Infinite x MTV K First Showcase
Alor Setar, Malaysia

Yuna: Malaysia’s Sweetheart Charms the World

Just another Indie Pop Fashion Mogul Law Grad

By Beverly Bryan
October 24, 2011

Malaysian indie pop singer-songwriter Yuna seems to charm everyone she meets and everyone who hears her. Having conquered Malaysia with her quiet but powerfully emotive music and signed a deal with the US Fader label, she’s been touring the US with neo-soul artist Raphael Saadiq and recently recorded a couple of tracks with Pharell Williams. So far this year, she’s worked her magic on countless new fans and, oh, Russell Simmons. Since meeting Yuna and discovering her music, the Def Jam mogul has been singing her praises on Twitter.

When we interviewed the rising young star we quickly understood how she does what she does. On the phone from Los Angeles, she is as laid back and thoughtful as her music, but her most irresistible quality is her independent spirit. The singer’s been hopping between New York, London, Kuala Lumpur, and L.A., but if you ask her to choose between New York and Los Angeles, she’ll pick San Francisco every time.

It’s clear from our conversation about the places she’s been and the people she’s met that Yuna is a sensitive soul. But this law school grad balances that creative side with discipline and a metric ton of pure savvy.  As a super stylish, hijab-wearing performing artist, she became an icon of modern Muslim chic — and turned that into a business. Her IAMJETFUEL fashion boutique carries the styles she wears that her fans go crazy for and her own line of traditional Malaysian tudung headscarves. No wonder Mr. Simmons loves her, she’s well on the way to becoming a mogul in her own right.

Read on to find out about her musical roots and inspirations, who keeps her grounded, and, yes, working with Pharrell.

What are you doing today?

I have a couple meetings to go to today. I just got back from a mini tour meeting up with radio stations in San Francisco and Seattle.

I know you have been spending a fair amount of time in Los Angeles and New York, and I was wondering if you could say which city you like better so far?

The city I like better … umm, I would say San Francisco [Laughs]. I love San Francisco! I mean, like, New York is nice, and L.A. is nice as well, but, I don’t know, there’s a cool vibe there.

You’re very busy and you’re traveling a lot right now. How do you stay sane and feel grounded?

The first couple months when I was out here, I was over-working myself. I was forcing myself to write songs, which is one of the reasons I couldn’t come up with good music because I didn’t have “me” time. To keep me sane, I take time off. A week to the beach, or talk to my friends in Malaysia online.

My mom is always there, and I call her every day. And my boyfriend [Laughs]. I have a really good relationship with my boyfriend. He is like my best friend. We talk like 300 times a day. He’s like one of the stable things in my life, and I know I can count on him if I’m down or tired with work.

What do you wish you had more time for?

I wish I came here earlier. I came out here two years ago. I wish I was out here 5 years ago, so I would have had more time to just experience more things out here and meet more people and get inspired.

Two years…I think I am still in the state of adjusting myself. I am not really in a proper setting to be an artist and to write. It takes more than that. You need to be comfortable in your surroundings. I think I am doing a good job with that – being able to adapt with new places and new people, but I wish I had more time to be comfortable with everything so I could just be in my comfort zone and produce better songs.

Has any of your traveling influenced your music or inspired you in any way so far?

Of course. I love traveling out here because I grew up all my life in Malaysia. I have traveled in every part of Malaysia that is beautiful, but it’s different because I grew up there and am used to it. Now that I’m out here, I go to places like Colorado and you see all these mountains, and I have never seen anything like that before in my life. You see the snowy top on top of the mountain, and wow, it’s so pretty, so yeah, I get inspired.

Tell me about the music scene in Kuala Lumpur. What do you especially like about it and what would people be surprised to find out?

I think people would be surprised to find out that I am from Malaysia and I speak English. But yeah, I think that people would be surprised to know that there are a lot of real talented Malaysians with good music out there. It’s just going, and it’s not going to stop. I think 10 or 20 years ago the independent music scene just started growing. I wasn’t exposed to it until I was 19, it was pretty late when I found out there was an independent scene, but I get so jealous because I wish I found out earlier.

I moved around a lot as a kid because my dad works with the government. When I went to college, it was in Kuala Lumpur, right in the smack of everyone making music, so I became friends with a lot of musicians and people from the art and film and music scene. I didn’t know anything about that before, and I got so inspired by it. I could since before, but I didn’t know I could write songs until I was 18 or 19.

Yuna in her music video for "Come As You Are"

What were your first songwriting inspirations when you were 19?

I watched this video of Feist and she was performing in Paris, and that really changed my world. I watched the whole show, and one of my favorite songs that she performed was “When I was A Young Girl.” And I thought she was amazing. I was like, “Wow, I want to be just like her.” [Laughs]. Feist was my biggest inspiration.

Have your tastes and inspirations changed since you first started?

I’m more comfortable listening to newer things. The only music exposure that I used to get was from Top 40 or new radio. It all changed when I was 19 or 20 and I started listening to more songs and looked for more new bands online. I listened to  a bunch of stuff like pop, rock, hip hop, R&B, jazz and stuff like that, you know, like, everything.

Would you say that there are any Malaysian influences on your music, whether it’s Malaysian indie or more traditional Malaysian music?

I grew up listening to a lot of the oldies Malay jazz bands from the 1950s and ’60s. The most famous back in Malaysia is P. Ramlee, and he is the legend. He had a bunch of movies out, and was a singer-songwriter as well. He was an icon for all of us back home.

Do you feel like your faith or your spirituality plays a role in your music?

Yeah, I would say because of that, I am here where I am right now. I really believe, if you do a lot of good things, a lot of good things will happen to you.

I grew as a Muslim in Malaysia, in a community where a lot of people respect their religion, regardless if it’s Islam, Christianity or Buddhism. There are a lot of religions and backgrounds in Malaysia — our country is very conservative no matter what religion you are practicing. Everyone behaves, and they do the right thing, so it has a lot to do with the person I am today and the stuff that I write. I write mostly about life, love and stuff like that.

NEXT: “Pharell listened to some of my tracks and I guess he liked what I sounded like”

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