My friend, Jeffrey, told me that Zee Avi’s music feels like “drinking hot cocoa during winter at home with a blanket over you and your cat on your lap.”
This was the most accurate encapsulation of Zee’s calming voice paired with the soft strumming of her ukulele. Who wouldn’t want to curl up and get cosy to that?
But as you venture through Zee’s music, you start to realise that you can’t fit it into a neat box and name it a certain genre. Her music cuts across a multitude of genres, inviting listeners on a journey into Zee’s unassuming mind and thoughts.
Well, this piece is similar to that journey but with the added zest of her multi-skilled, highly talented drummer. So get cosy and come along for the ride!
With the much anticipated Alive Again show coming up, I was asked to speak with Zee Avi and her drummer, Santosh for an exclusive interview with GoodNews. As luck would have it, they were both free on the same Thursday morning. I got my questions ready and nervously hopped on to the call.
“An 11am interview is way too early for me,” Zee started with a laugh.
Although it was early, the bandmates and I had the most animated, insightful conversation. The two had so many things to say about various different topics but they also kept it light by laughing and playing off each other’s responses.
I saw that even though they hadn’t performed live together in a while, they still shared an undeniable chemistry – one only collaborating performers share and understand.
Back in 2011, Santosh began performing with a classical fusion band. From then, he began networking and practicing, and finally, he “ended up with Zee Avi” after performing at the Borneo Jazz Music Festival.
Zee describes her relationship with music as her “longest romantic affair.”
“My aunty recently told me that I started singing before speaking. And I was like, ‘Wow, I never knew that!’” Zee recalled, bewildered at how early her musical tendencies began.
Zee’s career goes way back to 2007 when she started posting her songs on YouTube. She’d get a couple hundred views, 5-10 comments, and this would make her so happy.
“These were complete strangers from all over the world and they enjoyed my singing! This encouraged me to eventually start posting my original songs as well.”
The “Kantoi” singer was then recognised by a band and received calls from management and record companies. They eventually flew her out to Los Angeles.
“Then this crazy ride happened and now here I am, talking to you on Santosh’s birthday,” Zee quipped, smiling widely.
We, then, began discussing their instruments and the stories behind them. Zee brought us back to when she was 15 and found a black guitar she really wanted. It was tucked away in a shop next to a bakery in Ampang.
So, every time her mum went to the bakery, Zee would make a detour to the shop with the guitar.
“I begged my mum for an advance of my allowance and she said, ‘You don’t even play the guitar!’ to which I replied, ‘Yeah, because I don’t have one!’” Zee said, with sass, imitating her young determination.
She taught herself how to play the guitar after her SPM examinations and through A-Levels. The ukulele came a little after.
When I asked Santosh about his past with instruments, Zee exclaimed, “Santosh is an instrument!”
The music savant began with percussions – tabla and mridangam. Alongside this, he also picked up classical vocals.
“And from then, it has just been an adventure! Discovering new instruments, listening to different types of genres and in the process, I found the music that defines me today. Zee had also played a big part in my self-discovery,” Santosh recalls thoughtfully
When I marvelled at his transition from being inspired by Zee to working with her, Santosh laughed, “Yeah, it’s the American Dream!”
The drummer explained how his music is also heavily influenced by the great names of Tamil cinema – AR Rahman, Ilaiyaraaja, and the like. Fusion bands, such as Sakthi, had also found their way into Santosh’s playlists.
“I also listened to a lot of Frank Sinatra back in the day, I’m not really sure why,” Santosh chuckled.
If you listen to Santosh’s album, In Pursuit of Santhosham (happiness), you will find that his music, too, cannot be placed into one genre. The artist incorporates an amalgamation of sounds and feelings, sometimes all packed into just one song.
This might seem like a lot but Santosh’s music drifts you away to a different realm and the experience is nothing short of beautiful.
Zee, on the other hand, grew up listening to music from the yesteryears and this has made her a nostalgic person by nature. As she discovered her identity, she also found an appreciation for vocal jazz and this inspired her to start singing. Zee’s intuition for songwriting, however, came from 60’s/70’s folk music.
She turned pensive, explaining the intricacies of her music preferences,
“The music I listen to is separate from the music I make. I’m not sure if they influence one another but they certainly influence the dimensions of my emotions and how I think as a writer.”
As she spoke of her musical inclinations, I remembered reading that people say she’s the Ella Fitzgerald of our generation and I wondered if such comparisons ever intimidated her.
Zee’s eyes widened and she laughed in disbelief, “Well first of all, I didn’t even know they were comparing me to her, that’s an incredibly huge compliment!”
