Yuna Talks Reinvention, Recruiting Usher and Repping for Malaysia
Yuna has firmly established herself as one of the more impressive singer-songwriters of the last decade. Having become a star in her native Malaysia and debuting in the States in 2011 with "Live Your Life," and dropping her debut album a year later, the 29-year old has been a critical darling for nearly five years. But as a fixture in contemporary dream pop, she knew she'd be taking a sharp detour when work began on her latest album, Chapters.
"I really just meddled with a sound--R&B and hip-hop beats," she says regarding her previous flirtations with a more R&B-centric sound. "It wasn’t like a full-on R&B album. I went on tour and I got to see my friends who were into more of the urban-sounding tracks. I really wanted to work with [production team] Fisticuffs--they worked with Jhene [Aiko] and Miguel--I just wanted to go all out in the R&B direction and not hold back anymore.
"I feel like my previous albums I really wanted to try it but I was really shy and wasn’t really sure if people were going to like it. This time i wanted to just do an R&B album."
Chapters features the hit singles "Lane" and "Crush," a duet with Usher, and showcased a decidedly more "urban" voice for Yuna. And she knew some listeners would be apprehensive of a new approach.
"There’s definitely pressure," she admits. "Because I’ve been doing music for ten years and I have fans that have known me since the very beginning of my music career. I was known for literally doing just acoustic sets in small cafes. So moving towards this direction and I worried that people would think I wasn’t being true to myself. But what is ‘myself?’"
She's grateful for fans who are wiling to ride with her on this musical journey, regardless of any twists and turns. And she's quick to remind anyone that her songs are her songs.
"I write all of my songs and I don’t put out anything that I don’t feel 100 percent comfortable with," she says assuredly. "But I think I’m old enough and wise enough to disregard what other people are saying about what I’m doing. I just want it to be real and honest and something I can be proud of and that’s what I got on this album."
And she also got to work with R&B superstar Usher; a move that she concedes would've seem awkward earlier in her career.
"Before, if I would think of getting Usher on my tracks or Jhene Aiko, that [would seem] very unrealistic because it’s like 'Yuna has a folky sound.' This time around, I tried to be very candid. So when I wrote 'Crush' I was like ‘we need a male vocalist’ and I wanted Usher--so I went for it.
"I’ve been an Usher fan for a long, long time. But if I was still doing what I was doing ten years ago, it would be kind of ridiculous to be like ‘Oh, I want Usher on this track.’ But now it makes sense. It’s just me going with my gut feeling. Like ‘let’s do an R&B album and I want Usher to be on it.’ I’m really glad that my label and my management are respectful of my opinions and my ideas when it comes to making music and creating a sound for myself."
Yuna is marrying her new sound to her tried-and-true belief in connecting with her fans. Her music is reaching audiences that may have missed her before, but she's present and engaged with anyone who is listening.
"I do Snapchat and stuff," she says. "I feel like that way they can also know that I’m human. I don’t want to be one of those people who’s idolized or like some kind of icon. I don’t really enjoy that. [This] is a way for me to show that I’m just a normal human. People tend to forget that and just take you as some celebrity. Social media helps to visualize that relationship between you and the fans and I like maintaining a connection to the fans. I’m big on social media, I’m on Snapchat, Instagram and Twitter—I tweet."
Her belief in the community of musicians and fans is rooted in her own background and the strength of her community in Malaysia. Yuna is a strong advocate for maintaining ties and nurturing a support system--as they nurture you. She uses her own successful international career as an example of how leaning on others can push anyone forward.
"It shows people that no matter who you are, if you have a dream, you can work pretty hard and realize it," she says of her success in the States. "You can actually make it happen. But it takes a lot of work and it takes the right attitude. I didn’t grow up in America, but coming from a small country, I learned how to grow from home. And just like, you need the support from people back home and the people around you—family and friends. It’s important to show people that you care for people around you. I think that’s important in life. When it come out here and tell people I’m Malaysian, I get this ‘how did she get here?’ I went through a lot of things. I didn’t just get here. I really worked my way up to be out here, but also I’ve got a support system back home. Friends back home are really rooting for me."
And she's undoubtedly making them proud as she's made her dreams come true. Critical acclaim, recording with Pharrell, working with Usher; it's a career of highs for Yuna. When she reflects on over ten years as a recording artist, she acknowledges that she didn't take the time to allow much of her experience to soak in as she lived it.
"Sometimes when you get into music, people disregard living in the moment," she explains. "If I was able to go back in time, I would really just be in the moment. Like being in the studio with Pharrell--I wish I was more present at the time instead of being so…y’know."
"Now I know that [with] everything, you have to take your time and enjoy it and the experience is priceless when it comes to creating something," says Yuna. "It’s nice if you get to remember it all."