From her humble beginnings to now gracing international stages, Yuna speaks to becoming a pop star, the importance of representation, and her latest release, Rouge.
This interview originally appeared in She Shreds Magazine Issue #18, released August 2019.
Yuna knows what she wants and isn’t afraid to truly honor her potential. The singer-songwriter from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia went viral back in 2009, when Myspace was the platform to self-distribute music. At the time, Yuna (born Yunalis binti Mat Zara’ai) was attending law school, and looking for a creative outlet. She had first picked up the guitar at 14 years old, but would go back and forth with the instrument for years until, at 19, she taught herself the three chords that would create “Deeper Conversation”—the first song she ever wrote as well as her first hit single. With this success, she quickly rose to international stardom, and the following year she moved to Los Angeles to challenge herself in a different market.
Throughout her career, Yuna has won numerous awards, including Best New Artist and Best Pop Song for the Malaysian Music Awards, and she has been nominated at the MTV Europe Music Awards, BET Awards, and World Music Awards. She’s released three U.S. studio albums in her career, and her latest, Rouge, released in July on Verve Forecast Records and Universal Music Group, establishes her identity even deeper. Through vibrant collaborations with artists like Little Simz, G-Eazy, and Masego, Yuna is challenging her pop and R&B sound. Her single, “Forevermore,” revolves around paying homage to her home country—with Rouge, Yuna is coming back to herself.
What kind of music did you hear growing up?
Growing up in a Malaysian household, we listened to a lot of local artists. But my dad was a rock ‘n’ roll fan, and we’d listen to a lot of pop and rock music from America and Europe. At the same time, I grew up watching a lot of Bollywood movies and was exposed to a lot of Bollywood songs. When I was maybe 12, I discovered my own taste for music. I started listening to No Doubt—I was a huge Gwen Stefani fan—and Alanis Morissette. Whenever the songs would come out, I would record them from the radio. I always had a blank [cassette] tape ready, and then found out what song it was. Back then, we didn’t have Google.
When were you introduced to the guitar?
I was 14 years old. I was so used to having [my father’s] guitar at home but never knew how to play. I would mess around with it, pretending to play. But it was always in my mind like, “One day I’m gonna figure out how to use this thing!” My dad bought me a small, cheaper electric guitar and asked me, “What song do you want to learn to play?” I wanted to play “Don’t Speak” by No Doubt so I could sing along. That’s how I learned how to play. And then I started playing super cliché songs like “Kiss Me” by Sixpence None The Richer.
Was guitar the first instrument you wrote a song on?
Yeah, I remember not knowing how to write a song and desperately wanting to. I just couldn’t crack the code. I tried on the piano, and it wasn’t working out. I was at home one day and I forced myself to play a chord on the guitar and sing gibberish over it. That’s how I wrote my first song. It was a lot of trial and error, but eventually that started a whole different game for me. It was awesome.
Did putting out your music on Myspace influence the way you approached how you distributed music?
Back then I didn’t really think about selling my music. I just wanted to share it. That’s the cool thing about music now. Like, here’s the link, now download it. I used to blog a lot on LiveJournal and Myspace. I got a lot of followers, so I wanted to put my singing on my blog and they ended up loving it. It wasn’t until later on that I figured out that in Malaysia the digital distribution for music wasn’t huge. Then I wanted to figure out how I could monetize my songs. I learned how to print my own CDs, get my own barcode… I started to register my songs independently. Back in Malaysia, I had a handful of songs that were mine and playing on the radio. I was running my own company and putting out music independently. I had to figure it out on my own. Thank God when I started, the independent music scene started in Malaysia.
You spent a lot of your life developing your craft in Malaysia. At what moment did you feel ready for a change?
The moment I found out that I would have a place in LA was when a label reached out to me and said, “Do you want to come to LA and work with some producers?” And I said, “Hell yes!” There was no question about it. I was already doing enough for the music industry back home. I was playing all these award shows to death every year, so I needed something new. It was really tough. Back home, for a young girl like me to be a household name independently, it was weird. A lot of frontrunners of the industry didn’t really like that. It was difficult to push my music on my own without having all these challenges. There was a time when I won an award and the award got retracted from me.
