Born and raised in Malaysia, singer-songwriter Yuna, known for her smooth, sultry vocals in the pop space, has turned into an international star. It was at age 19 when she began writing songs, eventually moving to Los Angeles at age 22 — a decision she credits to sparking her entire music career.
She says, “Being out here is like ‘oh wow, I’m really doing it’.” She soon realized what the life of a singer entailed, getting her feet wet with everything from recording to touring. While she gets on stage to entertain thousands at a time, she admits to being shy, but also very creative. Beyond the music, she loves fashion and clothes — the latter of which she has a lot of.
When Yuna enters the room, you notice. Her signature turban is paired with an angelic aura and humility that turns you into an instant fan without even hearing the music. Now in 2019, she prepares for her forthcoming project Rouge, with standout features from Tyler, The Creator, G-Eazy, and Little Simz.
L.A. WEEKLY: How would you describe your sound?
I’m a huge pop fan. I listen to everything pop-rock, R&B pop, or hip-hop matched with pop. Growing up, the early 2000s was my favorite era for music because everything was meshed with pop and it was so good. I try to bring that into my music a little bit. Even though I’m Malaysian, it’s like a late ’90s, 2000s sound. I’d call my sound lush pop. Someone mentioned it to me before.
You’re from Kuala Lumpur — how does that play into your career?
Coming from Kuala Lumpur, I’m pretty much a city girl. But at the same time, I also had an experience growing up not in the city. It’s kind of the outskirts of Malaysia, I used to live in a really small town up north somewhere on the border of Thailand and Malaysia for a couple years. That shaped me into the person and musician I am today. I had a lot of time on my hands because I was really bored. Started playing the guitar, listening to a lot of music, spending a lot of time online building websites and teaching myself how to do all of these things.
Coming from Malaysia, I was really lucky. I grew up being exposed to a lot of different cultures and races. I was familiar not just American music, but Bollywood, the Hong Kong music scene, Japanese music, Korean music, even Korean TV dramas. They always came with music, I’d know all of the songs. I was really exposed to a lot of different types of music.
How important is it to come to L.A. as an up and coming artist?
L.A. is creative hub for all musicians. Everybody knows that. If you know, you know. You get to work with people who are just like you. They call it transplants, people who move from wherever like the Netherlands or Sweden. They produce, they write. That’s your family when you come to L.A. and work with them. It’s a great place to be creative, constantly surrounded by creative people. Of course it’s easy to get lost in the sauce, you have to really know who you are. Know your roots.
What is your favorite part of the West Coast?
Obviously the weather. I love Malibu and the beach, something I recently discovered. I’ve always known that part of Malibu, but I never used to drive. A few years ago, I got my driver’s license and that was so liberating. Omg, I get to go to Malibu whenever I want. Every season is so different, but it’s always beautiful. It’s so different from what I’m used to back home.
“Crush” with Usher has 71 million views on YouTube alone…
Really? Wow, didn’t know that. Last time I checked, it was at 30 million.
What did that record do for your career?
Definitely got me more fans, fans who love Usher because Usher’s such a lovable person. You know why he’s Usher. Such a sweet guy. He works really hard, super talented. I’m so lucky I got to work with him. He’s also super supportive of the song. He believes in the song. It wasn’t one of those collaborations where you just work then it’s done, you never get on the stage together. I’ve been on stage with him twice, which is really cool. That definitely put me on the map. I just want more people listening to my songs. I wasn’t expecting any recognition or respect “ooh Yuna has a song with Usher,” it was just nice of him to share me with his fans.
You linked with G-Eazy previously on “Lights & Camera.” Talk about collaborating again on “Blank Marquee.”
It was a no-brainer. When I was writing “Blank Marquee,” it was such a cool funky song and G has such a fun personality on stage. He has that presence that you just enjoy watching perform. I thought it‘d be perfect for him to jump on the track because in my mind, I pictured him performing that song on stage. I’m like “you know what? I gotta have G on this, he’s so fun. He’ll make the song come alive.”
What can we expect from your forthcoming project Rouge?
