Published Nov 08, 2013Speaking from her home in L.A., luminous singer-songwriter Yuna can't subdue her excitement. Her sweet laughter and content sighs which, if translated into words, may go something like, "I can't believe this is happening to me!" bubble forth throughout our conversation, and it's easy to understand why. Yuna is bringing her international stardom to the legendary Verve Records label with her new album, Nocturnal, one that promises to take her already border-shattering career to the next level.
Yuna, born Yunalis Mat Zara'ai, cut her teeth in Malaysia's robust singer-songwriter indie scene, crafting a sparkly folk/neo-soul/pop fusion that resonated past her borders. The songbird was soon releasing her 2011 EP Decorate and 2012 self-titled debut album, which boasts the Pharrell Williams-produced breakthrough track, "Live Your Live," on The Fader. Yuna's success since has been as seamless as one can hope for. And like fellow trailblazer Janelle Monáe, her image defies her contemporaries' frenzied sexuality — she's owning it all with great aplomb and zero qualms. We spoke to Yuna about bringing her roots to her music, Verve Records and Pharrell.
Let's start from the beginning. When did you start singing and writing songs?
I started singing very early. I was six or seven years old, and I was singing along to TV commercials and figuring out, "Oh, hey, I can sing in tune. This is really cool." But the songwriting thing came much much later, when I was 19 years old. I started learning how to play the guitar and hanging out with a lot of musicians. I started writing my own songs and put the music out there. And now the rest is history.
Did you make a conscious decision to sing and write in English or did you just find it a natural fit?
It was a natural thing to do for me. Growing up I listened to a lot of English music. My dad would play rock'n'roll songs and my mom would be playing Olivia Newton-John. I grew up learning how to speak English. One of the ways of learning English for me was just by singing English songs and imitating what they were singing and later on finding out what the words meant.
I was writing poetry when I was 14 and I carried on writing and it wasn't until I was 19 that I realized I could match the words to the chords that I was playing on my guitar. I started doing that a lot and I wrote a couple songs after that.
You know how Santana did Supernatural as a half-English, half-Spanish language album, would you ever do something like that?
I would love to do something like that. I've always wanted to have at least two Malay songs on my album but the opportunity hasn't come up yet. But hopefully in the future. Considering this is my first album with Verve Records, and my first time being signed to a major label, I think it's important to make a good first impression with my listeners overseas. Hopefully, on the second album I would love to have a couple of Malay songs.
I've read that your music influences include Feist, Sia and Bob Dylan. Are there Malaysian artists that have also played an influence in your sound?
I listened to a lot of ballad singers, like divas. In Malaysia we have a lot of divas, like Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey singers. And they were all so so talented, just very talented. For example, there's this one jazz singer, her name is Sheila Majid, and I was always singing her songs. So, yeah, definitely I have a lot of Malaysian influences in me as well.
You have a huge following, but for many people you're also going to be something new, especially coming out on Verve. Have you felt pressure to "represent," being the first Malaysian singer to have this kind of international recognition and following?
Well, obviously there's a level of responsibly that comes with being Malaysian and then coming out here, and making music out here [in L.A.]. But I'm always positive. I'm making music and I'm trying to do this thing, writing music and making people happy. Giving people an experience, a musical experience. I don't really stress myself out trying to be someone I'm not. I think I'm very comfortable with just being myself and I've been that way for a very long time so coming out here wasn't like a… even though there was a lot of cultural difference I've kind of gotten used to it.
As a Muslim woman, you write songs about love and relationships, but in many of your videos, guys are not at the forefront. There's often a more whimsical take on romance. Do you purposely steer clear from showing yourself to intimately connect with a boy?
I've never really had that kind of music video, you know what I mean? I love making music videos but I've always considered myself a storyteller so I don't really play myself as the girl who's, like, in love. The closest thing I've had to having that is just like me and a boy with a camera following me around and kind of having that really sweet and innocent connection. It could be anyone. It could be your friend. It could be your boyfriend. It could be any kind of relationship.
