The newest (and most estrogen-having) member of Jack Johnson’s Brushfire Records family is 23 year old Zee Avi, a tiny girl with a warm smile who filled the lonesome last spot at the KCRW showcase on Wednesday night. It was huge opportunity for the newcomer — her self-titled debut will be out May 19 — filling in for Norwegian rocker chick/hype magnet Ida Maria, who was reportedly stuck in U.S. customs.
Avi is a Malaysian native with one of those dream stories: She was discovered off her YouTube channel by Raconteurs drummer Patrick Keeler, who passed her video on to manager Ian Montone, who passed her on to Brushfire, who signed her to what is quickly becoming one of my favorite artist lineups around. While I’ve been told it’s not necessary to play the ukelele if you’re signed by the happy Hawaiian, it no doubt helped, as did Avi’s sweet songcraft and lilting, jazzy, of-the-moment voice. As the last drunks of the night milled about the top floor of Buffalo Billiards (I especially enjoyed the two girls having a very loud conversation about farting in women’s restrooms), those paying attention were treated to some minimalist lyrics and a nearly-unrecognizable cover of Interpol’s “Slow Hands.” And to be fair, some of the most overserved audience offenders did approach Avi’s label rep during her last (very quiet) song to scream (very loud) repeated requests for him to spell her name so they could text themselves a reminder to buy her album in the morning.
But Avi appeared legitimately gracious and grateful to have the shot to play SXSW, no matter the bizarre conditions. And in my best Carrie-Bradshaw-of-music-festivals inner monologue voice, I couldn’t help but wonder: What kind of intestinal fortitude does it take, exactly, to sing your adorable, slightly Disney-heroine-esque heart out in a deserted venue at 1 a.m., while tuning out the human dregs who are squawking and scurrying haphazardly about the floor less than six feet from your mic stand? Is that a skill you can learn, or — like good actors and the ability to handle constant audition rejection — is it a genetic prerequisite for the barding life?