Sarong it’s right

Island time: Malaysian-born Brushfire artist Zee Avi infuses her songs with ukulele notes and tropical rhythms, but also pop-savvy melodies and quirky lyrics.
Island time: Malaysian-born Brushfire artist Zee Avi infuses her songs with ukulele notes and tropical rhythms, but also pop-savvy melodies and quirky lyrics.

According to Malaysian-born, New York-based singer-songwriter Zee Avi, the ukulele is the new electric guitar. "The ukulele is becoming my main instrument," she says. Partly because the diminutive stringed instrument is so portable, partly because it's the perfect proportion for the diminutive musician, and partly because, in recent years, the ukulele has risen above its hokey Tiny Tim status and has been embraced by artists like Eddie Vedder, Jason Mraz, Amos Lee and Jack Johnson.

Actually, Avi is signed to Brushfire Records (owned, in part, by Johnson). She's shared that stage with the surfer-turned-indie-rocker on a number of occasions, a standout in her flowing caftans and floral sarongs, adding her own vocal and ukulele touches to Johnson's hits like "Breakdown." 

"Some songs are fitted for the ukulele and some songs are fitted for the guitar. I think it's equal amounts of both the guitar and the ukulele that I write my songs on," Avi tells Xpress. She says that she finds there's more versatility with the guitar, but "If I'm hanging out with my ukulele and a melody comes to mind, that one is meant for the ukulele."

Her new album, the Ghostbird (out since last August) is deceptively simple. It starts with a strummed ukulele, a kick drum and her voice. Warm and pretty, sung close to the mic, ambling between notes both low and high, with just a hint of wistfulness. And though there is more, much more, to Ghostbird, just this would be enough. Eleven beachy, airy tracks infused with Avi’s Southeast Asia home and enough negative ions (those are the good ones) to give any listener a heady happy buzz.

Not that Avi's songs are all happy. Much of the world came to know Avi through "Bitter Heart," the Feist-esque single from Avi's 2009 self-titled debut. On Ghostbird’s jazzy-just-short-of-scatting track “Madness," she warns, “The best knowledge comes with a price, a price that you have to pay for twice.”

If there’s not a thematic thread to this album, it doesn’t feel disparate. Even risks like the distorted harp parts on the slightly psychedelic “Bag of Gold” and the layered, echoey a capella beginning to “Concrete Wall” is anchored by Ghostbird’s sure-footedness. That confidence and sense of purpose is derived from Avi’s infallible voice.

As for songwriting impetus, that comes from travel. Avi says that she can't be in one place for too long without getting antsy and she counts herself lucky to have found a career that allows her to keep moving. But, she says, she has to "practice a sort of mental strength to soak everything in" when she's on the road.

Ghostbird was written in Florida — Avi went there to visit a friend last January and wound up staying for three months. "There was an infinite amount of inspiration from everywhere," she says. That, and the tropical climate reminded her of home.

"As a writer, you're affected by your surroundings no matter what you do," she says. "It's not like I want it to have this vibe or that vibe, it just sort of writes itself that way."

Of Ghostbird, she says that each song differs from the next. Indeed, they vary from the quixotically philosophical to the playful. "It's a variety of different moods that I wrote in my different moods," says Avi. "I'm excited to see where my growth process will go and how my songs will sound melodically and lyrically for the third album."

She's already covered new ground on Ghostbird, singing “Siboh Kitak Nangis” (“Don’t You Cry") in her native Sarawak-Malay language. "I think in English, I always have, but I find a certain relaxed feeling when I sing in my own language," Avi says. "Some words can not be translated, so it's about the delivery of emotion of a word that can't be translated to English. People register it anyway." She says that she listens to a lot of French-language music, and Afrobeat because even if she can't understand the lyrics, "I feel it."

It seems that's how audiences feel about Avi's music, too. "Ghostbird has taken a life of its own," she says. "It's nice to know this batch of stories is relatable."

— Alli Marshall can be reached at amarshall@mountainx.com.

who: Zee Avi
where: Jack of the Wood
when: Monday, Feb. 27 (10 p.m., $10 in advance or $12 day of show. Shane Conerty opens. http://jackofthewood.com.)

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts writer and editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs.

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