Self-described as "a cross between Mary Poppins and Coldplay," Yuna is a 25-year-old Malaysian singer-songwriter whose soulful yet simple music is perfect soundtrack for basking on balmy summer nights. Simply put, her chill self-titled debut is a deeply refreshing addition to America's musical landscape.
Some of the biggest names in the industry have already recognized her potential. Producer Pharrell Williams worked on her first U.S. single, "Live Your Life," and earlier this year she performed at one of Hot97's Who's Next? Live concert showcases.
Complex caught up with the guitar-playing beauty, who's currently prepping for tonight's show at NYC's Highline Ballroom with tourmates Graffiti6, to talk about her musical influences, being embraced by the hip hop community and why she was in awe of playing in Milwaukee.
Interview by Tara Aquino (@t_akino)
You've cited Coldplay, Bob Dylan, Feist as influences. How were you introduced to those bands?
Back home, in the beginning, I remember I was into English music because my dad listened to a lot of '70s rock music. I think that was my first exposure to English music. And when I grew up in the 90s, I listened to a lot of The Cardigans, Fiona Apple, Garbage. Also, I had a lot of friends who were into music as well. We also have the Internet. [Laughs.] That’s probably why I got to listen to indie acts like Feist. MySpace music was really huge back then, so that’s how I discovered most of it.
I heard that you didn’t really start playing music until later in life, when you were in law school.
Yeah! I’ve always been singing all my life but I started playing guitar when I was 19, and that was my final year in university, in law school. I think that happened when I started making a lot of friends who were in the independent music scene. I had people that I could jam with and we would go to the studio and play music. Then I started writing songs and I started performing live gigs at jazz cafes. So yeah, that’s how I started. It was fun. I still had school, though, and I still had to graduate. I kind of had to juggle everything back then but it worked out.
Was music something you didn’t really consider as career choice? Or was law school just the back-up plan?
I didn’t take music seriously in the beginning. It just kind of a hobby to me. It was something that I love doing for fun. I think the turning point was when my song ["Deeper Conversation"] got onto the radio and it got a lot of airplay. Then when I started making money from my music, that’s when I thought that I could really focus on music full time.
Where do you get the inspiration for your lyrics?
Mainly I write about life—very direct stuff. I don’t put out really poetic songs. I’m a very simple girl. I think most of the songs have a lot to do with what I’ve gone through at university and in relationships—kind of all the normal stuff people go through. But I’ve been traveling a lot and I get inspired just from seeing new things and meeting new people. I love traveling and I guess that’s part of the reason. Whenever I write a new song, it always happens when I come back from Europe or Egypt or something like that. It’s always from travelling.
After getting signed, it seems like what really rooted you to the U.S. was your collaboration with Pharrell. How did that come about?
When I got signed to the FADER Label, they got really excited about having me as their new artist. They were promoting my music everywhere. Pharrell was one of the producers who wanted to work with me so I was really lucky to be one of those people who got to work with him. I think he heard some songs from my EP [Decorate] and he loved it. We worked on a couple of tracks. It was something new to me. I was really excited to be able to work with him even though I wasn’t really into hip-hop or urban music. But it’s cool, though. I was able to open up to new ideas and working with him expanded my style. Now, I am able to work with anybody in the music industry.
Yeah and going off of that, you’re really being embraced by the hip hop world. You worked with Pharrell, Russell Simmons praises you on Twitter and Hot 97 invited you to perform on a live showcase. What do you think about being embraced by this other genre?
[Laughs.] I think it’s great because I come from a very jazz-acoustic background—very singer-songwriter stuff. But when the hip-hop scene is really embracing my music, it’s pretty cool. I never expected this to happen. Especially when I was doing this album, I just wanted to produce a really fun, easygoing pop record. But when I found out that even people who love hip-hop music could relate to it, I felt like “Wow. OK, this is really cool.” Honestly, all I wanted was for people to relate to it. I don’t care if it’s people who like rock music or hip-hop. If you enjoy my music, it’ll make me really happy.
Have you been approached about more cross-genre collaborations?
Of course. Definitely in the future, I would like to work with more experimental producers and see what we could come up with. I would love to work with Damon Albarn. I think it would be interesting. [Laughs.]
This is your first U.S. tour. How’s that been going?
It’s kind of scary because I didn’t grow up here, I didn’t go to school here, I don’t know what people like out here, but I’m just here being myself and making my own music and seeing if people are going to like it or not.
I’ve never toured before. Never in my life. Considering people just think that, “Oh, she’s a star from Malaysia. She’s a singer and she must be familiar to this. She must have done this a lot of times.” But honestly, I’ve never done touring where I’m performing every day. It’s crazy to me. When I found out I was going to perform every night or every other night, I was like, “Oh my God, how do I do this?” But it’s fun. So far, it’s been going really well. I have good friends with me on this tour. Touring with Graffiti6 is a lot of fun. They’re nice guys and really good musicians. Every night, after I go on, we would just stay back and enjoy their music. Touring is really tiring but I get to travel and see America for the first time, so it’s really cool.
What’s the coolest thing you’ve experienced so far on this tour?
Probably meeting fans. For example, I was in Milwaukee—I had never been to Milwaukee before—and I have a friend there, so I thought she was the only person that was going to show up. But there were a couple of other kids who knew about my music, which was crazy because I’m just this girl from Malaysia and we had all these kids that actually listen to me that are from Milwaukee. It’s really cool, you know? Then we went to Detroit, then Cleveland and people just tweeted me and said, “Oh, I’m coming to your show! I love your music!” And it’s just so funny when you get to meet them. I start asking like, “How did you find out about my music?” Then I end up interviewing them. [Laughs.] It’s cool that I get to know my fans and know what they like and see what they want more of from me in the future.
How are you responding to all this attention in America?
[Laughs.] I don’t feel famous at all or anything like that. To me, I’ve just been out making music. The most important thing, when you have fans, is to make sure you don’t feel like you’re famous or popular. I just feel like, “Oh my God, it’s happening. My music is finally getting somewhere.” I just feel happy that people could enjoy my music, you know? It’s kind of scary because I didn’t grow up here, I didn’t go to school here, I don’t know what people like out here, but I’m just here being myself and making my own music and seeing if people are going to like it or not. And people like it, so I just feel relieved and now I just want to work harder from that point.
What can people expect when they come to one of your shows?
[Laughs.] Good music, I guess. I just want to show them that I can actually perform live. You know what I mean? [Laughs.] Because it’s so important for people to know that you can perform live.