More fun. This is very different from what I’m used to putting out. I used to put out a lot of super laid back, relaxing music. People put me in a box like “whatever she puts out is very soothing, very singer-songwriter,” but there’s different layers of Yuna you haven’t seen yet. I wanted to try something new. For example, I love Daft Punk. I love funk music. A couple songs like “Pink Youth” and “Blank Marquee” are super fun and funky.
Also having a lot of features on my album. That’s really a nice surprise that fans will enjoy. They didn’t know I’m capable of doing this: having rappers on my tracks. It’s really weird, like having Tyler The Creator on a record.
Can we talk about that? That’s so rare.
It’s very rare huh? My goal has always been: “I gotta get Tyler on a track.” I just didn’t know when because the first few records I have are very different. I’m like “uh it doesn’t make sense yet to have him on any of my songs, so let’s wait.” Then we found the right moment for “Cast Away.”
How did you connect with him?
Funny story, I was here actually [at Verve]. This was after trying to reach out to him for months and it didn’t work. They hadn’t announced IGOR yet, so they were really working on that. Probably weren’t even entertaining people. I parked my car, and he was just walking down the street. He was literally right here and I was just like “Tyler.” He’s like “yo Yuna, what’s up?”
He knew who you were?
We met before a couple times. I performed at Camp Flog Gnaw so he knows who I am. But I get it if you’re focused on your project. I’m just like “hey since you’re here, I have this song…” I was like “go ahead Yuna, just open your mouth and ask him.” I asked him, he’s like “sure, you have my number right?” I’m like “no I don’t!” We exchanged numbers, I immediately sent him the file, the lyrics, whatever he needed. I gave him everything.
I love that he’s on the intro too…
It’s so special because that kind of thing doesn’t happen. He sent it back. I just knew he would love the song. He’s like “I would love to do something here.”
Love the visual for “Pink Youth” with Little Simz. What inspired the concept?
I love her. “Pink Youth” is a girl power song I wrote. I’m a huge No Doubt fan, it was my version of “Just A Girl.” Whenever I listen to “Just A Girl,” I imagine Pink’s energy floating around. It’s trying to tell the world “you’re not ready for this ‘Pink Youth’,” the girls basically. Whenever I write music especially with uplifting songs, I picture the girls from my hometown. They’re very timid, very shy. They rarely think about leaving town to do something great. This song’s for them, telling them there’s more into life. If you feel you can do something great, just go for it. Because I didn’t get that kind of support, I had to really tell myself “you gotta go.” Besides my parents, no one was around to really tell me I need to do this, I need to pursue my music.
Why’s it important for you to work with Muslim musicians?
I guess my identity. Representation matters — it’s so important these days. I grew up not having a reference. This is my identity, do I have to sacrifice my identity or my belief for the music industry? Well, maybe not. We’ll see, let’s try it out and see what happens. It turns out it’s cool. It’s okay. People will still accept you for who you are. There’s a lot of assumptions you get yourself involved in that says you have to behave or look a certain way, and a lot of people are scared to steer away from that. For me, it was really important to be myself no matter what. Because as soon as you say “oh yeah I’ll do this” or “I’ll do that,” if you keep saying yes to everything, you start to become like anybody else. Keep something for yourself.
What are some goals yourself as an artist at this point of your career?
I want to keep on making music. I really want to be a touring musician where I’m able to perform. I love performing. The way I make music now, it’s so performance-based. You gotta have dancers, you gotta have production going on. I’m really excited about it. I want to keep on doing that as long as I can, keep making music. Grammys and everything else would be a bonus.
What can we expect from your forthcoming show at The Fonda?
It’s gonna be a lot of fun. I’m bringing a different show. I’m excited about this because I’m gonna have an all-girl band. It’s like my Beyonce moment! We have our dancers. It’s really different from what I’m used to, I’m so used to just me and my guitar. This time around, everything is beat-driven. It just needs movement in the show/performance. I don’t think fans are ready for that. A lot of energy and fun.
Anything else you’d like to let us know?
My single “Pink Youth” is out, I’m excited about that. Come to my show!
Yuna plays with Skylar Stecker at 9 p.m. on July 25th at The Fonda.