morris Johnson” is the first time she has written new music to accompany someone else’s words. “Morris Johnson” was inspired by a Floridian folk artist whose paintings of animals and accompanying text about their instinctual lives “capture naiveté and innocence and enthusiasm,” Avi says. After buying a few of his pieces at an art show, Avi called him up and said, “Morris, I’m ready to be your disciple, I’m ready to turn your words into a song.” (Morris was thrilled — his daughter’s a huge fan.)
The track “Anchor” is one of the handful of songs that made the album from Avi’s New York writing sessions and also what Zee refers to as a “premonition track,” and another NYC track, “Concrete Wall,” is a striking a cappella that features contributions from beloved turntable god Cut Chemist. And yes, she is well aware June has 30 days rather than 31 (the song “31 Days” was inspired by a couch-surfing friend who lamented, ” ‘I was homeless for 31 days in June.’ “) Every song has a different mood, every song is a different voice, every song is a different story,” Avi explains. But the idea of the ghostbird unites the album, and Avi has tucked an owl call into a few tracks on the disc, “So it’s a little scavenger hunt when you listen to it.”
After the album arrives on August 30th, 2011 Avi is itching to get back on tour and show off her live skills. “I want people to feel like they’re being hugged,” she says of the soothingly beautiful ghostbird. “I think this is my swell window right now.”
Photo credit: Hilary Walsh