Interview: 5 Minutes with Yuna

Written by Maya-Rose Torrão

Heavily-laden with moody soul and laid-back electronic beats, Yuna’s music is difficult to box into a genre. The talented singer-songwriter from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and now living in Los Angeles,  cites a variety of influences, including Aaliyah, Lauryn Hill, Alanis Morrisette, TLC, Radiohead, Bjork and Feist. This talented singer-songwriter’s style is a unique crossover of pop, alternative, electronic, soul, R&B and indie, and it’s a pleasure to listen to. Yuna‘s initial exposure came through the viral success of her more acoustic-centred music which she uploaded to Myspace, which received over one million plays and the underground soul-pop-R&B heroine has just gone from strength to strength from there. Yuna has defied many conceptions that many people have of Muslim women, especially in today’s world where Islamophobia is preventing Muslim persons from expressing their religious freedom. Yuna explains how, at first,  she never posted pictures of herself, because of the potential for misperception and instead tried to let her music speak for her, “I didn’t put up a proper photo of myself — it was cropped, up until my nose. People didn’t know what I looked like until my first show. They were shocked in the beginning, but they accepted me.” The singer-songwriter gets frustrated sometimes because, “People say, ‘You should let your hair out; you shouldn’t be oppressed — you’re not in Malaysia anymore. You should show your curves and be proud of it.’ But I am proud — it’s my choice to cover up my body. I’m not oppressed — I’m free.

Yuna began writing songs at age 14 and soon taught herself to play guitar. By 2006, Yuna performed for an audience for the first time, as a way to find a creative outlet while she was studying at Law school. In 2008 Yuna released her debut self-titled EP and earned five Malaysian Music Awards nominations and took home four trophies, including Best New Artist and Best Song, for her breakout hit, written in Malay, ‘Dan Sebenarnya’. Since then, Yuna has played shows all around the world and won many awards for her music, including becoming the first Malaysian singer to be nominated for a BET Award (US) and has worked with a a myriad of internationally recognised producers and musicians including, Jhene Aiko, Om’Mas Keith (Frank Ocean) and Usher.

Yuna is currently on tour (see dates at the end of this article) and continues to seduce audiences with her honest lyrics and soulful melodies. We can’t wait for her new album, which she is also currently working on, in between shows.

Listen her beautiful track ‘Too Close’, from her highly acclaimed 2016 album, ‘Chapters’ while you read the interview below.

We caught up with Yuna and chatted about art museums, guitars and the future.

Set the tone for us, why the arts?

It’s something I loved exploring as a kid – I love colours, I love making and creating things. It was a natural thing for me to be creative… as a young girl I just knew I’ll grow up doing something that has to do with art.

Which comes first when you’re producing/writing – the sound or the idea?

I can’t really say, sometimes it’s the sound – like when you’re in a studio with a producer and he has a song idea, then the words for a song will just start pouring in. Sometimes I’ll have an idea in my head for weeks and i’m like ‘that’s it, let’s get that out in the world’

Does your material feature any collaborations?

Hopefully, we are talking to a few people but I’d like to keep it a secret!

What’s on your current playlist?

I love the Internet’s new album Hive Mind, and I’m listening to Janet’s The Velvet Rope right now too.

Tell us about the chemistry you have with your fans on stage.

They’re awesome. They’re not there for the hype, you know, it’s not what I sell. I write and sing from the heart and I can’t really offer anything else so when I see them come to my show I know they’re there for the music – songs that gave some meaning to them, at some point in their lives.

What techniques do you experiment with to get your original sound?

I like to work with different producers, see their style and what they’re into… I’m lucky to be able to work with a lot of different producers who are talented, and they know how to create a new sound for me that’s different from other artists that they’ve worked with.

Take us through a day in the recording studio.

I get in, with an iced latte in my hand, I talk to the producer, get a vibe going, I like to talk about the stuff I’ve been listening to… like say… bolero music, stuff like that, and then we just have fun and create something that embodies the same vibe or mood. I sit there and listen to the song, looping and repeating it a thousand times, and I’ll write a verse and a chorus, in silence (this sometimes will drive the producers crazy! Because they have no idea what I’m doing for 2 hours), then when I’m ready, I’ll get in the booth and sing it.

Was there a specific moment in your life where you thought, “this is what I want to do”?

I think the first time I stepped into a vocal booth singing my song in a professional studio!
Listening back to vocals on a song and it was like ‘hey I can get used to this!’

What do you keep close by while you’re playing a set?

I don’t know… I guess a bottled water? I depend on water so much when I’m singing. And sometimes a piece of paper where I write my thoughts before I go on stage, like little notes.

Any emerging artists on your radar?

I love Puma Blue. I don’t know much about them but i’ve been listening to them everyday. I think they’re great.

What gets your creative juices flowing?

Traveling, escaping the city… and going to art museums. That always helps me to become more creative. Some days I’ll be lazy then I go to a museum I’ll be like, ‘Okay. Amateur hour is over. Time to do bigger things!’

Take us through your collection of gear, tech or software that accompanies your creative expression.

I play the guitar sometimes, Gibson was very nice to loan me an electric semi hollow, it’s beautiful and sounds amazing, and vocal loops! I love messing around with my Voicelive for vocal loops and effects.

Any side projects you’re working on?

Just the album! I’m giving my 150% on this album I’m very excited about it.

How have you refined your craft since you entered the industry?

I think giving all my songs more time to grow… I was so used to writing, recording, and then releasing it immediately to the world on Soundcloud or something. But now I’m more careful. I don’t just want to put anything out that I’m not 100% satisfied with. I guess yeah, I’m wiser now and more refined in a sense that I care more about my craft and try not to take anything for granted.

Breakdown the news for us: what can we expect from you this year?

New music definitely… and then the album, coming soon!

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