Malaysian singer-songwriter Yuna makes unapologetically catchy and confident music for all. Her soul-tinged pop has made her both a global star and a role model for young girls.
Yuna is an internationally famous singer and songwriter. She is the first Malaysian performer to be nominated for a BET Award and the first to reach the top 10 of the Billboard R&B charts.
Born Yunalis binti Mat Zara’ai in 1986 in Alor Setar, Malaysia, she began writing songs when she was 14. She initially came to widespread attention thanks to her strong following on social media site MySpace. By the time she graduated from university with a legal studies degree, she had released two EPs, performed at venues around Malaysia, and appeared on a TV talent show.
Her first album, Decorate (2010), was picked up by a US label in 2011 and released as an EP. Yuna’s self-titled 2012 LP reached number 19 on the Billboard Heatseekers album charts. Her critically acclaimed 2016 album Chapters included her best-known song, the hit single “Crush” featuring Usher. She released Rouge, her fourth album in the United States and seventh overall, in 2019.
Yuna operated a fashion boutique in Kuala Lumpur from 2014 to 2018. She collaborated with designer Hatta Dolmat on a clothing line in 2017.
Today the Malaysian singer-songwriter Yuna is a bonafide international pop star, who has sold millions of records around the globe. In the US, where she has a more modest following, she can still fill a room and has attracted the attention of many R&B and pop A-listers. Her music has also been a huge presence in countless TV & film soundtracks, an H&M ad campaign, and even the in-game radio station in Grand Theft Auto Five.
All this because one afternoon, more than a decade ago, a girl from a modest country on the edge of Southeast Asia was brave enough to put pen to paper.
Yuna: I never used to write songs before, I think I was like 19 when I wrote my first song and it was just like, I was determined, I remember just being like, “Okay I’m gonna write a song today. I don’t know how but we’re gonna try and do this today.”
When Yunalis binti Mat Zara’ai began songwriting and performing at open mics in Kuala Lumpur, it was all just good fun. Sure, she had always suspected that music could be life changing, but that was just a dream without a plan. And even if she gained a following in the Malaysian coffee house scene, Yuna stayed focused on studying law. On the assumption that she would follow her father, a high profile attorney and high court judge, into the family business. Instead her dad, a lifelong lover of western popular music, urged her to think bigger.
Yuna: He was really surprised that I could like, I was able to write my own stuff. So, I remember just like when I was doing music in the independent scene, he was excited.
AJC: Did he come to see you?
Yuna: Yeah yeah, he came and he would like watch me perform, and then I would tell him after a while you know like, I don’t think I’m gonna do this full-time, you know this is probably a phase. To me, I was just like I don’t know if I’m gonna you know, be able to generate income from this career. You know what I mean? He would just tell me like “oh you know you need to just like focus on this and you know try because you have this songwriting talent that not a lot of people can write songs so”
AJC: And that voice.
Yuna: You know he was really confident, he believed in me, I think, you know, and back then I was really young and I didn’t know, kinda like, I don’t know what I’m gonna do, maybe I’m just gonna be a lawyer or continue my studies you know, I wasn’t sure what to do with myself. But I love making music and to hear that from my dad. I’m glad I went through all that like, you know, I went to university, I worked really hard so I had that discipline. I feel like my parents raised me really well to just like focus on one thing and do really well in something and not to be a perfectionist but just to you know like, try as hard as you can. He understood, you know, music and as well as he understood the fact that you know I should be doing something that I love and I’m also the only child so I don’t know that’s probably why he’s a little bit you know, “you have to do something that you love,” so yeah, I was like, “Okay.” But I was thinking you know the other way, like I’m the only child I would need to like you know, take care of you guys in the future. But, yeah no, he was you know I feel maybe he just like had a hunch that I would do really well so.
By the time Yuna graduated college she was one of the biggest names in Malaysian pop. Her self-titled debut EP had earned her five Malaysian music award nominations and four trophies, including Best New Artist and Best Song for “Dan Sebenarnya.”
But Yuna wanted the world. She resisted local management offers in hopes of attracting a larger international audience. Soon she had more than a million streams on MySpace and earned the attention of US-based management company Indie Pop. In 2011, the 25 year-old signed with Fader and re-released her EP Decorate. Praise poured in.
Pharrell Williams produced the lead single off her debut album, then in 2013 multi-Grammy winning producer David Foster signed Yuna to Verve Music. In 2016 they released one of her most popular singles to date, “Crush”, a duet with the R&B singer Usher. It reached number 3 on the R&B/hip-hop charts and made her the first Malaysian artist to be nominated for a BET award.
