Interview with singer/songwriter Zee Avi


 I always say I write music that makes you feel like pancakes…Warm and cozy. – Zee Avi

Zee Avi, a 28-year-old Malaysian born singer/songwriter, has had quite a successful music career. At 21, Zee began writing songs and publishing them to YouTube for a friend. One of her songs, “No Christmas for Me,” went viral and became a YouTube feature. The video was first noticed by Patrick Keeler, drummer for The Raconteurs, which led to a signed record deal with Jack Johnson’s Brushfire Records label and a publishing deal with Monotone (White Stripes, The Shins). Throughout her career as a young singer/songwriter, Zee has produced two successful adult records, was the first Malaysian singer to be included in Starbucks’ entertainment catalog, and has received high honors and awards for her musical abilities, one of which lead to inspirational speaking engagements for young kids around the world. Zee has also played at major music festivals (Rain Forest World Music Festival, Bonnaroo, Life is Good, Lilith Fair) and will be a featured showcase presenter at this year’s family music conference, KindieComm. Quite impressive!

When I first heard Zee’s children’s debut, Nightlight(produced by Kevin Salem of Little Monster Records), I was taken by her soulful voice but also curious to learn more about her inspiration for making a children’s album. Zee was kind enough to take the time to answer some questions for me. Below we discuss an inspiring 8-year-old responsible for the adorable cover art, as well as how a karaoke machine and Joni Mitchell were childhood staples. 

Kids Can Groove: Your musical path started with a YouTube posting for a friend. Since then you have enjoyed a very successful musical career. What was your motivation behind posting a video for your first song on YouTube?

Zee Avi: I believe it’s the same then and now. It was mainly to share my stories in the form of tunes. It was also a kept secret from friends and family (besides the one friend). In a way, they were journal entries that also provided a therapeutic outlet.

KCG: At what age did you start singing and writing songs?

ZA: My real love in the art of singing began when I was very young, as I was brought up in a household where the karaoke machine was our main source of entertainment (for me, at least). Although, I began really writing songs when I was 21.

KCG: This album could easily serve as an album for adults. What was your inspiration for making a children’s album?

ZA:  The birth of this project happened quite organically. I was surrounded by people ZEE_NIGHTLIGHT_ART_FINALwho became the catalysts for this very special album to be created. The main inspiration, however, stems from the idea of preserving and rekindling one’s fond childhood
memories. The inspiration behind some of the songs are from an 8-year-old appreciator of my music, and a bright young ball of love, named Mackenzie Mauldlin. She is also the artist behind the cover art, that was a surprise for her.

KCG: How did you decide on the final song list?

ZA: The collection of songs on Nightlight are both a mix of Mackenzie’s favourites as well as mine. Joni Mitchell’s “Circle Game” was my staple lullaby to sing my little brother to sleep when he was a baby. The “Lullaby Medley” contains a group of malay folks songs my grandmother used to sing to me, and I decided on Velvet Underground’s “Who Loves the Sun” because I had to pay homage to one of the songs that led me to song write.

KCG: Nightlight is made up of cover songs. Had you thought about using some of the songs from your other albums?

ZA: My third album is currently in the works, which means there are songs that would’ve been contenders for Nightlight, however, Nightlight has such a wondrous tone and swatch within itself already and has such a bright personality that I decided to preserve that.

KCG: One of the things that I love about the album is that you stayed true to the lyrics in the songs you chose to cover. For example, The Velvet Underground’s “Who Loves the Sun” and Joni Mitchell’s “The Circle Game.” Did you second guess that at any point?

ZA: I did indeed for “Who Loves the Sun,” but as the recording went on, it felt right for it to be there. This was one of the songs that led me to realize that ‘love’ itself can be longed for in many ways. The song taught me about irony in the most gentle way, so I had to share that. As for Joni Mitchell’s “Circle Game,” it was no question. In fact, that was one song that came up first in the recording process. I love Joni Mitchell’s ideals and values. “Circle Game” brings you on a journey of growth while at the same time it teaches you that the only way is ahead, though sometimes it’s alright to look to the past in order for you to recognize your present in all blessed ways.

KCG: How would you describe your style for those who are new to your music?

ZA: I always say I write music that makes you feel like pancakes. Either it makes you want pancakes, or feel like you are one. Warm and cozy. Haha! I am such a young artist who is still learning and evolving and who knows, I might write music that makes one feel like barbecue sauce soon.

KCG: Do you have any thoughts for kids/families writing music with the intent on publishing?

ZA: I will always be a student and a learner of all my experiences, and if this experience leads me to that..why not? I will definitely give it a try!

For more on Zee Avi’s Nightlight, read the full album review here.


Check This Out: Zee Avi’s Nightlight


Artist: Zee Avi
Album: Nightlight
Label: Little Monster Records
Release Date: April 2014

Music has it’s way of making an imprint for sure, gently taking your hand and reassuringly leading you back into your memory bank, nostalgically connecting you with those times when you were sonically swooned. That’s the feeling I get from Zee Avi’s Nightlight.

Nightlight, Avi’s debut into the children’s foray, is filled with breezy acoustic melodies. There is very much a “coffeehouse” vibe to Avi’s style. Even Starbucks picked up on her comforting, soulful sound by including her second adult album, Ghostbird, in their entertainment catalog. A special reward for Avi as the first Malaysian artist to be recognized by the coffee mogul. Although this is only a small accomplishment compared to the many awards she has already received. Most notably, Avi won the International Youth Icon Award and was honored with the Brand Laureate Award for leadership as a singer/songwriter and establishing a successful career in the international music scene.

Over the course of 30 minutes, Avi covers unexpected songs such as the Velvet Underground’s “Who Loves the Sun,” and Joni Mitchell’s “The Circle Game,” neither of which is compromised in the way of lyrics just because it’s a kids’ album. The integrity Avi maintains while floating over every word is just beautiful. There are songs which are familiar as well such as “Rainbow Connection” and Bobby McFarrin’s “Don’t Worry Be Happy,” the former of which is rendered in its own unique way, featuring Avi’s jazzy vocals. Avi also pays tribute to her Malaysian roots in “Nightlight Medly” which is a sweet mix of American and Malaysian lullabies.

Zee Avi’s Nightlight invites you to close your eyes and follow along as the warm glow of her voice lights up your room. This is something every family should have in their collection.

You can listen to samples, as well as purchase Nightlight via Amazon and iTunes.

Learn more about Zee Avi in my interview with her here.

Below is a sweet lyric video for Avi’s “Who Loves the Sun,” as well as a Nightlight sampler courtesy of ZeeAvi via YouTube. Enjoy!