Esquire Malaysia, April 2013
Malaysia’s indie-pop darling is making waves over in the US, but she didn’t set out to be groundbreaking or cool. She just is.
Words by Sophia Goh
Thousands of aspiring youngsters move to Los Angeles every year, hoping to catch a break as a model, singer or actor. Yuna Zarai is one of the very few who have succeeded. The fact that she’s Malaysian is just another way she’s breaking the mould for artists in this region.
By her own admission, things have been going great. She worked with Pharrell Williams on her well-received debut US album Yuna, the PS22 Chorus covered her single “Live Your Life”, and influential celebrity blogger Perez Hilton has made no secret of being a huge fan.
More recently, a song she recorded with Owl City, “Shine Your Way”, was featured on the soundtrack for The Croods, and she’s inked a coveted deal with Verve Music Group, which is led by the David Foster. To put it another way, she is now label-mates with Diana Krall and Andrea Bocelli.
Set to release an EP any day now, Yuna’s also begun recording her next album, and has been working with the guitarist of the Grammy-nominated band Incubus, Mike Einziger, who she confesses left her star struck when they first met.
“I’m a huge Incubus fan. I went to all of their shows in Malaysia, and I would always be right in front at the corner where Mike usually stands. It’s been really great to work with him, and not to boast about it or anything, but now we’re actually friends. It’s really cool to go from being a fan to friends.
“Sometimes I don’t get it when people get all dramatic about Yuna, and when you don’t get that, you’re not nice to your fans. Because you think, I’m just a normal person, stop acting that way. But when you’re put in the same position, you understand. When I met Mike, a guy who has been my idol for a long time, it was a very humbling experience.”
Behind the star persona, the real Yuna is actually shy and reserved. While she likes meeting new people, she’s often on her own and thinking of creative ways to make new music. Her current obsession is home décor and interior design, now that she’s living on her own for the first time.
“I always thought it would be impossible for me to live alone. I was kind of surprised that I was brave enough to do everything on my own and be independent. I’m an only child and I always travel alone, but this is a little bit different because when you’re working with people, you need to have a strong identity.” She laughs. “I have to say I’m really proud of myself.”
She credits Pharrell with giving her the best songwriting advice she’s received so far. “At first, I couldn’t really open up to new ideas or open myself up to strangers when I was writing. He told me, ‘Don’t think, just do whatever you want and say whatever is on your mind.’”
His words struck a chord with the 26-year-old, who admits she struggled with the fame, the attention, and yes, the negative energy from naysayers that often comes with success, when she first started. To that end, Yuna, who came out of a two-year relationship with local TV personality Qi Razali last year, notes that not everything she writes is based on personal experience. Sometimes, she admits, it can be difficult to express what she’s really feeling on a personal level. In song, she is smooth, melodious, almost haunting at some points. Her voice grabs on and draws you in, but there’s more to her music than that. Beneath her easy, acoustic sound, you can’t help but sense that there is something more… substantial.
Talk to her long enough, and you’ll discover a quiet strength and determination to make a difference that belies her soft-spoken demeanour and ready laugh. “I’ve always wanted to do something more,” she confides. “Being an artist can be a really superficial job even though it’s fun. I’m talking to people about my clothes and my music, but we’re real people too, and we care about serious stuff.”
With “One Woman”, a song launched by UN Women in conjunction with International Women’s Day, Yuna got to give back. Being one of 25 artists from 20 countries around the world who collaborated on the track gave her an opportunity to talk about women’s rights and violence against women. “Working with UN Women to increase awareness about women and violence is something I could totally understand because in Malaysia, we live in a society where some women are afraid to speak out when they suffer domestic violence,” she says.
“I’ve never experienced something like that, thank goodness, but I know people who have, and I can see myself working with UN Women to create awareness and educate people about women’s rights.”
Did we mention she’s also a law graduate? Yuna may seem like a groundbreaker in many ways, but really, she’s just being herself. “I never thought of it as I’m going to do something different to be cool. I just wanted to do something different for me.”
A pause. “I guess I’m really lucky that there are people out there who want to do similar things, whether it’s a career in music or anything else, but I’ve never thought about myself that way.”