Getting ready to perform at the Glass House in Pomona in February, Yuna Zarai swaps her casual turban for a shimmery black one, and adds a sequin vest, maxi skirt and chain-link necklaces.
Onstage, her black-and-gold ensemble twinkles beneath the stage lights, and each time she announces her next song, the audience goes wild.
Of her fans in America, “There are always the well-dressed hijabi girls,” the 27-year-old pop singer-songwriter says. “But then there are also the hip-hoppers and Asian-American boys.”
As Yuna, she's a household name in her native Malaysia. Since moving to Los Angeles from Kuala Lumpur three years ago, she's been doing her best to win over American fans of all demographics. It hasn't been easy, and so far she's had only a minor hit, 2012's “Live Your Life,” featuring Pharrell.
She certainly looks like a star – thin and modelesque, with a commanding stage presence. Covered from head to toe, however, her modesty is certainly unique in the American pop realm.
Growing up in the northern city of Alor Setar, she was raised in a Muslim family, and her guitar-playing father encouraged her love of music. She downplays her conservative background and speaks of music as the universal language. Indeed, she learned English by listening to American singer-songwriters such as Lauryn Hill and Fiona Apple, and began writing songs as a teenager – mostly in English.
Yuna began making a name for herself in music in the mid-aughts while studying law at university. As her fame grew, Malaysian media grew obsessed with her. “I wasn't trained to be in front of a camera, so there were a lot of challenges at first,” she says. “But I didn't want to be fake.”
Before long, the folks at Indie-Pop Music, an L.A.-based management company, sought to bring her voice to global audiences. “We found her music online, and we knew right away that she was uber-talented,” says Indie-Pop's CEO Ben Willis, who eventually flew to Malaysia to meet her. “She's going to change the game, not just musically but culturally.”
Since 2011, Yuna been living in downtown Los Angeles, where she secluded herself for months to record her fourth album, Nocturnal, which brought hip-hop, R&B and electronic beats to her pop/soul sound, and was released by Verve Records last fall.
Though one of her new songs, “Lights and Camera,” is about the pressures of fame, she rarely gets recognized in the United States, which she counts as a blessing. “I try to look at people like Adele and Norah Jones, who are very successful but don't have to deal with scandals.”
Music is not her only ambition. Yuna is passionate about fashion and recently launched a clothing line, featuring chic yet modest turtleneck maxi dresses, head scarfs and wide-legged jumpsuits, full of sparkles, bold metallics and colorful prints.
Her clothes embody her philosophy – to bring her heritage to the world. She mentions a song on her new album, “Rescue,” which features a Malaysian folk-music beat. “But it sounds pop, so not everyone can hear it,” she says. A new twist on tradition; that's Yuna in a nutshell.