Obviously, I always have that in my mind and keep that in mind whenever I'm doing a lot of things, when I'm performing or when I'm writing something. I don't really write about dancing in clubs because it's just not me and so it's not very logical of me to just do something I don't normally do and be completely uncomfortable with it. Everything I've done so far in my musical career I've always been a 100 percent sure and 100 percent comfortable, and I'm really happy [about] where I am right now and how I portray myself as a musician and also as a Muslim, as someone who has a belief just like everybody else.
At 19 you started pursuing music. Why did you still attend law school even after you started to have success with music? Schooling is usually the first thing that gets thrown to the wayside once fame starts calling.
I didn't expect to have music as my main thing. I always thought I was going to be a lawyer. When I graduated I was doing really well with my music in Malaysia. I had stable income and I had really good momentum in the music industry so I had to make a decision whether to stop that and continue being a lawyer. After discussing it with a lot of people, my friends and my family, I just decided ok, let's carry on see where this is going. And I'm really glad it's went on to be like an international thing.
Has your law degree helped you as an artist and business woman?
Yeah, a little bit. There's a lot of things that are super different from what I've learned in school, I learned a lot of criminal law and contract. I think the only part of learning law that really helped me was learning contract law. That helped me a lot in like reviewing stuff and knowing my rights. But other than that, when I first came out here and dealing with all these entertainment contracts, it was like back to square one. It was like law school all over again.
You were on the Fader label for your first album, now you're on the legendary label Verve. Why did you make that transition?
Being with the Fader was really awesome. It was a great start for me and it was a really nice independent label. They have a really influential cool factor, so it was a great start for me in building an audience the first few years I was out here. And then our contract ended and we had this opportunity to sign with Verve, who were interested from day one, since I first came out here making music. They were really interested but the opportunity to work together didn't come along as soon as the deal with the Fader. But everything played out very well and I'm just happy to be able to be part of a family of really talented, legendary bunch of people.
I'm like this new kid and I'm always asking myself, "What am I doing here?" A lot of people kind of expected me to be jazzy, Verve is really known for signing a lot of jazz artists and people like Rod Stewart, who put out jazz albums every year. But it's definitely not like that, it's definitely a new thing. This is kind of like their fresh new project that they wanted to do and I'm really happy to be their new thing. I'm just really blessed. So far working with them, I've enjoyed every single thing, from recording, to making the album cover, to shows, performing, everything has been a breeze for me. I'm really happy.
"Coffee," from your Decorate EP, had a beautiful jazzy vibe. Now that you're on Verve, would you consider doing an album that leaned heavier on the jazz vibe?
Oh yeah, of course. I come from a very strong singer-songwriter scene back home in Malaysia and we do jazz music all the time and I feel like I'm very much influenced by jazz music. Growing up I listened to a lot of jazz, like Frank Sinatra. I would love to make a jazz album in the future, kind of like a very orchestral kind of thing. That's one of my dreams so I think signing with Verve was a natural thing for me to do.
"Someone Who Can" off of Nocturnal is a great single. I was singing it all last night and woke up with it in my head.
Oh, thank you!
Why did you name the album Nocturnal?
Me and my friend were talking about what I should name my album and she gave me some ideas, and she was like "Why don't you call it Nocturnal because you stay up at night writing songs?" And I was like, "Yeah, you're right." It makes sense because when you're up at like 2 a.m., that's the right time to grab hold of good songs that are just floating around in your house, you know what I mean?
Yeah I do. I'm a nocturnal person. I do all my writing at night. That's why I loved the title.
All right. Yay!
You've said, "I'm a different person than I was when I made the last album. I've seen and experienced a lot of new and exciting things. I was inspired to write about those things." What's one of these new experiences you felt compelled to write about for Nocturnal?
