YUNA: A Q&A WITH THE MALAYSIAN POP PHENOM
It’s a rainy April day in Brooklyn and sitting in the corner of a 5th floor studio is Yuna, an emergent R&B star. A hijab is wrapped tightly around her head as her black booties dangle over the footrest on her makeup chair. She sits quietly while everyone else in the room buzzes about Lanvin dresses and the previous morning’s Lemonade release. As the makeup artist finishes, she looks at herself nonchalantly in the mirror. She is breathtaking. Her big brown eyes are soft and kind as she modestly brushes off the compliments people are tossing her way.
In the landscape of rising stars, Yuna is unique. She was born and raised in Malaysia and is a practicing Muslim, something that has been a major part of the way people have defined her since early on in her career. Now at 29, and with a new album, Chapters, on the way, she’s ready to break out of the mold and release music that speaks to who she is, outside of what her background happens to be. The first single, “Crush” featuring Usher, has throwback R&B vibe that will make you feel like an emotional teenager with a life-altering romance. The song is sweet and fills the room with the artist’s unmistakable honeyed voice. The rest of the record follows suit, with catchy lyrics and smooth melodies. The second single, “Lanes” — one of Yuna’s favorites — makes you want to sing at the top of your lungs and slow dance at the same time.
The album comes out May 20, and from the reception she’s gotten already, you’re definitely going to be hearing more from her. Below, I chat with Yuna about evolving, finding her footing in R&B, and her Muslim/Malaysian heritage.
What was it like to make this album compared to your earlier ones?
My last album was in 2013. So it was like a long break. Within that two-three years — it was two years actually — I was just working on my album, writing and you know, trying to find like a nice sound for this third album. I worked with a lot of different producers in the very beginning…but it wasn’t quite my vibe. When you listen to my previous projects you can see I am headed towards that because some songs you can hear that the R&B influence is definitely there, but I was kind of holding back. So for this album I’m just like, okay, let’s do a freakin’ R&B album. And that’s exactly what I did. For this album when it comes to writing I just kind of let go of my insecurities. I just said, let’s not think too much about it! Let’s just be honest and let’s just be real. I’m turning 30 this year so it’s kind of like an album that’s me embracing being a woman.
What has that been like for you musically?
I get like a little bit freaked out. Also, I went through a big breakup two years ago and it was really bad. It was kind of like, “Ah shit, I’m going be 30,” and then “Oh no, I just broke up! Who am I gonna end up with?” You know what I mean? I feel like a lot of my fans, they relate to me or they like my songs because I’m always singing uplifting music. But this time around I get more real and more honest and raw. I’m really excited about that. I feel like with this album I’m ready to show people what I am capable of when it comes to writing.
What was it like when Usher agreed to be on the album?
I mean, when that happened it was just kind of like a bonus already. When Usher said “Yes, okay, I’ll do it,” I’m like alright done, okay! But I see people responding to it and I didn’t expect people to really really fall in love. I’m in love with the song, obviously, and for people to say, “Oh, what is this?” This is like different, this is kind of a slow jam throwback. You know when I hear Americans who aren’t R&B fans saying stuff like that I’m like…It’s a game changer and I feel really grateful that Usher put me on the map for that. You know I’m capable of doing all of these things, but because of him being on this song, now I get people to actually pay attention to my music. People were excited about that. I feel like the two songs that we released, it’s like a pleasant surprise for people who know me.
On a surface level, the songs are unexpected because we’re so used to seeing a certain type of person singing a certain type of song. Do you constantly have to answer questions about your background?
Well, it is what it is. I can’t really run away from it. It’s a part of who I am and I feel like I’ve gotten more comfortable talking about it. I don’t care. I see it as me educating people about where I come from because sometimes Americans have no idea at all, and they see me and they’re like, “Oh, this is Malaysia?” They just think that Asians must look Chinese or Japanese and then I come into the scene and you’re like, “Ah, you’re Malaysian?” I grew up there my whole life, I was born and raised in Malaysia so it’s a huge part of me as a person and even though you can’t really hear it in my music, my personality and the way I carry myself, the values that I have, are Malaysian.
Does it influence your music and your lyrics ever? Or with this album?
Yeah, yeah. I don’t believe in singing about anything negative. You know, I don’t sing about drugs or like, I don’t really sing anything about sex. I sing about love and true feelings, things that come from the heart. I try to focus on that and a little bit of emotional stuff but something that comes from a real place. I try to remind myself every time I put [something] out it has to be something that is real because if it’s not real and it’s out there it will haunt me forever. I’ve had stuff where it’s been a little bit too straightforward and it’s not really me, it’s very on the surface. I wish I could take it back and rewrite it or something like that. I try to make sure whenever I put out stuff it represents me and not like this persona or anything like that. It represents me as the person that I am. I really don’t know how to put on like a character.
So what are you looking forward to most with this release?
Well, I don’t know. Probably performing the new songs. I feel like when you’re an artist and you’re a singer-songwriter, it’s like one thing to have an album out but it’s another thing to put on a great show. Like I just got back from Coachella and it was so inspired. Every time I go it’s kind of like a school trip, like an educational trip. You just learn so much from other artists and you pay attention to details. Like okay, what is she doing? What band does she bring on stage? Stuff like that, and you just get really inspired to perform the new [music]. So I’m excited about performing. You know, I hope I get to perform at Coachella. Like these are the things I get excited about. Even the smallest things. Recently, for example, I had an interview with one of my favorite magazines growing up, NYLON. It’s crazy because home in Malaysia we didn’t even have any issues of the magazine until 2005 or something. So before that I was just scavenging at old magazine stores. The small stuff I’m just easily smitten by…Even me having my “Crush” music video premiering on BET. I’m like, “Oh!” I take it as all blessings.
See more of Yuna in LADYGUNN in our fall/winter 2016 issue, out September!