From Malaysia to major record deal via YouTube

Studio 360

This story was originally reported by PRI’s Studio 360. For more, listen to the audio above.

Zee Avi’s music is a mixed bag. She grew up in Borneo, listening to Malasian pop music, 70s folk and disco. And vocal Jazz “stays really close to my heart,” she told PRI’s Studio 360. All these styles influence her music. She sometimes even sings in a hybrid of Malay and English called Manglish.

The songs she strums on her ukulele sound sweet, but the lyrics are often filled with melancholy. As a turning point in her musical maturation, Avi points to the first time she heard Who Loves the Sun by the Velvet Underground. That song made her realize that melancholy lyrics and happy tunes could work together at the same time.

Avi started playing her music for YouTube and garnered a considerable following. Then last year, at the age of 23, she released her first album to critical acclaim. Now she’s out with her new EP called One More Time with Colors.

When her parents found out about her major record deal, Avi says that her mom told her, “so that’s what you’ve been doing at 3:00 in the morning every night with your guitar.” At the same time, both her parents are “120 percent supportive.”

Avi’s music is not just an amalgamation of different influences. She also may be changing culture at the same time. When asked how she found the ukulele, she said, “They didn’t actually sell many ukuleles in Malasia. So I bought my first ukulele in Singapore.” Today, “since the record came out,” she continued, “my friends tell me that they’re selling ukuleles on the streets.”

PRI’s Peabody Award-winning “Studio 360 with Kurt Andersen” from WNYC is public radio’s smart and surprising guide to what’s happening in pop culture and the arts. Each week, Kurt Andersen introduces you to the people who are creating and shaping our culture. Life is busy — so let “Studio 360” steer you to the must-see movie this weekend, the next book for your nightstand, or the song that will change your life.

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