Indie singer-songwriter from Kuala Lumpur makes waves in the United States
Anyone who has followed Malaysian singer-songwriter Yuna from the very beginning, circa 2006-2007, will attest that she has come a long way. They might also claim that they saw it coming all along, never doubting the stardom that would be hers one day.
During her early days performing at indie gigs and posting performance clips on social media website Myspace, supporters of Yunalis Mat Zara’ai raved about her unique singing and song-writing styles, which were not often heard then in Malaysia.
While rock musician Alanis Morrisette and hip-hop soul singer Lauryn Hill have been big influencers, resulting in the folk-rock strain that can be heard on Yuna’s tracks, there is still something distinctively Asian or Malaysian (some Western reviewers even call it ‘tribal’) in her songs that distinguish her from her contemporaries.
“I've worked really hard, and so far, I’m enjoying the whole process of it. I’m having fun, I'm changing perceptions.”
This could be that je ne sais quoi that has enraptured her listeners as they commiserate on songs of love and heartbreak or become inspired by the uplifting ones. It could also be what has attracted power players of the music industry to work and collaborate with Yuna, who draws as much attention for her appearance in Muslim head-scarves and skinny jeans as for her musical style.
In 2009, American talent management firm Indie Pop began contacting Yuna after seeing her online videos. Following several months of discussion, Yuna was signed to New York-based music publishing company Fader Label, an independent outfit with a small roster that allowed the producers to focus on producing Yuna’s music. The EP Decorate was released in March 2011 and immediately gained rave reviews from fans and critics, including at Billboard, The New York Post, The Examiner, and even from American music mogul Russell Simmons, who called her music “incredible”. Simmons is the co-founder of music label Def Jam, which has produced hip-hop heavyweights including LL Cool J, the Beastie Boys, and Public Enemy, as well as current chart-toppers like Justin Bieber, Rihanna, and Kanye West.
Now based in Los Angeles, Yuna further cemented her status as the breakout artist to look for when she worked on a track with Grammy-winning producer Pharrell Williams. The single Live Your Life debuted on online music portal iTunes in January 2012, after which it quickly became a regular on radio stations, peaking at number 37 on Billboard’s US Heatseekers chart. Meanwhile, Yuna gained more exposure with performances on popular television talk shows, including Conan and Last Call With Carson Daly, and more recently on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, while contributing tracks for movies The Croods, where she sings Shine Your Way with Owl City, and Savages, singing a cover of The Beatles’ Here Comes The Sun.
From then on, Yuna only seemed to be on the up-and-up when legendary music producer David Foster, a force behind stars such as Celine Dion, Barbara Streisand, Christina Aguilera, Natalie Cole and Madonna, signed her on. As a result, Yuna has been working hard on her next album, due out at the end of this month, which will feature a much talked-about duet with R&B superstar Usher.
On how the project came about, Yuna said when she first met Usher, they did not talk about working together but instead, chatted about music in general. “And then a couple of months later when I was writing a song for my album, I thought of sending it over to Usher to see if he wanted to be on it because it's such a pretty song and I could totally hear him singing with me on this. I asked my manager to reach out to him, and months later he sent back the music together with his recorded vocals. I was over the moon!” Yuna shares exclusively with Going Places.
With such big names and respected labels attached to her work, it would have been very easy for the 29-year-old from the Malaysian state of Kedah to get caught up in her success. Yet to this day, she has humbly insisted that she wouldn’t be where she is without her fans and supporters.
“The random people who would come to my shows and meet me afterwards to talk to me – they make the shows that I go to really special,” she says. Of course, the support of her friends and family has also played a big part in helping her make the jump from local indie darling to the international stage. “My friends and family really believed in me when I was just kind of comfortable with whatever I was doing.” The singer also attributes the rising use of social media as an important platform for her to connect with her fans, allowing her to display her own creative direction and showcasing her talents to a broader worldwide audience.
It would seem that Pharrell and Usher may have influenced Yuna somewhat in the direction of her latest album, on which she admitted to spending a lot of time experimenting with R&B and hip-hop beats. “(But) it is still the same Yuna. I still want my album to be soulful, and I still use love and relationships as my main topics. I listened to a lot of Sade, Lauryn Hill and Aaliyah prior to making this album, so I think there are a lot of songs in there that were inspired by these three beautiful and talented ladies.”
Asked what is in store for her next, the talented and beautiful singer said she hopes to collaborate with Alicia Keys one day, and has her heart set on winning a Grammy award, which she acknowledges is not an easy task.
“I've worked really hard, and so far, I’m enjoying the whole process of it. I’m having fun, I'm changing perceptions, I'm reaching out to people, and that's the most important part of doing what I do. Everything else, like getting recognised by the American music industry and getting nominated at this point, would be a bonus.”