Well, I would say I'm still the same person but I've travelled a lot, went on tour, I learned a lot from doing that. I've seen a lot and I've talked to a lot of people. Sometimes when you're a songwriter, you kind of have this egotistic thing, you just want to write something that you love and you don't care about if people like it or not but personally, I want to write something that people can jive too. I want to write something that I love and also I want people to love my music as well, and a lot of those factors came together. When I'm in the studio with my producers or my co-writers I'd tell them that I want to write music that when I perform it on tours, it will be a cool performance. I will be able to play this instrument or that instrument or people will be able to dance or bop their head to this song, and those things came into consideration this time around when writing the album.
But at the same time I also wanted to write something honest and something I've experienced in the past year. I wrote this album in six months. It was a really short amount of time but it was perfect to create a cohesiveness in all of the songs. They all have a theme and a continuous story to it. I'm really excited to finally have that kind of album. I love the first album, and I love that there's a lot of variety in that. And this time around, I'm just really happy to be able to come up with an album that has a storyline in it.
Talking about instruments, I read a reference about your desire to use "traditional Malaysian instruments and making them work in the context of a pop song that sounds current." Is there any Malaysian instruments used on this album?
No, not really but there's a lot of Malaysian influence. Malaysian instruments are so delicate and are so hard to find. We tried to find a similar traditional-sounding instrument, borrowing some of that influence and fusing them into my music, things like kalimba. For example in "I Wanna Go" there were a lot of drums fused in there and it sounds kind of like kompang, an instrument that we use during weddings in the Malay culture.
I've always wanted to have the traditional-sounding things from where I come from, from my roots, and make it pop music, not really like in your face, "Hey I'm from Malaysia," but just like borrowing some of the pretty elements of the Malay traditional music and putting it into my music. In "Falling" I personally asked for a gamelan-sounding instrument or something that could replicate that sound. Obviously the ones that I have it's not gamelan but it has the same cool to it. So I'm really happy to be able to do that in this album.
Pharrell Williams produced "Live Your Life" on your first album. Did he work on any tracks on Nocturnal?
Unfortunately no, I would have love to have him work on this album but I totally understand that it's been a really busy year for him. I'm really happy that I got the opportunity to work with him in the first album. We made a lot of great music and I'm always going to miss that. Hopefully it comes around again in the next couple of albums.
Your personal style is gorgeous and you translated it into your own store, IamAJetFuel. Why did you name it IamAJetFuel?
[Chuckles] It's a name that I chose when I was like really young, I was like 16. It's kind of like my instant messaging name. And then I got into online shopping and I learned how to start my own business of selling pre-loved items and that was the name that I had for the blog and people knew me from that name. When it got bigger and I finally had the opportunity to shop for looks, having a proper supplier and stuff like that, the name just kind of stuck. Now it's here, seven years later it's still around. But I'm actually rebranding IamAJetFuel shop and this November we are launching a new online store, which is called November Culture.
Are you born in November? Or you a Scorpio?
I am born in November. I'm a Scorpio.
Scorpios, it's like OVO, you're doing the November Culture, and it's cool.
Thank you! I'm really excited about it.
You wear many hats, how do you defuse at the end of a busy period? What's your relaxation thing that you like to do?
I'm a homebody. I don't really go out at night to clubs and stuff. I love to hang out in my house, invite friends to come over and have dinner. I don't really have a lot of opportunity to just hang out by myself, and when I have free time I walk around downtown. I live in downtown L.A. and I love this place. Or like making these little tiny gardens that you make in a bowl.
Before I let you go, tell me about one of your most recent "pinch me" moments?
Probably performing with Owl City on Jay Leno. That was kind of like, "Wow!" Owl City was just so amazing, he's such a sweet guy. And also being part of a huge animation film, working with DreamWorks. [Yuna and Owl City sang the single "Shine Your Way" for the DreamWorks film The Croods]. It's amazing feeling being part of something so huge.