“I’ve just had the best sleep in ages,” Yuna announces to me as she emerges from her room at KLoé Hotel, sporting a full black look, a pair of hiking sneakers with chain straps and a fresh bare face for the day. Last night’s schedule revolved around a well-deserved staycation with husband Adam Sinclair, just weeks after we’ve come out of Malaysia’s Movement Control Order.
Today’s schedule is all about work and a cover shoot with Prestige featuring Chanel’s Cruise 2020/21 collection, though Yuna assures me she’s making time to sneak in a quick shopping trip in the city to grab some essentials as she’s been living off the clothes in her suitcase.
It’s been the first time in a long time since the singer-songwriter has been back in her native country for more than six months, a stark contrast to her previous week-long trips before flying back to Los Angeles where she is based. While the recent lockdown has presented her with the rare opportunity to reconnect with family and friends, she’s also been keeping busy with new projects under wraps. I dive right in to ask the question on everyone’s mind, can we expect a new album out soon? “I’m working on it,” she answers with a chuckle. “I wish I had that determination and focus. Every time I try to sit down with my laptop, my mum calls out ‘Yunalis, it’s time to eat’. It’s been a challenge to write an album,” she jests candidly with an amused look.
While the recent lockdown has temporarily brought the music industry to a halt, Yuna has found creative ways to give back to the community. Tiny Class is an online learning platform she co-founded with her husband, hosting interactive classes that allow the audience to tap into the minds of creative professionals. “I feel like we needed to close the gap between people who want to learn and people who are already in the creative industry. We want to educate the younger generation on what you can do to stay creative and how to make a living out of this,” says Yuna. The one and a half hour classes are limited to 10 participants and have covered music, fashion and film.
In the midst of a pandemic-ravaged world, Yuna still finds time to tinker around with her guitar and film live sessions for her overzealous fans right in her home studio. Her new single Stay Where You Are was released on her website in May this year, a song many of her fans identified with across the globe while remaining in isolation. She reveals that she wrote the song two years ago but it didn’t make the cut on her album.
“When I got back here, I was messing around with my piano and I played it live for my fans who received it very well. I told my manager I want to release this single as people want to listen to something mellow yet uplifting during this time,” says Yuna who shares that the song already had two million plays on Spotify alone. In a bid to include her loyal fans in this special project, Yuna had them submit a video of themselves holding up a Stay Where You Are signage which she incorporated into the music video footage. It was four simple words which resonated deeply with the world battling a pandemic.
It’s been almost a decade since Yuna first broke through the international music scene. She recalls her final year as a law undergraduate when she was already performing music on local television and making waves on the radio. “It didn’t feel real,” says the singer-songwriter who was straddling two worlds at the time. “I didn’t see it as a career. In my head I’ve always thought I was going to be a lawyer, this was just a fun thing for me,” she says candidly. She turned to her father, the one person in the family whose love for music precedes her, for advice on whether she should pursue music full-time. “It’s always been a mystery to him that I could write songs. My dad plays the guitar and sings but songwriting was a total mystery to him. He told me not everyone can do what you do so treat it as a real career.”
The daughter of a former high school teacher and legal advisor, Yuna’s interest in music stemmed from her parents who were musically inclined. “Before I found music and songwriting, I was mediocre in everything else,” she opens up. “I wasn’t the smartest student academically and though I represented my state in bowling at the Sukma Games, I wasn’t good enough. I wanted to be a national bowler just like my hero Shalin Zulkifli at the time,” she says. Discovering songwriting was new and exciting altogether for her and she wanted to see how far she could go.
The first two years in showbiz was tough for her. “I was bombarded by the media. People would say mean things to me every day and they would write untrue stories in the newspaper. It was really tough and I was crying every day.” How did she eventually get through that? “I just love music so much that after crying my heart out, I continued to focus on writing music and performing,” says Yuna who first carved out a niche fan base as an artiste in the indie music scene.
21-year-old Yuna at that time truly believed she found something she was good at and Malaysia was never the final destination for her. “I really believed I can be one of the best songwriters in Malaysia and I can be one of the first to go out of Malaysia and break through the international market. I just had to keep on working.” By that time, she knew she had already garnered a steady stream of listeners from abroad. “I was always planning and contacting Malaysian students based in New York if I could stay with them for three months to find a record label and attend music shows to make connections.” By a serendipitous stroke of luck, her music was discovered on Myspace by US management firm Indie-Pop who convinced her to sign with them.
From then on, it was only uphill for Yuna. Her meteoric rise in the international market has led her to explore a wider music repertoire spanning from indie, folk pop to R&B, hip hop, pop and even electronic dance music. “I’m always striving to do better but sometimes being better doesn’t mean you need to have an album like Beyoncé. For me, it’s simply coming up with something new and fresh. I’m proud of all the albums I’ve put out,” says the music artiste who earned her first RIAA certification just last year for her hit single Crush with Usher.
Collaborators like Usher have always been a huge part of Yuna’s album releases. Her latest album Rouge alone featured a total of nine collaborators including renowned acts such as G-Eazy, Tyler, the Creator, Masego and Jay Park. “For me, the music always comes first and it paints a picture for you. With Crush, it was a picture of Usher,” she reveals.
At the end of the day, she cites how important it is to have mutual respect when it comes to collaborations. “It’s important to know that there’s mutual respect but it doesn’t work if they don’t want to do a song with me. There needs to be genuine sincerity between the artistes for collaborations to happen,” says Yuna whose dream is to one day collaborate with Beyoncé for songwriting and Frank Ocean for music.
There is no doubt that Yuna’s confidence and self-assurance are indeed palpable, distinctive qualities she has grown into comfortably over the years. “You have to earn it,” she says earnestly. “When it comes to producing great work, you need to come from humble beginnings, see yourself as a student, embrace that knowledge is power. When you learn more things you become more confident. With me, it was all about having the right set of people around me, the right mindset and discipline. You see a lot of artistes who were like me who had the opportunity but they did not make full use of it. Yes you’re talented but where was your drive and discipline?”
As a Muslim female artiste in the entertainment industry, Yuna has come to embrace her own personal unique brand. When prompted on her thoughts about the recent Black Lives Matter social movement, Yuna says, “Whenever I walk into a meeting room with a huge company who wants to work with me, I’m the only coloured woman surrounded by male Caucasians in the meeting. I want to see a black woman or Asian woman in this meeting room, else how can one possibly understand me as an artiste? The movement needed to happen for change to happen and hopefully in the future it will be more inclusive and trickle down to the rest of the world,” she offers her thoughts.
Colourism is also an issue she feels strongly about from the beginning. “As a Southeast Asian, people in the US don’t really get where I’m from. To find a place in the American music industry takes a while. I found my place in a pocket somewhere to not be labeled in a box because people couldn’t figure out who is Yuna? Is she mixed black and white or is she Thai? For the longest time, I was able to live in that vague label but I’ve finally found my place and it doesn’t involve labels.”
Photographer Nelson Chong
Styling Colin Sim
Make-Up Cat Yong
Location thanks to KLoé Hotel