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Friday, May 13, 2016

Malaysian Pop Singer Yuna on Moving to Los Angeles, Being More Candid in Her New Album, And Wearing a Hijab

Posted By on Fri, May 13, 2016 at 12:00 PM

click to enlarge Yuna - AIMMANESS HARUN
  • Aimmaness Harun
  • Yuna

With five albums under her belt, 29-year-old Malaysian singer-songwriter Yuna is a force to be reckoned with. Ten years ago she started off as an artist on MySpace, and now she's about to embark on tour and drop a new album — with features from Usher, Jhene Aiko, and DJ Premier. But that's only the tip of the iceberg of what she's done.  She also owns a clothing store in Kuala Lumpur, has designed a clothing line for Uniqlo, modeled for Barneys, and is a tourism ambassador for Malaysia. 

In advance of her Sunday, May 15 show at the Great American Music Hall, we chatted with the up-and-coming pop singer while she was in Los Angeles preparing for her upcoming tour. 

It's crazy how much has happened in your career over a 10 year period. Do you ever look back and are astonished by how far you've come?

Kind of, yeah. It’s just really weird. Especially when you start off doing music in your home country, in Kuala Lumpur, in your bedroom, and then all of a sudden you have a song out with Usher and you have a music video out. When you're busy and always working you don't have time to kind of soak it all in and think, ’Wow, I’m actually doing all of this.’ But yeah, there are times when I think, ‘Wow, this is pretty incredible. I can't believe I’m doing this.’ But at the same time, I knew I would because I worked really really hard for this. It’s always nice to see whatever hard work that you put into your craft go somewhere. I’m really happy and grateful that everything has happened.
In college you studied law. That’s kind of interesting. You started making music a lot earlier than that, so wasn't the goal to be a musician, not a lawyer?

I was in love with music when I was younger. But I grew up having parents that take academics really seriously. They really wanted me to be a lawyer. I wasn’t good at science or biology, so I couldn’t really be a doctor. They just wanted to make sure that I became successful in life later on. So music and the arts, it wasn’t like exactly the normal path that Malaysian kids take back home.

You kind of just brought up one of the cool, unique things about you: that you are a Malaysian pop star in the U.S. I'm by no means an expert on this, but I would bet that there's not a lot of Malaysian singers here in the U.S. You're one of the few. That’s pretty cool.

Thank you. Even for me and my fans back home, we can’t believe that this is happening. I’m really grateful that everything is going really well. When I first came out here, I didn’t really think, ‘Oh, I’m going to be successful and I’m going to be a pop star.’ I just really wanted to make music and learn and see where it would take me. I was doing music back home, but I was doing a lot of English music so it wasn’t really taking me anywhere. There wasn’t a market in Malaysia. So I really wanted to see where my English music could take me. I guess I’m really happy that I made that move from Kuala Lumpur to America out of curiosity.

Musically, I hear a lot similarities to neo-soul from the ‘90s and early aughts. I know that many terms have been thrown around to describe you, but one thing I haven’t heard is neo-soul. I know you like Feist, Coldplay, and a lot of folk musicians, but did you also listen to neo-soul musicians, like Erykah Badu and Maxwell? Or do you just happen to sound like neo-soul by chance?

When I was starting out, I was young and the kind of music I was listening to was singer-songwriter, folksy stuff. So my references were Damien Rice and Feist and Alannis Morissett and Fiona Apple. But they are just 20 percent of the influences I had from when I was younger. Before I started performing back home in Malaysia as an independent singer-songwriter, I was doing a lot of R&B stuff. I joined an R&B group that nobody knows about. This is all information that I left out in the beginning of my career because I thought it wasn’t relative. Now, people are like why did she make that move? Her sound is so different now. But nobody knew that when I was 18 I used to be in a Malaysian pop group. My influences were Beyoncé and Destiny's Child and Aaliyah and Erykah Badu and Lauryn Hill. I guess it's always been there inside of me, I just never got to explore it more. I like trying out different things. And over the years of me doing music out here, everything is slowly changing. It’s like a wave that is pushing me towards the contemporary R&B sound. It’s unavoidable. I hang out with a lot of local musicians who are in the R&B scene. So it's just bound to happen.

It’s been three years since your last album. What have you been up to since then? 

In three years, I went on tour. That was a lot of fun. I was preforming songs from Nocturnal. I was also traveling back and forth between L.A. and Malaysia. I guess I enjoyed my free time. Because I also have a career back in Malaysia as a boutique owner. And my whole family is back there so I try and spend as much time as I can with them.

When did you move to L.A.?

In 2011.

And when did you open your clothing store?

