Yuna, it appears, can do no wrong. To Malaysians, Yuna is many people: the first Malaysian to break into the American market after signing a deal with New York-based label Fader in early 2011 (she’s now attached to Verve Records); a local darling-turned-international force; a fashion muse with her own clothing line whose success and style is changing and challenging Western views of modern Muslim women.
It’s easy to understand where Yuna gets her reputation. In the years since her career took off, the Alor Setar native has won over legions of fans with her brand of tender, triumphant indie-pop tunes laced with folk and R&B. She intersects every world she creates, bridging the literal and cultural distance between Kuala Lumpur and adopted home Los Angeles with a practised ease – more than that, she inhabits these worlds with an intimacy that people latch on to, and latch on fast. Ahead of the release of her third studio album ‘Chapters’ on May 20, she put out lead singles ‘Crush’ featuring Usher and ‘Places to Go’ – both potent reminders of Yuna’s continued reign.
You must get this question a lot, but do you have any plans for permanently settling down in KL?
KL is my home. I’m based here in LA, but I think in the future I might consider settling down in Malaysia when I start a family. I had such a great childhood [in Malaysia], I want my kids to have the same experience.
'Regardless of what music I put out, be it a Malaysian project or an English album, [my fans would] rave about it'
In an interview with Bandwagon Singapore published last December, you said: ‘I’m really happy I managed to [release ‘Material’], at least I’m not, like, gone in LA and it’s not like I didn’t contribute anything to my country, to the local music scene.’ Is that reflective of the sort of pressure you feel you face from your fans in Malaysia?
I don’t think there is pressure from my fans back home. I think they’re amazing people – they’ve always supported my music career and they’re always there for me, so I think regardless of what music I put out, be it a Malaysian project or an English album, they’d rave about it. Once in a while, I write in Malay and work on something fun that’s more for the local Malaysian market, and when that happens, it’s always something really special, it speaks volumes – that I’m doing it for my fans who have been there for me since day one.
Congratulations on the release of ‘Chapters’. Tell us a bit more about the record – a lot of people have been saying it’s a move away from your signature acoustic, indie-pop sort of sound into more R&B, ‘urban’ territory. Is it an artistic left turn?
Thank you! R&B has always been something that I wanted to try. I grew up listening to a lot of different types of music, and R&B in particular was something that I loved – Aaliyah, Usher, Alicia Keys, TLC. For ‘Chapters’, I decided to let go of my insecurities, found myself some talented R&B producers and worked with them. The singer-songwriter part of me is still embedded in my music obviously; I still write my own music, it’s just that the sound has progressed in a slightly different direction.
What are the central themes ribboning through ‘Chapters’? How do you think it will help people understand you and your music?
‘Chapters’, to be honest, was written right after the end of my long-term relationship with a serious boyfriend. As much as I wanted to avoid writing about love and relationship, it was inevitable – I have to write something that I know about. The main theme of the album is self-love. I learned a lot about life, about myself within those two years more than any other phases that I’ve gone through. I probably wrote 80 songs within the one-and-a-half years of making ‘Chapters’; [it’s] chapters of my life that I wanted to talk about: letting go, finding faith in love again, learning how to love yourself.
We know the Usher story, but tell us about how the collaboration with Jhené Aiko came about.
I’ve always wanted to work with Jhené; I’m such a huge fan of her music. On a personal level, she played a huge role in my life when I was going through some difficult moments. I was in LA, and I didn’t have a lot of girlfriends out here and all my best friends were in KL. I was listening to her music and her voice was of, like, this strong woman that I could relate to. I figured I should reach out to her and ask if she could sing a part of my song – and so having her on the album was symbolic. I’d love to work with Chris Martin; I’ve said this a million times and it’s still one of the things I’ve always wanted to do.
