It’s been almost a decade since Malaysian singer-songwriter Yuna began her career, but it’s taken until 2016 for the 29-year-old to finally break through North American soundwaves. This year also saw Yuna – who draws inspiration from love, relationships and loss – appear on the Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop charts with her Usher-assisted single, “Crush”, and marked the release of her third, and most personal, album to date, Chapters.
“I think I’ve been making music for about eight years now, and I’ve learned a lot throughout the years,” she says casually as she reflects on her career thus far. “When I started out as this small-time singer-songwriter in Malaysia, I realized my forte was just singing from experience and expressing my feelings and singing about real stuff – like something very human. I’ve always been that kind of songwriter, and for Chapters, I just wanted to write about the same stuff I wrote about when I was 19 or 20, but more mature. I have a more mature outlook on life now, and I’m not 19 anymore, I’m 29, so the way I see love or relationships is different,” she continues.
Yuna isn’t shy about revealing her insecurities, her struggles or her womanhood on her most recent album. “This is me. This is the kind of music I wanna do, this is what I wanna say, this is what I’ve been through and I just want to be real, more transparent and vulnerable,” she says of the 13-track project. “I feel like, growing up in Malaysia, I’ve always had a bit of reservation when it comes to what I say because it’s like, ‘Watch what you say, don’t reveal too much of yourself.’ I’m still that person, but for this album, I decided to be more vulnerable.”
This sense of vulnerability played a valuable role in the making of Chapters, and it not only shows Yuna’s glowing growth as a songwriter, but also her sonic development. “Musically, I wanted to just dive into R&B. I’ve always wanted to do an R&B album. In the past, it was always a mixture. I come from an acoustic background and then I have folky songs because I was working with a lot of folk-inspired producers, but once in a while, I’d get into the city with R&B and hip-hop producers. I was more attracted to making music with beats, and [felt] that it was more me, so for this album, I decided to go all out and do an R&B album,” she says. “I think towards the end of recording my album, I just finally found what I liked. I spent close to a year driving to their studio and just hanging out and making music… For me, I really wanted it to be an album that was cohesive – it’s clean, it has a storyline.”
Strong, passionate and comfortable in her own skin, Yuna is a person (and an artist) many people aspire to be like. However, as a devout Muslim immigrant and woman of colour living in America in 2016, where the Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” it’s impossible not to wonder whether the heightened Islamaphobia has affected Yuna’s life in some capacity. “I try not to focus on that too much,” she says simply.
“For me, before I came out to L.A. and wanted to make music, there was this whole Islamaphobia thing and I talked to my parents about it, and we thought, ‘Is it safe to go to America right now?’ We didn’t really know because I never lived out here, but I decided that … it’s gonna be okay and I’m gonna try it out,” she affirms. “I finally got out here and started making music and, surprisingly, it was pretty easy for me to live a normal musician life. I go on tours and I see a lot of supportive people. I think it’s important to keep a positive attitude towards everything but always be aware of your surroundings and look out for each other.”
Despite her newfound fame, Yuna stays humble, and perhaps, at times, hasn’t even realized the starlit future in front of her. “There’s not a lot of Malaysian artists from my country who made the move. I know one girl who started it, Zee Avi, who signed to Jack Johnson’s label, and I was so proud of her. I thought if she can do it, then I could do it too. Before that, it seemed very impossible,” she says of her home country. “When I got out here, it was scary but it wasn’t a successful thing for me yet – but I think I finally, just finally-finally realized I’m here and I’m no longer a foreigner or an outsider in the American music industry when “Crush” came out. It’s probably the biggest record that I’ve ever had.”
Breaking boundaries and hopping over obstacles that have been in her way, Yuna’s new mission, aside from making incredible music, is continuing to be an inspiration for young girls, just as Zee Avi was for her. “I want girls to know that no matter where they’re from, their dreams are legit and they can be successful,” she states. “I try to inspire a lot of girls to get out of their comfort zone and do whatever they can to make their dreams come true. The girls from Malaysia, we’re living in a community where there’s a lot of limits and people are saying, ‘You can’t do this, you can’t do that,’ and I want that to change. I feel really blessed to represent women of colour here in America. I never thought I’d be associated with that, but I am, and I’m really grateful.”
With endless confidence and a lot of new chapters – literally – unfolding in her life, Yuna concludes our interview saying, “I’m here and people acknowledge me for my work – I’m finally on the R&B Billboard Chart. [That’s] not to say that I’ve made it, but kind of. I’ve come this far and I gotta keep on working really hard and see where it goes.”
For full feature and additional photos visit our digital issue (issue 7) here.
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