The Malaysian-born singer knew life had changed when she heard Usher's voice on her track..
The singer Yuna has chapters before Chapters. The May release is her third American album, but it comes after a couple of albums that started her career in her native Malaysia. For Chapters, the singer born Yunalis Zarai shed some of the modern pop elements in her sound to present herself as an R&B diva—a move that suits her honeyed voice beautifully. The slight airiness in it sells the vulnerability that her lyrics express, but she never succumbs to self-pity, and producers Fisticuffs, Ben Willis, Robin Hannibal, Paul Salva, Jochem van der Saag, David Foster, and DJ Premier never let the songs settle into such a predictable mode. On Chapters, being heartbroken isn’t the same as being broken.
Yuna will play The House of Blues' Parish tonight, and if Chapters wasn’t enough, her perspective makes her newsworthy. She’s a fashionable Muslim woman and an international artist at a time when most of those characteristics make her suspicious to one party’s presidential candidate. We recently conducted an email interview about that, her Malaysian origins, the power of MySpace and more.
How and/or where did you hear Western music growing up in Malaysia?
I was listening to western music as long as i can remember. It was easily accessible. Mmy dad loved rock bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd, Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, and Bryan Adams. I randomly discovered the music that I like—Lauryn Hill, No Doubt, Aaliyah, The Cardigans—just through the radio. I guess it depends. My family is very Malaysian but my dad loves English music, so I was always listening to all kinds of English music growing up. That's pretty much how I learned the language back in Malaysia.
Your music sounds like it could have just as easily come from London as Malaysia. What should I pay attention to in your music to hear your Malaysian roots?
I don't know. I think the melodies. My dad likes to tell me that a good song just needs a good melody, and apart from the western music we liked to listen to, we also loved listening to classic Malay songs from the ‘60s. That was our favorite! But still, all the classic Malay songs were mixtures of traditional Malay and classic, Frank Sinatra-esque, western songs. I think when I write my songs, they're influenced by the stuff I'm familiar with, which is a mixture of all of these styles of music.
Were you consciously trying to reach a more international audience when you decided to use MySpace?
Definitely.. I was writing in English, and back home it was difficult to market English music made by local artists. There is definitely a small niche market, but it wasn't enough for me, I felt stuck. So MySpace was my window, me calling out to anybody and everybody out there in the world. It was life changing honestly, to have fans from New Orleans, or Boston. It was as if I made contact with another lifeform in space! I was so excited!
What have been some of the less obvious markers of success along the way?
The minute I listened to my song “Crush” with Usher. There was something magical about it.
I don't really feel any pride when I achieve something in my music career, To me it's an ongoing learning process, and you should always remain humble, you know? But when I heard his voice singing my lyrics, that was when I really felt like, Wow, finally this is going somewhere.
As a Muslim woman from Malaysia, what do you think when you hear the xenophobic rhetoric of Donald Trump and his supporters? What do they need to know that they seemingly don’t?
I think it's very scary when someone is promoting hate and violence towards a certain race, and they do it openly. The United States is where I love playing music, and I can see that my crowd is so diverse. Music can reach everyone and people from different walks of life, so its very unfortunate to see a cultural divide stemming from Trump's campaign. I just hope people think, like, What kind of environment do you want your children to live in? That the only way for peace—by promoting and supporting love and respect towards each other, and his message does not even come close to that. A nation is lot stronger when we stand together.