As a proud Muslim singer-songwriter, you’re often hailed in the West as a ‘poster girl for young “hijabsters”’ as The New York Times puts it, or ‘the Muslim pop star’ as LA Weekly said. Do you think the media attention is too focused on the fact that you’re a modest Muslim, and that it takes away from your music – or is it a good marriage?
It’s perfect actually. It shows that people care about the person that you are, and with me, I don’t have a persona when I’m on stage – it’s just me, I don’t know how to be another person. I think at the beginning of my career, people were more enchanted with that fact because Americans are surprised to learn that there are a lot of Malay Muslim women in the music industry. I mean, I’m shocked that they’re shocked! Now I’m on my third album, they’ve gotten used to the fact, and I rarely get questions about my faith – it’s kind of nice that the focus is slowly moving to my music because it shows that it’s good, it’s worth talking about now.
You have your own fashion line November Culture, and more recently, you’ve fronted campaigns by Uniqlo, G-Star, and a Barneys New York campaign in 2014. As a famous fashion music muse, how far do you plan on taking your love for fashion?
I love fashion, and being me there’s always a twist to it. I’m not really conservative when it comes to dressing up, but I do care about covering up and wearing modest clothes – which is very new to the Western world. I’m currently working on a clothing line with my friend Hatta Dolmat and we’re so excited about it. I’m planning to launch the label in Malaysia and also in the States; it’s a great collection and I can’t wait to share it with everyone.
You’re quite vocal on your social media, and you’re often boxed into appearance-based, narrow-minded judgments.
[Laughs] I never used to be that way! Now that I’m older, my mindset is different. I used to be like, ‘I’m just going to ignore it’, but now I feel like I have to speak up. I recently just started to have conversations with my fans, and I think they’re surprised to see that I’m just a normal person – I’m not this robot with a PR button pretending to be perfect all the time; I show them that I’m not and I tell them that I’m not. It has changed a lot now. I don’t get as much criticism because more people see my real personality now: I’m normal, just like they are.
Moving on, how are things going with Yuna Room Records, your management and production company?
It’s going amazing! We manage some amazing artists who are really active in the Malaysian music scene. My cousin, who’s also a partner of the company, just had a baby; we’re a happy family!
You’re one of the few modern Malaysian artists to have so gracefully and successfully break into the American and international markets. What do you think is holding your Malaysian peers back?
Determination. Malaysians are talented, passionate, but it needs a whole lot of determination. For example, when I got the offer to pursue music in America, I was with someone back home and I had to end that relationship to pursue my dreams. I know so many girls who wouldn’t do the same because they’re scared of losing their boyfriends – not even serious ones, you know what I mean? I understand that culturally we’re a little bit scared to explore what’s outside of Malaysia because we’re so comfortable with Malaysia, we’re spoilt with what we’re able to do here, everything is easy and cheap to make, and there’s always a shortcut to success because it’s a smaller set up.
In America, the competition is stiff. People struggle to get jobs, and if you have one, it’s a struggle to keep it. I used to be very nurturing to the younger generation who wanted to do music – like, follow your dreams! – but it’s so much more than that. If you don’t see yourself making music for the next 20 years, if you’re not in it to be great – don’t get into it. Don’t waste your time, and don’t waste other people’s time. Making music involves so many people: writers, producers, fans. These people work hard for their artists and for some, it’s their bread and butter. Being an artist is a lot of work. Be ready for long hours in the studio. Be ready for long distances. There is absolutely no shortcut; it’s not all fun and games and glamour.
Finally, who are the artists out there now that you don’t necessarily want to sound like but you think is really doing well?
I respect a lot of artists because they’re talented, like Adele, Taylor Swift, but at the top of my list is Beyoncé. I used to just fangirl over Beyoncé, but when I went to her concert, I saw her with a different point of view – as an artist. I saw the amount of work she put into her music, her family, her marriage, and I just went ‘Yes, this is the kind of artist I need to be if I’m getting myself into this.’
‘Chapters’ is out now. For more info visit yunamusic.com.