Malaysian-born, Los Angeles-based artist Yuna has always embraced the power of the pivot


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Malaysian-born, Los Angeles-based artist Yuna has always embraced the power of the pivot

Malaysian-born, Los Angeles-based artist Yuna has never been afraid to start over—her music career actually began when she pivoted to songwriting after completing a law degree. In 2006, she auditioned for Malaysia’s talent competition One in a Million, but was eliminated. Shortly after, she uploaded her song ‘Dan Sebenarnya’ to MySpace anonymously, hoping that her audience would find her. They did: the song got over one million streams and became a launchpad for her career, landing her Best New Artist and Best Pop Song at the Malaysian Music Awards. At the height of her fame in Malaysia, she pivoted yet again, deciding to move to Los Angeles to try her hand at the US market.

Five albums later, Yuna continues to blur the lines between folk, pop, and R&B, reinventing herself with every project she releases. Now counting the likes of Pharrell, Usher, and Jhené Aiko among her collaborators, and with fans all over the world, she’s come a long way from making music in the shadows of the internet. Nevertheless, “I still feel like that girl in Malaysia making music from her laptop,” she says.

In line with her A COLORS SHOW performance of “Glory,” we spoke to Yuna about the power of the pivot, being an emerging artist during the rise of social media, and how the industry fails international acts.

What’s your first musical memory?

When I was a kid, my dad got a black BMW with a CD player. He only had two CDs in it— one was by a rock band, and the other was by Paula Abdul. She was the first artist’s name that I remembered as a kid. She had this really huge song called ‘Opposites Attract’, and the music video for it featured an animated dog. It was really upbeat and funky. I grew up with a lot of funk and pop in the 90s.

You auditioned for a lot of singing contests growing up. What were some of the lessons you learnt from this experience that have stuck with you?

The biggest lesson I learned from those auditions was not to be afraid of rejection. That has brought me really far in life. Of course you’re going to fail a bunch of times. A lot of people can feel very defeated by that. Sometimes, one rejection can make you feel like that’s it. For me, auditioning was practice for things I’ve had to experience later in life, like going to label meetings and being told no. I don’t take it personally. I’ll just take my “thing” somewhere else. 

Do you think rejection ever informed how you approached making music? 

When I first started making music back in Malaysia, I had a huge local fan base. I was the biggest young artist in Malaysia. It was very overwhelming to deal with the fame. I hadn’t been trained to handle it, I just wrote a song, it became huge, and I started performing everywhere. I came up at the beginning of the social media era. A lot of the comments I received on Facebook and YouTube were constructive criticism. I tried not to take them personally, and instead think about how they could add to the quality of my music. I’m constantly learning and constantly exploring how to make music in new ways. I strive to be someone who is always evolving.

At that time, social media was much more community based. From a fan’s perspective, there was a novelty with MySpace—you felt like you were putting your followers on to a song you loved when they visited your page. Now, social media feels very saturated. As a result, some people no longer treat artists like they’re human.

That’s spot on. After the pandemic, I felt like I was searching for myself again. What do I want to do? How can I exist in the social media world when I’m not built for it? I’m not a TikTok star. As an independent artist, how can I still cater to my audience? I started a subscription-based club for my fans, who call themselves Yunationals, where they get to see behind-the-scenes footage. It’s a different way of sharing instead of putting everything on YouTube and having hundreds of thousands of people critique everything that I do. My real fans don’t say these things, so I decided to start a community on my website and on Discord. It’s great for my mental health.

“I’m constantly learning and constantly exploring how to make music in new ways. I strive to be someone who is always evolving.”

When I think about women songwriters, particularly those from marginalized groups, so much of their writing has to disrupt what we are told in society. Do you feel like you get a lot of pushback from your songs that disrupt how people typically speak about Muslim women? 

I got a lot of support from the Muslim community, because they see this as an act of bravery. They’re like: “Wow, she’s actually talking about having a boyfriend?” I’m married now, but I’m still talking about real feelings. Muslim women aren’t robots. Girls from the Muslim community appreciate me drawing attention to that. I approach my writing as a real person, rather than thinking: “What should I say as a Muslim woman?” You shouldn’t be too calculated when you’re writing songs.

As a writer myself, I know that it can be difficult to articulate emotions that society hasn’t given you space to fully process. 

It’s important to me to continue writing like I’m that 18-year-old girl in her bedroom and no one knows what I’m doing. When I first moved to America, I tried to write a love song. I had a very traumatic break-up with my ex-boyfriend at the time, and I wanted to write about it, but at the time I wasn’t sure whether I should put personal experiences into my music. Fifty percent of me wanted to write about it, the other half thought I shouldn’t.

This feeling is rooted in generational trauma from the women in my family and my community. They’re always thinking: “What will people say?” In Malaysia, a lot of people are more unhappy with the way I dress than they are with my music. For over ten years, the biggest issue people have had with me is that I don’t cover my neck.

You found a lot of success in the Malaysian market. Did you have any apprehension about moving to L.A. and starting over in a market where nobody knew you?

I had bigger dreams. In Malaysia, I was getting hired by all of these big brands to be the face of their companies. I knew that pursuing that route was an option, but it wasn’t what I really wanted in life. I wanted my English music to be heard. I asked lots of labels to help me push my music overseas, but they were only interested in catering to the Malaysian music industry. I had more English songs on my laptop than Malaysian songs. They were all really good, but no one was giving me that chance. I knew I had to try relocating or I would regret it for the rest of my life. Starting over for me just meant having new experiences. It was a risk I was willing to take. 

You’ve experimented a lot with your style. How did you find the R&B sound you’ve settled on now? 

A lot of the songs from my US debut album were produced by Pharrell. It was such a breath of fresh air, because I was used to working with my rock band in Malaysia. Trying to bring them into the lush-pop, R&B world was just not happening. Deep inside I wanted to do something that was the perfect balance of pop and R&B. When I went to the studio with Pharrell, he gave me the soundtrack to my song ‘Live Your Life’. It was the sound I’ve always wanted.

“International artists are just sharing their culture. We’re not making global music, we’re making our music.”

Tell me about the song you performed for COLORS. 

In 2017, I was in Berlin for a show. I got invited to do COLORS but I wasn’t able to perform. I was so bummed. When the opportunity came back around, I started digging through all of the songs I had been working on. I’ve started working with this producer, Sweater Beats, who is really keen to work with more AAPI artists. We’ve created a lot of really cool songs, but the one I really love is ‘Glory’, which I performed for COLORS. It’s about being fully supportive of your partner. My partner and I are each other’s cheerleaders.

It’s fitting that you have a COLORS performance since you write about color a lot in your music. You said in an interview that you were feeling red when you wrote the track ‘Rouge’, and your album ‘Y5’ features a track titled ‘Pantone 17 13 30.’ What color do you feel like now?

Purple. It’s a calm color for me.

What are your thoughts on how the music industry handles international acts? International markets are so different, but tend to get lumped together as “global” artists. 

International artists are just sharing their culture—the music is the culture. They’ve grown up dancing to that music. We’re not making global music, we’re making our music.

Yuna is a Malaysian-born, Los Angeles-based artist whose debut A COLORS SHOW dropped on 7th September 2023. You can watch the full performance on our YouTube channel.

Text: Kristin Corry
Videography: Kai Chase-Meares
Video Editing: Katia Fisenko


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