Although such remarks are incredibly flattering, the singer-songwriter believes in never comparing oneself to others and that if we start , the essence of who we are, as individuals, gets ripped away.
She concluded that the only expectations she has to live up to are her own.
Relevancy during the Pandemic
This devastating pandemic has not spared live performances and the music industry. The work of artists all over has been stifled and with no end in sight, I wondered how Zee and Santosh worked to stay relevant.
Zee thought for a moment and stated how as a musician, she had to up her gear and decided to invest in things she wouldn’t usually invest in.
“I’m more of a live performer. I cannot do what Santosh does, I don’t have the skill nor the patience!”
Santosh immediately rebuffed her, “But you have done so much during the MCO!”
“Okay la, I go on TikTok” Zee jested, laughing at herself.
In a somber tone, she proceeded to explain that the dynamics of performing has changed tremendously. With everything online, none of us are really even looking at each other.
“When I sing, I can’t see you or hear you. I can’t see you smile or hear you clapping, tapping and snapping. This virtual livelihood has definitely switched up my perspectives.”
Then her face brightened and Zee noted that at least live performances are slowly, but surely, making a comeback. Her excitement about seeing her bandmates, who she described as her brothers, was palpable.
Zee misses playing with her band and she misses the exchange of energy between her and the audience.
But both musicians agreed that they actually didn’t really think about staying ‘relevant’.
“If you think about it too much, everything else kind of becomes inauthentic. Just do you!” Zee said.
For Santosh, live shows were a big part of his income pre-pandemic. When lockdown first began, his livelihood took a turn. But instead of standing by and waiting, Santosh diversified.
He began film scoring and opened up his services to other avenues. Zee had also recommended him for multiple projects.
His diversification paid off and he is always grateful for how lucky they were to have had these opportunities.
Santosh’s face changed as he thought about his other musician friends who were not so lucky and were out of a job for months.
Even after the interview was over, I kept replaying this part of our conversation in my mind and I fully realised how important shows like Alive Again are. Although the entertainment and music industries have made efforts to acclimatise, their survival largely depends on these live performances…
Live Performances and Evolving
Alive Again, a live stage performance, will feature a host of musical and comical talents, including Zee Avi and her band!
After this long hiatus, I asked the musicians how they feel about returning to the stage.
Zee understands that there’s still a lot of anxiety about live shows. “But I can never say no to performing live! I don’t know how to do anything else. Like I said, music is my forever love affair,” she said dreamily. Santosh enthusiastically nodded in agreement.
Strict SOPs will be in place at the show and if everyone abides by these health protection measures, we could see the continued revival of our live performance industry.
When asked whether they would be changing things up in terms of their music, Zee explained how Santosh and her are the type of artists who are constantly exploring new scopes and scapes.
And that’s the best thing about music – it doesn’t need to be compartmentalised and categorised. Zee and Santosh’s music are a testament to that.
As you can all probably tell by now, both musicians describe their work and art so intricately. It’s beautiful and haunting at the same time. I especially loved what Zee said about songwriting:
“If you consider yourself as a specific kind of artist, then that’s great for you! But as songwriters, we can’t do that. We need to have the versatility to maneuver our way through. And five years from now, even if I’m not performing, I’d be so happy just writing songs!”
Santosh then gave me a bit of a sneak peak to the upcoming performance, “For the audience who’s reading this, be prepared to see a new side of Zee Avi”
“And she has red hair now!” Zee excitedly added, flipping her bright red hair.
Zee and Santosh have such a unique presence. Even though the interview was virtual, I couldn’t help but be absorbed into the emotions of what they said and felt about music. It was truly a rare insight into the hearts and minds of two extremely talented musicians.
But more than talent, it’s their love and respect for music that translates so clearly across all mediums. Witnessing their presence live will definitely be an experience like no other.
So get your tickets today for Alive Again to watch Zee Avi, Santosh and the band, along with performances by Dato Zainal Abidin, Harith Iskander, Zee Avi, Muzza and many more. The 2 hour set will also feature a line-up of great musicians who have played a role in backing some of Malaysia’s legendary artists, as well as regional and international acts.
The performance is sponsored by the BAC Education Group, a big supporter of LIVE SUPPORT, a non-profit initiative by PR Worldwide in aid of the live events industry and a platform to rejuvenate the live events ecosystem.
Alive Again is scheduled to take place at the Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre on the 9th of April, 2021.
So come with your face masks and sanitisers, and enjoy the unparalleled feeling that comes with live shows – the feeling of being Alive Again.