But getting ahead in the hyper-competitive and often hyper-sexualized western music industry has not always been a smooth ride, especially for an observant, hijab-wearing Muslim woman like Yuna. Alternately picked apart for being either too conservative or not conservative enough, over the years she’s learned not to give too much consideration to what strangers think or say.
Yuna: Those things are normal, it’s not just me and I know like that I’m not the only person who’s going through this, you know like, there’s no point of like whining and thinking like, “Oh I have to go through this,” you know like, “People are judging me, blah blah blah,” you know, I don’t think about this kind of stuff that much because I have a lot of other things to, you know, focus on and, but I do take criticisms seriously when it comes to my music, you know and I learn from that and I listen to them. I wanna be better, I wanna be a better musician, but when it comes to the personal things and I know myself, I’m a big girl. So you know I, I know myself, I know where I stand, and–
AJC: And this is you, and this is the performer over here?
AJC: She’s not affected by anything bad that people say about this person?
Yuna: Oh yeah, no, I mean, it is what it is, like there will always be people, when you’re like in the public eye obviously you know you get like, a lot of hits for whatever, it doesn’t have to be me it could be you know, it could be another American singer, it’s just how it is.
Yuna prides herself on being a strong, independent woman young fans can look up to. Her 2013 song “Rescue” was celebrated as a feminist anthem, though Yuna doesn’t think of it that way. She was, she says, just trying to capture the spirit of the women she models herself after. Chief among them, her mother Datin, a retired high school chemistry teacher, who is now Yuna’s business partner in a terrarium shop.
Yuna: My mom is the strongest person I know, she has gone through so much. You know, she’s so wonderful and she’s always helping out people, you know, she doesn’t think about herself, like she doesn’t think about money, she doesn’t think about, you know, what she would have to sacrifice for anything, for her family, for the people that she loves, you know and so yeah I mean yeah she’s the strongest person I know. I feel like, I’m probably, I’m not even half the person she is so, yeah. I grew up…that.
Yuna’s confidence is evident in the bold yet modest fashion sense that has made her an international style icon. For several years she ran a boutique in Kuala Lumpur, called November Culture. Then, in 2017, she collaborated with Malaysian designer Hatta Dolmat on a clothing line. Today, she’s signed with the renowned Wilhelmina modeling agency, and is a front row regular at high end fashion shows. Still, songwriting remains her most powerful form of expression.
AJC: I’ve heard Randy Newman say that if he was all the characters in the songs he’s written he’d be a crazy man by now. How much of what you write is written from you?
AJC: some of it is messages to other people, but there’s there’s a lot of ‘I’ language in there as well.
Yuna: I get inspiration from a lot of things. Sometimes it’s, it’s, you know based on my personal experience, but sometimes, you know whenever I have a conversation with my friends or, you know, whenever I read books or when I watch films, you know these are like things that are not necessarily made up but based on something that’s real, you know? So normally it’s like that. I think, I feel like maybe 50% or like 60% of the songs are, you know, mine, but 40% probably, you know based on something that, you know. There’s a lot of dramatization that goes into songwriting, you know? Like you’re telling a story.
AJC: Some of them sound like you’re giving advice to others about what you’ve experienced. Sort of, “don’t make the same mistake I made.” Is there some of that in there?
Yuna: Maybe a little bit. I don’t know, probably when, you know, whenever I write songs about relationships. But I don’t know, it depends, like sometimes I feel like, okay I’m going to write something, you know, very uplifting today. Like something for the younger girls, you know, like for example, like I, I feel for them, you know, like for example, like the younger girls in Malaysia I know they are like very shy and timid, and they’re like scared to travel the world and see the world. And I just want them to, you know, like be inspired by these things and not in a preachy way, but in a fun way like telling them, “Oh, go see the world.” Or, you know, like, “Don’t be afraid, go after your dreams and be fun, be special.”
In Malaysia, Yuna is a national treasure. In Los Angeles, where she now lives with husband Adam Sinclair, she’s a talented and well-respected songwriter but not a household name, yet. Her fourth album, 2019’s Rouge, peaked at number 18 on the Billboard Hot 100, but she has no desire to return to a smaller pond. Number one hits or no, Yuna has managed to build a devoted fan base that has been tuning in for her in-home concerts. But perhaps most serendipitously, 2020 also saw the perfectly-timed release of a previously-shelved song, “Stay Where You Are.” It became a soundtrack of solidarity for fans around the world who submitted videos holding signs with her lyrics. And so even in isolation Yuna continues to create community, a testament to her remarkable music making and to her steadfast commitment to the values that have gotten her here.