Yuna talks her new album, ‘Chapters,’ overcoming heartbreak and self-idenity

Photo credit: Aimanness Harun
Photo credit: Aimanness Harun

Music veteran Pharrell Williams stamped her as his protegée in 2012 after hearing her soft, sultry vocals. She goes by the name Yuna. The eclectic singer-songwriter hails from the quaint town of Kedah in Malaysia where she discovered her musical gifts at 14 years old. Since then, she turned her childhood hobby into a career as an international pop star after making the decision to not pursue a career in law.

Yuna recently released her third studio album, Chapters, which includes features from Jhene Aiko, DJ Premier and Usher, who is featured on her lead single “Crush,” which peaked at No. 2 on the UAC Charts. She is currently on the second leg of her U.S. “Chapters” tour after returning from a two-week sold-out European tour. Although Yuna is swamped with touring and running her fashion empire, November Culture, she took some time to catch up with rolling out to discuss her new album. She also chatted with us about her thoughts on hypersexualized images of women in music, why she chooses modesty and the key to maintaining integrity.

How has growing up in Malaysia influenced your music?

I lived a simple life In Malaysia. I grew up like a regular kid. My parents are really supportive of my talent. Malaysia is a multi-racial country. It’s such a beautiful place to grow up. There’re so many kids from different races and religions. I think that’s kind of what influenced me as a singer/songwriter with the stuff that I write about. I am always trying to bring a little bit of that Malaysian vibe into my music.

Did you receive any vocal training or attend music school when you were younger?

No. The thing is, I took up music as a hobby. Music was something that I loved doing. My dad was a music enthusiast. He’s a lawyer but does music in his free time. He loves playing the guitar. He’s a rock star! In Malaysia we love music but it’s not exactly a career path that you want to take for a better living.

When did you decide to pursue singing as a career?

Wow! I think the first time I had that moment when I felt I should do something with this was when I first started recording my song on my mic and recording videos online. I still remember that feeling and the smell of my cheap microphone. I bought it from a really cheap computer store in Malaysia. I still remember the excitement of just coming back from class, being in my room and picking up my guitar to record whatever song I wrote.

Photo credit: visionsthroughmyretina

How difficult was the transition moving from Malaysia to Los Angeles to further your music dreams?

I was already doing music in Malaysia, but it was kind of stagnant. It was so repetitive and I did everything so fast. I was writing songs, shooting music videos and performing on a daily basis. There were no roofs to break anymore. I’ve always had all these amazing English songs and I knew they could go somewhere. I really believed in them and I wanted more people to listen and not just my fans. In Malaysia, I had gained fans, it wasn’t wide enough. People would still listen to English music on the radio coming from America. They listen to Rihanna and Lady Gaga, but they were not going to listen to Yuna because she’s Malaysian. There wasn’t any room for me to grow so that was why when I got an offer to work with producers out here I took it. It’s pretty much how like The Internet made it happen.

How were you discovered? 

My manager found me on MySpace music and flew out to Malaysia and then we set down and talked. I was already an artist back home so I needed to make sure this was legit. I was like, “who is this guy from L.A. coming out here and trying to snatch me?” I had to find out what he was all about. He seemed very real and interested in my music. His name is Ben and he is still my manager today. I just decided to go out there for a couple of months and work with producers. I went solely for a creative purpose. I went back to Malaysia afterward and realized how much fun it was so I went back to L.A. That’s when I got my visa and now I am here. I was working on my first EP then my first album and three years ago I released my second album. I just released my latest album in May.

How much input do you have in the creative direction of your visual content? 

I am pretty hands-on. The initial idea is always mine, but it has always been a collaboration with the directors. Obviously, I can’t do everything. We bounce ideas off of each other and see what would look amazing from a director’s standpoint. The stories and everything are totally mine. Some of the videos come with me kind of narrating something like spoken word. The creative direction of my career, I think, I have control of that. I will always get ideas from other people because I don’t know everything.

Photo credit: visionsthroughmyretina

Your third album Chapters is getting a lot of buzz. What were you going through when recording this body of work?

I guess I was a little bit broken at the time. Great music comes from the part of you that is the most sincere and the most honest. I kind of had to learn it the hard way. It was kind of weird. The last two years have been a difficult space for me. I have never gone through something so painful and life-changing. It was a life and love lesson. I didn’t want to talk about it because it was too real. I was not comfortable exposing myself that way. I’ve always been able to write music and be vulnerable.Songwriting was natural to me, but trying to find that deep place is a rare thing to do when you’ve been writing a long time. … After I wrote all of it, I realized these were like chapters I had in my head lined up. It was me coming out of a relationship and learning how to love yourself.

Chapters reminds me a bit of Usher’s Confessions in terms of how he used the track to grieve his breakup with ex-girlfriend Chilli. It seems you took a similar route to express yourself. How was your experience working with him?

Working with Usher was obviously one of the highlights of my career. I never thought in a million years I would work with Usher. Confessions is one of my favorite albums of all time. Kind of like what you said it was him being very open about his breakup. I feel like with a lot of artists that’s the only way for them to cope with whatever they’re going through. … For someone to be as huge as Usher to work with a girl that never put out any R&B sounding music was very brave of him. I am really inspired by that. You have to always be willing to learn even though you’ve reached a certain level of success. That’s what I took away from working with him.

You stand firm on your Muslim foundation as an artist and have continued to wear your hijab throughout your performances, photo shoots and appearances. How do you maintain your integrity and stay true to who you are?

I think what I’m doing is probably what a lot of women want to do, which is keep their identity. It hasn’t been easy or me. When I was making music back then I had on a full Hijab. It was a decision I made when I was very young. In Malaysia people were like, this is not normal why is she doing this? I’ve gotten a lot of backlash for it. It didn’t click with me. I wanted to do this. Malaysia is a very modern country so we have a choice on what we wear. We are free to practice our religion. Modesty was something I wanted to embrace at a very young age. I think it matches my soul. I’m kind of shy and a bit of an introvert.

What kind pressure have you had to overcome as a Muslim woman in the music industry?

When I first got into the industry I wondered if I should take off my hijab. A lot of record labels said they might need me to take my scarf off. It was a matter of staying true to myself and it was kind of difficult to do. People would stare at me. I was young and looking back, I still don’t know how I did it. When you grow older you tend to overthink. Coming to America people were more open. It’s normal to see a girl with a head wrap. My Black friends wear the head scarves. It was something acceptable. It was a lot easier out here.

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