By Kendah El-Ali; photo by Zel-Atif Ishak on March 8, 2012
The first time I met Yuna was a year ago at a dinner at Satsko, an East Village sake bar. I made a mental note to watch my behavior. My name reveals me for the (non-practicing) Muslim I am, and I was about to meet a Malaysian singer-songwriter whose devotion to our mutual faith leaves her happy to pray five times a day and cover her head with a scarf. I usually have no memory of leaving Satsko. It’s that kind of place.
A stunning young woman chassed through the door. Most of the restaurant paused as she giggled and pulled her Doc Martens up into our booth. Her doe-eyed beauty was alarming; I made apologies through my wine glass for being a poor representation of Islam. Yuna smiled and told me to chill out.
“I’ve been staying in this neighborhood, isn’t it quite fun?” she asked.
“Sure,” I replied, unsure of what a devout Muslim girl really gets into in a neighborhood known widely for its drug history and vast selection of bars. Yuna’s presence and pretty face are enough to stop time, yet there’s something unbelievably familiar and positive about her. It’s almost impossible to be unhappy in her company.
Flash-forward to December’s MTV Iggy Awards. This time, I met Yuna in the bathroom of her dressing room. She was a top-five finalist for the global music award show’s Best New Band accolade and was also performing. Since our meeting at the sake bar, she had cut an LP on Fader Label, working with the likes of Pharrell Williams and Chris Braide. The awards she’s won in Malaysia are numerous.
When asked how she feels about the past year of her life, moving from widespread fame in her native country to working with renowned producers Stateside, she simply replies, “I just want to create, to be honest!
“I’m just a kid from Malaysia, you know,” she continues, “But when I hear that some girl from San Diego can relate to my music, it never ceases to amaze me. After the whole 9/11 thing, it’s tricky to just jump into the music scene here. I’m just doing what I can to stay positive. So far, I’ve gotten a huge amount of support. Music breaks the barrier, I think. It really is borderless.”
Yuna’s voice is widely compared to that of Feist. A mix of sultry and smooth, her sound has a distinct healing quality that disarms listeners. Led by her guitar, the music of her songs is befittingly soothing and lovely. An unlikely match for a producer who brought the world both N.E.R.D. and “Rump Shaker,” her collaboration with Williams, “Live Your Life,” is set to be the album’s single.
“It’s funny: When I was told Pharrell was interested in working with me, I was like, ‘The Pharrell?’” she says, giggling, while simultaneously stressing out over her choices in wardrobe. Yuna, like Williams, is passionate about fashion. “Obviously, his style is very different than mine, so the fact that we came up with something like ‘Live Your Life’ is really exciting. I can’t wait to share it with my fans.”
The result is a breezy, solid and gorgeous pop song. A recent cover of Nirvana’s “Come As You Are” somehow manages to successfully come across the same way in her care. Much like their creator, the tracks are hard not to love.
Yuna was born Yunalis Zarai and, raised in the Subang Jaya district of Kuala Lumpur, began her music career during her final year of law school. After a string of small, local shows, her fans asked for an EP. “That was four years ago. It was a turning point for me, though,” she says while trimming fringe off a scarf. “I decided to make music for real, full-time. I graduated but I have yet to pursue a career in law. I’m happy I made that choice, and I’m happy I am where I am now.”
While considerably few musicians have never drunk alcohol, far fewer cover their heads and even fewer have managed to launch a successful music career from one of the world’s least creative fields of study. But Yuna, it seems, defies most expectations with her wit and simplicity.
“I was obsessed with computers and technology when I was young. I was into building websites when I was 13 and built the HTML codes and everything,” she said. “I grew up knowing all these things about social networking. So when my music was out, I had an advantage of knowing how to market my music and myself.”
Beyond winning the ears and hearts of people the world over, Yuna also owns a “cute, but affordable” boutique in Subang Jaya, called IAMJETFUELshop. “It’s always been my dream to have a store, so it feels great to do it in my hometown,” she says.
Between her store and her busy music schedule, it’s hard to find the time to pray all five times a day. “I do pray every day, though,” she says. When asked how Islam intersects with an unlikely career in pop music, Yuna shouts, “Wow! I still have no idea what to wear!” adding a moment later, “I’m obviously from a very different background than most [musicians]. But this is my identity. This is who I am. I’m sure it’s unusual to an American audience to see a [covered] woman, but it’s even uncommon in Malaysia. But there still are girls like me, who are conservative—but cool—like me. I try and find a balance.” F
3 albums that inspired Yuna to make music
After listening to “Fix You” for the first time, I immediately knew every word. It just shows how a song can be a part of you forever.
Feist made me believe it’s possible to produce raw, lo-fi records. She has simple, honest songs and sings them as if she’s speaking to someone. She made me want to learn how to make music with my guitar.
The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill
Lyrically, my biggest influence. I started writing poems and [rhymes] after listening to this when I was 13. Her songwriting is so intense. I understood every word she sang. I felt it.