There was a mistake or something like that. I was already on stage, on national TV, taking the award and thanking my fans [laughs]. That’s when I decided to leave Malaysia and focus on my work and my music. That was it for me.
Now that you’re in LA, what do you miss the most about home?
The food is good and hard to replicate the taste and quality. Last night I tried to make a beef curry for me and my husband, but there was something missing—it’s not like how it is back home. I got super frustrated about it, especially being a perfectionist. Like, I can make great music but not great food! [Laughs.]
Being a Muslim woman of color in the U.S., specifically in our current political climate, how do you view your role as an artist and what it represents for other young women?
A lot of girls like me are living in fear. They’re not able to live their lives to the fullest. Coming from Malaysia, we didn’t really face Islamophobia or xenophobia. But coming out here, I see the importance now. Sometimes people made me out to be the Muslim pop star poster child, and I wasn’t embracing it. Now I see that representation is everything. You see someone out there doing something and you get inspired to do whatever you want to do the best you can. It’s important for girls to have that in their lives. I don’t see myself as a role model, but I see myself as, “Hey, I’m out here, and you can do this too. Don’t be like me, be yourself. You have to be better than me.”
Let’s talk a bit about fashion—you once had a clothing line called November Culture. How do fashion and music speak to each other?
When you’re musically inclined, you develop your own style. It has to do with identity as an artist. I used to struggle a lot with what I wanted to look like. Being a hijabi Muslim girl, I didn’t want to take off my scarf. I wanted to have fun though. I practice modesty, so for me it’s so easy. Everything I have is long sleeves and long pants. I try to be free with whatever I want to wear. I like to experiment and I have no rules when it comes to fashion. Style is really important on an everyday basis. But when I’m on stage, I get to amplify my fashion sense to 100. It always comes down to what I’m comfortable with.
In 2016 you released Chapters, and it was more intimate and vulnerable that your previous work. With Rouge, what sound were you going for?
I remember walking into the studio and talking to my producer, Robin [Hannibal]. I said, “You know, I want my new album to sound like one of those old vinyl records from the ‘70s or ‘80s that you pluck from the $1 bin in an old record store, and you just know it’s gonna be good.” You don’t know the artist, but they have a dope outfit on or a dope crazy photo. Robin loved the idea, so we went into the studio and reconstructed old record sounds and melodies. We made it into something new and current. I’m excited about it. It feels like a throwback with a funk element to it.
Are you a vinyl collector?
I try to be. It’s funny, as you get older you don’t want to buy things. You want to get rid of things [laughs]—vinyl included. If I find an album that I really love, I try and get a vinyl copy. It’s always a rare album. I’m a huge Françoise Hardy fan, the French singer-songwriter from the ‘60s.
Is there a specific reason why you called this album Rouge?
I’m embracing red as my color now. I’m a little older and wiser since I got married. Rouge is the color of fashion, and I’m at the age where I don’t want to be filtered anymore. People should accept the raw me. I don’t like to be the nice, perfect girl just singing about love and friendship. People need to see the side of me that’s very passionate, stern, and disciplined. I get angry as well, but I also love fiercely. Everything about me—I’m here, I’m present. I feel like I’m stronger as a woman now. I’m at a place where I just want to lead my life the way I want to.
In the past you’ve worked with Pharrell and Usher. What other artists would you love to collaborate with?
I’m a huge Coldplay fan. I would love to have a song with them. I would also love to have a song with Daft Punk. That’d be so cool. Why am I just now thinking of this now? Let’s make it happen!
The music video for “Forevermore” is a visual dedication to your upbringing in Malaysia, and you filmed in 11 different locations. What do you want people to learn about your roots in this visual?
I want to give people a visual of what I saw when I was a kid. I want to take them to all these places where I used to run or bike on these roads. This is what we saw every single day. I want to not have a barrier anymore. A lot of my fans, if they’re not Malaysian, don’t know who I am. They may be like, “Is she Jamaican? Is she Asian? Is she Thai?” My husband directed the music video, and we thought it was time that we go full-on Asian. We love Asian cinema, we love our country and the subcultures it has. We wanted to show that. I grew up having friends who were in a motorcycle gang, so I thought, “Let’s make our own motorcycle gang and put them in the music video to give people a taste of Malaysia.”