With her ethereal vocals and unique style, singer-songwriter Yuna is both an artist on the rise and a critical darling. Hailing from Malaysia, the singer’s fourth album, Nocturnal, was released last year to much critical praise, comparing her to the likes of Bob Dylan and Feist, which she too cites as some of her most iconic influences. For her, the newest work highlights this fusion of sonic and aesthetic palates perfectly, capturing the artist’s love of experimentation. “We did a lot of experimenting, doing things like working with traditional Malaysian instruments and making them work in the context of a pop song that sounds current.” Yuna’s innovative spirit is embodied in her sound, both serene and challenging at once, with an ear for accessible melody. “I learned to enjoy the beauty of what can happen when creative people get together and come up with something new,” she says. “I love mixing all these genres together to help bring these ideas to life.”
Yuna’s gradual rise to stardom has come from a distinct mix of progressive music and, according to her, confidence in who she is and what she wants. “Whenever I do something that I love to do, I work really hard,” she says. “I don’t expect anything. I see where it goes and just hope for the best.” That is what matters to her most in the end. “People won’t care what you call it,” she says. “I think that people are looking for music that’s real and honest that they can relate to emotionally.” For her, this fourth album is a push in an invigorating new direction. The artist is breaking boundaries outside of her genre-bending as well; not only is Yuna one of the only Malaysian national artists to break into the American music scene, but she is also a practicing Muslim and is carving out a place for herself in American pop-culture without compromising her beliefs and practices.
It all started with relatively modest beginnings – the artist got her break posting songs written in both Malay and English on her Myspace in 2006. Yuna has already collaborated with notable artists including Pharrell, whom she calls, “really sweet. I was really nervous and I think I learned a lot working with him.” She‘s performed at some of America’s most well-known musical festivals, including Lollapalooza and Bonnaroo. Yuna’s sights are set high, and rightfully so. In just 10 years, she’s found a way to stay true to her identity, while creating music that never isolates lovers of good work. Even with so many firsts in such a short time, Yuna can’t help but crave new experiences. “I had fun when I recorded in Malaysia, but America is so big and so inspiring and there are so many talented people to work with.” That insatiable desire to explore her surroundings—and herself—is certain to lead Yuna somewhere original and wholly her own, transporting listeners to a radically original space. The artist is going places—we’ll surely be following suit.
Indira Cesarine: How did you get started in music?
Yuna: I got started in music pretty seriously when I was in my final year of law school. I was in law school, and that was when I kind of got into the independent music scene and then I started writing my own music. When I started performing was when I really got into music.
IC: What is one of your favorite songs you’ve ever written?
Y: One of my favorite songs ever written would probably be “Lullabies.” That’s one of my favorite songs.
IC: What inspires your songwriting?
Y: Everything. Mainly conversations that I have with my friends when we talk about relationships, stuff like that. I think songwriting comes from dramatization, but at the same time you have to just tell your story but tell it in a different perspective. So, I’m mostly inspired by conversations.
IC: Who is your favorite contemporary musician?
Y: I think Lorde, is really fresh and new; she’s also young and super smart. I think she’s my favorite artist because she has a mind of her own.
IC: What was it like working with Pharrell Williams?
Y: It’s pretty crazy. He’s sweet and I was really nervous and I learned a lot from working with him. It was really cool being able to work with someone super, super talented like Pharrell. It was a lot of fun.
IC: Did you ever expect the amount of success that you’ve received?
Y: Never, never at all! Whenever I do something that I love to do, I try really hard and work really hard, and try not to expect anything. I just see where it goes and just hope for the best. At the same time, you need to be smart in making decisions. When I have to make decisions, they have to be really good ones. I never expected it to be this way, so I am very happy that everything is working out really well for me.
IC: What image do you like to portray to young women coming up in this industry?
Y: Definitely a positive image. I think a lot of girls out there – the younger girls especially – think that women in the music industry need to be sexy and pretty and that all of the physical stuff matters. I think that you need to be talented, and if you have a lot of skills, talent wise, it can go really far. I’m not trying to tell girls to be someone else in order to make it in the music industry when they can just be themselves and follow through. People will still appreciate them for their music. The kind of thing that I really want to show girls is that you can do it, you don’t have to be someone else, and that you can just be yourself the whole time.
IC: If you could collaborate with any musician in the world who would it be?
Y: It would have to be Coldplay. I play them over and over again, they’re my favorite band, and Chris Martin is probably my favorite songwriter.
IC: Do you have a motto or words of wisdom you live by?
Y: As cliché as it may sound, I think it would have to be, “be yourself.” I’ve been holding on to that for a long time. Just be yourself, and just be positive and ignore all of the negative things that come your way.
IC: If you weren’t in music what would you do?
Y: If I weren’t in music I would probably be in a café somewhere in Europe working as a barista.
IC: What inspires your personal “look?”
Y: I love Audrey Hepburn’s style. I appreciate a classy look and, I like the color black.
IC: Who would you consider to be a legendary artist?
Y: Janis Joplin. I love Janis Joplin.
IC: What is your personal definition of the word “legendary?”
Y: I think it has a lot to do with individuality. If you are really true to yourself and you know how to carry yourself, then you have the ability to be successful. It’s easy to be successful, but it’s not easy to be successful while being yourself. You can act like someone else and appear to be someone else but you’re not that person. These are the people who manage to be successful and stay the way they are. At the same time, be successful and be legendary, who express their individuality.
IC: What are your current and upcoming projects we should look out for in 2014?
Y: My current projects are my just-launched clothing line, which is coming out in November. It’s called 14Nov and there will be an online store. That is in the works right now; I just launched that. Also, I will be working on new music. I just finished touring in Europe, and my album is available in Europe now so that’s really exciting.
Interview by Indira Cesarine for The Untitled Magazine
Photography by Patrik Andersson
Stylist: Mindy Saad
Make-up by Yuko
This article originally appeared in The Legendary Issue of The Untitled Magazine (2014), pick up a copy of issue or download the free “Legendary” Issue App on iTunes now!