I started the boutique in 2010. That was before I moved out here. I was pretty active in the music and fashion scene back home in Malaysia so I started a store. And we kind of re-branded everything and it’s called November Culture now. It’s online now, too.

Why did you change the name?

My birthday is in November, so I just wanted to kind of have a personal touch to it. I didn’t want it to be my name because it literally is just a store with clothes that I like. I didn’t design them. Though some of them I did. It’s just a mixture of stuff that I like and also a terrarium store in one corner of the shop called Tiny Forest. When I come home, my store is pretty much where I hang out all the time.

Apparently last year you were appointed as a tourism adviser for Malaysia, along with Jimmy Choo. What do you have to do for that?

I guess it's more kind of like an ambassador. Because I’m always out here, I promote Malaysia everywhere I go. So I guess it's kind of natural for them to have me be a part of their project. One of the things that we did was we remixed “The Malaysia Truly Asia Song” — it’s like a theme song for tourism. We did that maybe two years ago. It’s kind of nice to be able to represent your country in that way. 
And you're also Muslim which is really cool and different from most artists in the U.S. Do you feel like you're helping to change negative stereotypes of your religion?

Because I didn’t grow up in America, I’m kind of brave about it. I still hold my Islamic values close to me. When I came out here, I was just kind of like, ‘Well, I’m Muslim and Malaysian. I’m different, so I’m just going to be myself and see what happens.’ And it seems like it’s okay. I’m still here and I’m surviving and I still get to do music. I just carry myself the way I’ve been carrying myself my whole life, and it’s nice to see that people are appreciating that — not just the Muslim community in America but people from different walks of life. I’m so happy that so far I’ve never had any bad experiences when it comes to discrimination and stuff like that.

Have you ever been told by anyone that you shouldn't wear the hijab? That it could be bad for your image?

Not from the music industry. You would think that the American music industry is all about sex, but you have girls like Adele who are beautiful and don’t sell their bodies or sex appeal. So I feel like I can relate to her in that sense. So when it comes to changing my image, no, not really. I think a lot of people like it. I cover my hair and people never seem to care. Sometimes people are like, ‘Why don’t you take off your hijab and let down your hair?’ I get those comments once in a while, but it doesn’t bother me. It’s just that maybe they don’t understand where I’m coming from. And I don’t take it too seriously. I can’t really change that, but I can just be myself and not care what anyone else says.

With your upcoming album, Chapters, did you have a goal in mind with it? Were you focused on one certain message or theme?

With Chapters, I’m just talking about my life and my relationships in a more mature way. I'm turning 30 this year, and it's a huge deal for me. I see things differently and the way I talk about things is very different from the way I talked about things five years ago when I released my first US album. I’m direct and blunt now. There’s more honesty. I just kind of let go of my insecurities and am like, ‘I’m just going to say what I want to say.’ I think a lot of people can relate to this album. A lot of girls who are going through heartbreaks will be able to relate to this album. I’m really excited and I’m really happy with how it turned out. It’s a little bit darker than my previous projects, but definitely beautiful and melodic.
It seems like the longer you've been making music, the more comfortable and confident you've gotten.

After a while, the filter is just gone. In the beginning, I was really careful with what I said or put out — and I still am — but now it's just like after you've gone through so much it’s kind of like screw it. If people don’t like it then screw them. You just have this bad ass attitude after a while. You develop a thick skin. That’s kind of how I see things now with my work. I really put 110 percent effort into this album, the music videos, and the short narrative videos that we put out. I decided to work a little bit harder this time and I wanted to be a little more real this time and be more candid with the fans and say what’s really on my mind. But not in a childish way, but in a strong confident way.

I read a Sweet article on Snapchat about your skin care routine a couple weeks ago. It seems like you’re really pushing your social media presence.

Any kind of social media exposure is really important. I know it’s important because that's how I started out: on Myspace. That’s kind of an advantage that I had in my career since the very beginning. I knew how to play the social media game. I knew how to capture people's attention. Right now, I realize that as I grow older and become more confident and candid, it helps to joke around and show my sense of humor to people and not just be this perfect little girl that I was before. It’s kind of nice to be able to do that. I started doing some vlogs for my fans. I see how a lot of YouTubers do that and have a lot of fans and it's probably because they can relate to this person because they're so normal. A lot of times people don’t think I live a normal life. So I started doing all these little videos to talk to my fans because I feel like they need that. The kids in Malaysia are just so timid and shy and I would like to talk to them more. I really want to contribute to making the world a better place and enriching peoples' lives and just sharing whatever I know with the rest of the world. 

Yuna plays with BOSCO at 8 p.m., Sunday, May 15, at The Great American Music Hall. More info here
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Jessie Schiewe


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