In a world of overexposed pop stars, Yuna keeps it unadulterated. Yuna (real name Yunalis Mat Zara'ai) is one of the few Asian artists who has managed to enter the notoriously hard-to-break American market. It’s not that she’s Malaysian, was brought up Muslim or wears a hijab. Her international appeal lies in her music.
She is a storyteller through songs about heartbreak, hopes and dreams. Her smooth blend of indie and R&B is soulful, yet winningly fused with pop music sensibility. Her voice is soothing and inviting, even while singing a heartbreaking line like, “I wish I meant something to you, like you did to me” over a deceptively upbeat tune (‘Mountains’).
Yuna's bright, indie-pop is apparent on tracks like 'Rescue'
Other than racking up appearances on ‘Jimmy Kimmel Live!’ and ‘The Tonight Show with Jay Leno’, her songs have also been used on popular American television serials (‘Pretty Little Liars’ and ‘Arrow’). She was also heard on the soundtrack of DreamWorks’ 2013 animated film ‘The Croods’ alongside Adam Young of Owl City.
THE HUMBLE OVERACHIEVER
The wheels were in motion long before she collaborated with super producer Pharrell Williams on her breakout hit ‘Live Your Life’ or performed on late night television in the US. Yuna has been at it for years.
Yuna's music has taken her from Kuala Lumpur to the US, where she is currently on tour
She started songwriting at age 14, travelled and performed numerous gigs around Malaysia, and even managed to complete law school in the midst of it all.
But even with all this newfound fame, there is great humility when the 27-year-old spoke to inSing.com from New York City.
She said, “It’s nice to finally have some acknowledgement because I’ve been working really hard. It’s kind of nice to know that something is happening – and right now, YEAH, something is happening. It feels really good to have my music out there and have people taking notice.”
NORMAL MALAYSIAN GIRL
With the kind of international exposure she continues to get, Yuna admitted that she feels pressure to represent Malaysia.
“There’s a bit of responsibility in carrying your nation’s name. Every time I’m introduced as a ‘Malaysian artist’ or ‘Yuna from Malaysia’, attention is going to come to Malaysia. It is what it is. I don’t try to run away from it,” she said.
Still, she gets the last word: “But the pressure is not really on me, it’s really on Malaysia (laughs). So Malaysia better behave!”
Yuna has also lent her voice to Malaysia tourism board videos
GROWTH AS AN ARTIST
Her music career has allowed her to relocate from Kuala Lumpur to Los Angeles, where she has worked with the likes of big name producers like Chad Hugo from the Neptunes and Mike Einziger from Incubus on her latest full-length album, ‘Nocturnal’.
Yuna will be performing songs off her second LP, ‘Nocturnal’
She wasn’t always a comfortable collaborator though. As part of her self-professed growth, both as an artist and singer/songwriter, over the last three years, she admitted, “I’ve learnt how to work with other people, to collaborate with other people. I never used to be able to do that. I was always scared of trying something new, of doing something that was not in my comfort zone.”
She feels that they’ve brought “trendiness” to her music. “But it’s all still me. I think I found the right balance – of making my own music, and also catering to the market,” she added.
There could even be some Malay songs on her next album. While she would have loved to have included some Malay songs on ‘Nocturnal’, she said “I wasn’t sure if it was the right time. I’m always worried about timing. I don’t want to force it. I just want it to come naturally”.
Even then, influences from Malay ethnic instruments like the kompang (a type of drum) crept into some tracks off ‘Nocturnal’. She said it wasn’t planned.
“To be honest, it just sort of happened! My (American) producers also had in mind the discussions that we had (about a Malay influence in the music). For example there’s one part in ‘Rescue’ – to me it sounds a lot like dikir barat (a traditional music form performed in groups).”
While she started off with just her voice and an acoustic guitar, she now has a full touring band. They are currently making their way around North America. For her Singapore stop on 22 February, she said she will be performing songs from ‘Nocturnal’, but she’ll also throw in some fan favourites off her previous EPs. “It’s going to be a fun night, I can’t wait!”
We can’t either.