Telling stories with music: a conversation with Zee Avi

In the section From the Zine, we feature select interviews and features originally published in our magazine. This conversation with Zee Avi was first published in our 8th issue, NOSTALGIA. Read the full magazine here

There’s something so soothing, comforting and mystically pure about Zee Avi’s voice. It’s no wonder she just released a children’s album, full of songs with the magic to calm a child. She writes music to tell a story, to reify a sometimes difficult experience into a beautiful melody. And when she sings that melody, she transports herself right back to the place where she wrote the song. In that way, every song of hers — no matter how heavy the story — feels warmly nostalgic. Just a few weeks before she released her latest albumI spoke with her about music, storytelling, and memories.

Tell me about yourself.

I think I’m a storyteller with melodies. At the same time, I‘m just someone who realized that there’s a purpose when it comes to doing what I do. And that’s to help people feel. But other than that, on the more linear side of things, I’m Zee Avi. I was born in a really small town in Borneo Island, the third largest island in the world. It’s very tribal based. It’s one of the paradise destinations in the world. After traveling a lot you have some sort of connection with your home.

You mentioned you write music that helps people feel. What music did you really connect to as a little kid?
I grew up listening to my karaoke jam when I was 6 years old. It was — Yesterday Once More by The Carpenters. I’ve always felt a connection to ballads and songs that bring you on a journey. I was too young at the time to know what the song was about but music gets you here [points to heart].


Do you know what the song is about now?

It’s about the nostalgic feeling that songs can bring you. It’s a paradox of emotions as well. The ending of the chorus — “When they get to the part / Where he’s breaking her heart / It can really make me cry / Just like before / It’s yesterday once more” — it’s melancholy but it’s whimsical at the same time. There are always so many different ways of delivering an emotion. I guess I’m attracted to people like — Harry Nilsson, and Joni Mitchell — they all have this quality that is really sincere and simple in the way they deliver their melodies and their stories. Even if it’s a really heavy story, they seem to be able to deliver it with a bright outlook. It’s a light tone for something that is heavy for your heart. A song can do that.

Earlier you were describing the Carpenter song as nostalgic. I’m not sure if you know this, but our theme for this issue is nostalgia.

Oh really? Brain waves are real!

Definitely! So on that realm, what does nostalgia mean to you?
Well, here’s my favorite quote: “Yesterday was history, tomorrow is a mystery, today is the present, so enjoy the gift.” Even though I try to keep that in mind, I like to revisit a lot of my past memories. For me, the feeling of nostalgia is the feeling of comfort. It’s just this feeling that makes you feel so secure and safe. You know that you were once at this place that made you feel really nice. And I feel I get to revisit this when I hear a lot of old music — anything before 1979.

At the same time, isn’t it painful to know that you aren’t there anymore?

It’s in no way painful! Just because you want your emotions to sustain, doesn’t mean the world is going to stop moving. You as a person grow every second. Time moves on and you create new memories that you feel nostalgic about.

That’s a beautiful way of looking at it. Do any of the songs you’ve written give you that feeling of nostalgia?

All of them I think. When I perform them, you have to be in that space—coming back to me being a storyteller even more than musician— you have to be able to transport the people you are singing to back into this space where you were when you lived it — you kind of have to relive it all the time. Sometimes when I’m singing a song, in the hype of performing, I get so touched, almost on the verge of tearing up a little bit because I’m transported into this zone of how I felt when I had to write that song. And I guess that transcends into where emotion lies in terms of creativity. But the song that that gives me a nostalgic feeling in a very, very nice vibrant way is my song — Honeybee.


Is there a particular story behind the song?

That’s actually the first love song that I’ve ever written. That’s huge for me as someone who would write songs on the daily. The one thing I remember about writing that song is making a stand and just having a friend believe it was right, and just kind of standing my ground. Basically, I was really young when I wrote it— I was about 20-21. I still had a lot of my rebellious side making cameos here and there. The song is written to a nonconformist who is finding love. Mostly, it’s about not conforming to what other people feel is right at the time. It wasn’t about anyone doing anything harmful or bad—it’s just a matter of someone saying—you’re not making the right choice. I took it in at the time. And I let it sink in but I found that I was going to weigh out what everyone is saying, but I wasn’t going to listen to it because this was my path and this was what I was going through. And I’m glad I went through with it, because a song came out of it! I don’t think I can ever write a song like that. It’s one of a kind. The song became larger than itself when I started touring and had all these meet-and-greets. People will come up to me after the show and say, ”you have no idea how that song has helped me.” I have the whole song tattooed on my back. [starts singing] “I’ll come save you even if it means I’d have to face the queen.”

What’s the queen in the song?

The main source of your fear that you don’t want to step on, that you don’t want to face. With love, there’s no such thing as defeat. At the time, it’s what I really wanted to fight for and I didn’t care whether I had to face my biggest fear or biggest worry in order to have love in my life.

And it worked out well?

It worked out quite well! It was a really good experience for everyone who gave inspiration to that song.

Tell me about your upcoming album 'Nightlight.' It’s an album of covers for children?

The album is also just a collection of songs that I hope for now I’ve curated for the whole family to enjoy. It’s not just lullabies, it’s songs I enjoy and would have enjoyed as a child. And most of them I did enjoy as a child.

Which songs in there did you hear a lot as a child?

There’s a medley in there in English and Malaysian “Lagu Tiga Kupang” and “Air Pasang Malam” and maybe one more—that my grandma used to sing to my cousins and I. And those are songs that I would sing to calm a child. I had a brother after being an only child for 17 years. It was Joni Mitchell’s “Circle Game.” That was the go-to song for him. That would always work. The cover art for Nightlight was done by an 8-year-old girl and she doesn’t know yet. I keep in touch with her mom and her. She, her mom and her friends—they all came to a show and they had the lyrics to my song printed on a t-shirt and that girl —she was just the sweetest little ball of sunshine, such a delightful human being. And so they’ve been really supportive of my journey. They are always on the front-line when it comes to supporting me. So I asked her mom, can McKinsey draw me a picture of a nightlight? And she gave me three options.

That’s amazing, I can’t wait for her to see it on your album! What else do you have planned for the future?

Things are definitely going to be on the positive side of things this year. With my Nightlight album coming out, I’m going to be on tour in Asia for ten days. After that, I might be doing an East Coast tour for the Nightlight tour. And after that, I’m concentrating on finishing my third album.

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