“I went on there without any expectations or intentions for it to be a marketing tool, because I’ve never perceived YouTube to be that,” says the 23-year-old singer-songwriter. “I saw it as an outlet for entertainment and for me to share my music. The fact that other things are happening is pretty crazy.”
By “other things,” Avi means getting discovered within months of uploading her first clip and whisked to Los Angeles to record her solo debut, “Brushfire Records & Monotone Present: Zee Avi” (released May 19). The album charted at No. 130 on the Billboard 200 and No. 2 on Top Heatseekers in its first week and has sold 6,000 copies in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
Born Izyan Alirahman, Avi recently moved to L.A. from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where she relocated at age 12 from Borneo. The singer, however, has been speaking English “since I could open my mouth” and listening to a wide range of music for practically as long. “When I was younger, my father was a big rocker dude and he played in a band,” recalls Avi. “They were listening to Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple and things like that. And my mom would keep this whole stack of ‘70s songs that we’d play in the car on the way to school.” Avi started teaching herself to play guitar at 17 and writing songs four years later after returning to Malaysia from London, where she studied fashion design.
By December 2007, thousands of YouTube users had subscribed to Avi’s channel and seen the grainy, black-and-white webcam videos of her performing original songs. Among her fans: Raconteurs’ drummer Patrick Keeler, who sent a clip of Avi singing the holiday track “No Christmas for Me” to White Stripes manager Ian Monotone. Monotone quickly signed Avi to a management deal and brought her to Brushfire Records, which released “No Christmas for Me” as a single on the label’s holiday compilation album.
Monotone and Brushfire jointly released Avi’s debut album, a collection of minimalist indie pop songs with a distinctive jazz lilt and a vintage-sounding title -- "It's old school; I quite like it," says Avi. Before the album's release, the two companies launched a focused campaign to introduce Avi to the United States. The singer played several showcases at the SXSW music conference in March as well as intimate gigs in New York and Los Angeles, and she released a free three-song EP on Record Store Day (April 18) to tease her upcoming full release.
Naturally, YouTube was involved as well. The site did a homepage feature on the music video for “Bitter Heart,” which is the album's first single, although Avi says she's rather partial to another track called "Honey Bee." "Don't tell the other songs," she jokes, "but if I had to pick [a favorite] it would be that. I've always been a misfit since high school; I never had the same mindset as people around me. The song is about two bees who are alike, but one leans towards society and the stronger one says, 'Look, you're allowed to be original and if you need my help, I'll be more than happy to help you.' "
Next up for Avi is a set at Bonnaroo and an opening slot on Pete Yorn’s upcoming summer tour, which kicks off July 13 in Austin and runs through late August. Avi says performing new music for an eager audience, whether it’s over the internet or in person, is still her favorite part of being an artist. “It’s always rewarding when people are singing along passionately to something you wrote and felt," she says, "but it's just as rewarding when people come up to me and say, 'I’ve never heard of you before, but I heard you on the radio this morning so I took a three-hour drive to check you out.' ”