Zee Avi lets go of the things she can’t control on new single ‘OK’

The Malaysian singer-songwriter talks to NME about the single and its upcoming album ‘Ellipses’, the “earth-shattering” hearing loss she’s recently experienced and performing in a post-pandemic world

Malaysian singer-songwriter Zee Avi has released the new single, ‘OK’.

The latest taste of the artist’s upcoming album ‘Ellipses’, the track and its accompanying music video were released on Wednesday (April 20). The hand-drawn music video was illustrated by Colombian artist Fiorella Bassil, whom Zee Avi met in London in 2016, and took over a year to create – watch it below.

Though written in 2014, ‘OK’ remains a deeply personal track for Zee, who earlier this year opened up about losing 40 per cent of her hearing after years of working in the music industry. The new single delivers an enduring message that things will always get better no matter how bleak things may seem. “In the end / It will be OK,” she sings on the track’s uplifting chorus.

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NME caught up with Zee Avi to talk about her new single, the new album, dealing with hearing loss and more.

‘OK’ was written in 2014 and recorded in 2017. Why the long road to release?

“There have been a few factors that went into that. One being that I needed to find the right producer for it. Then I had to gather the financial resources to afford to make the album that it’s a part of, since I’m an independent artist.

“Finally the Dropbox file was created in 2018, and that’s when it all got finalised. From there, I brought the ideation of the album back to Malaysia and I was trying to figure out a strategy and the right team to release it as an independent artist.

“And then the pandemic happened. So I thought I would release a few songs from the album as singles, and ‘OK’ is one of those. I think the message still stands the test of time and is something we can all look back on whenever we need it.”

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You’ve spoken on losing 40 per cent of your hearing ability – this must have been an emotional blow. How do you manage it today?

“It was earth-shattering. If you’ve seen the film The Sound of Metal, that’s exactly what the whole experience was like for me. There’s a part in the film where Ruben (Riz Ahmed) goes to the audiologist and is told him that he suffers from permanent hearing loss. Once it goes, it’s not going to come back. And I just lost it at that scene. I started bawling.

“I’m glad that movie was made because it’s based on the experience of a musician as well. And of course, to be told that one of the most essential senses that you need to live out your purpose and duty is impermanent – that’s heavy.

“There was this whole period of me going ‘I should’ve, would’ve, could’ve done things differently’. I didn’t need to tell the engineers to pump the volume all the way up in the studio. I didn’t need to have my stage monitors on full blast when I was performing.

“I think coming back to the idea of being OK, the biggest thing is learning to let go of what you cannot change. To grow is to let go. And with the support of my family, I went ahead and decided to do something about this because it was affecting my life socially.

“It affected my social life more than music, because you can do volume control with music, but you can’t tell someone to speak louder than they normally do without making them feel weird, and feeling disheartened myself. I just don’t want to pretend to be normal anymore, it’s so tiring.”

You mentioned that ‘OK’ is part of an album. Is the album the ‘Ellipses’ project that you’ve been working on for a few years?

“Yes, it is a part of ‘Ellipses’. I feel like because the album was recorded so long again – back in 2017/18 – I felt like there could have been sonic improvements made to it but recently, I’ve decided that I’m going to release it as is.

“I’m going to drop the album later this year because I’m so anxious to start writing my next album. The next album’s already been philosophised, and I know the direction that I want to head in with that.

“But at the same time, I feel like it’s not fair to myself and everyone that appreciates my music that I’ve been holding back on ‘Ellipses’ for so long that it’s just collecting dust. I do have a special project in mind for when the album drops, but we’ll see how that plays out.”

2022 marks 15 years since you posted your first song, ‘Poppy’, to YouTube. How do you feel looking back on your career?

“I think that was in 2009. 2007 was when I started as Koko Kaina on YouTube. 2009 was when the ‘Zee Avi’ album and ‘Poppy’ came out.

“No ‘ragrets’! I started when I was really young, and I was just thrown into this really fast-paced world that I knew nothing about. Back then, social media and the Internet wasn’t really that prominent, which is ironic because I was discovered on YouTube.

“Sometimes I’ll think back about the choices and decisions I’ve made in the past, how I acted and all, and of course there are moments where I think ‘I wish I did that differently’. But I don’t regret anything. Everything happened the way it did for a reason, nothing got too overwhelming or underwhelming. I am very happy and content with the road that I took. I was just having fun from the get-go and I think that’s how it should be given that I have the opportunity to do something that I love.

“To be completely honest, all I wanted to do was be a songwriter. I wanted to be behind the scenes and write for other people and movies. I’m trying to explore that path a lot more now.”

How’re you feeling now that the world’s opening up after COVID? Do you have any special performances planned?

“I love performing. However, I will start performing more when things start becoming a little more normal. I did a show at the height of the pandemic when we thought we were opening back up but that quickly got shut down. I felt like I was performing to an exam hall. Everyone was seated so far away from each other, they had their masks on, it was completely silent. It just didn’t feel right.

“I want to wait for when people can move again. I want to see their smiles again – that’s one thing I miss the most. You’re not doing music justice if you’re just going to sit there.

“I do have a couple of shows lined up here and there, but they’re all one-offs, which I prefer anyway. Given the chapter I’m at in my life, I’m happy with the slower pace of one-off shows. Touring in my youth was a lot of fun, but I’ve made the conscious decision of holding off on my own concerts until I can have it as close to normalcy as possible, the way it was pre-COVID.”

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