By Minna Zhou
It’s a Sunday afternoon in Minneapolis, and Yuna (née Yunalis Zarai) is backstage spinning in circles, singing along to “Your Love Is King.” This homey greenroom, she has decided, is her favorite one of the tour. With concert flyers as wallpaper, she indulges its library of vinyl containing Sade, Donna Summer, and Sergio Mendes. It feels surprisingly humble for an international pop act who can fill 3,000-capacity venues back home in Malaysia. But it also feels very Yuna, and not just because she’s posted this to her constantly updated Snapchat, but because it feels like she could be one of us.
The Malaysian-born, L.A.-based singer is halfway through her U.S. tour for Chapters, her third internationally released album and her best work to date. Her single “Crush,” featuring Usher, has been on the Adult R&B charts for a month, marking real success for the 29-year-old. Wearing a baggy Adidas sweater with coordinating sneakers and turban, Yuna leans in as she talks about the past two years of making this album. “Slowly, I was learning how to appreciate life and just the people around you, and your feelings as well,” she says softly. In conversation, as in her music, Yuna has a tendency to frame the personal in terms of the universal — which could feel trite except that her sincerity acts like a safeguard against that. “Appreciate your heart, really know how to take care of your heart.”
A mere five years ago, Yuna left Kuala Lumpur for L.A., having inked a deal for her international debut. Her sound then was something like quiet, breathy pop-folk — a little jazzy. But even then, she was flirting with R&B in subtle ways through collaborations with producers like Pharrell, who produced “Live Your Life” off her debut, YUNA, and “Lights and Camera” off her 2013 LP Nocturnal. Where YUNA was acoustic and folksy, Nocturnal was lush and pop-forward, an album that conjured wandering in the twilight hours before sunrise, longing for love. Chapters is the painful and wizened flip side of that, a tenderhearted breakup album, one that finds Yuna reinventing herself within the contexts of R&B and self-love.
“It’s like, ‘Yeah, I survived this — what’s next? Do I fall in love again?’” she explains. It’s a question she grapples with throughout Chapters and one that she enlisted a number of producers to help her flesh out, including DJ Premier and Fisticuffs (Miguel, Jhené Aiko). Yuna spent so much time listening to Aiko, in fact, that she eventually asked her to feature on her track “Used to Love You.” “She inspired me to kinda just be blunt, say it how it is, don’t hold back. My previous songs, I held back — I didn’t want to be too obvious or too open.”
Yuna reached back to her musical roots, to the record that inspired her to start writing in the first place, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. She was 13 or 14 at the time and writing rhymes every day. But, as she recounts in her song “Time,” when a cousin she was very close with passed away, it shook the family. They moved to a different city, and Yuna went through something of a rough patch, which she doesn’t have much to say about, except that it was “normal kid” antics, and it ended when she discovered live music. Not long after, as a freshman in college, she picked up the guitar and realized that she, too, could write her own songs. “I found a purpose in my life,” she states matter-of-factly. By her last year of pre-law, she was well on her way: playing shows, getting radio play, and amassing a loyal fan base that would eventually carry her to the top of Malaysia’s indie music scene.
“Pop music is really huge [in Malaysia],” Yuna explains. “But I think we’re still a little bit stuck on the ballad side, like Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey — not that it’s bad, but I think the Malaysian listeners really want something new, and it’s always been like the same things for the past 20 years. So when I first came up, that’s why I had a successful start, because I put out something that was just kind of laid-back. I sang it like I was falling asleep,” she smiles. “Now that I’m here [in America], I get to really do what I want to do.”
And yet, as Yuna carves out a space for herself in R&B, she’s made it a point to keep in touch with her young fans from back home. “I try to stay connected to the Malaysian fans, because they need it. I love my country, but when it comes to younger kids trying to get support to do what they want to do, it’s really tough, because they get molded into something very early, and it’s kind of hard to break from that. And if they do do something different, they get criticized for it. Like me — I get criticized all the damn time for doing this.” But, she’s quick to add, the majority of her fans are super excited. “They see [my work] as a little glimmer of hope. I’m probably the first Malaysian to ever do this, really get myself into the American music industry.”
That night, in front of a diverse crowd, Yuna is electric. During her song “Mountains,” off Nocturnal, she danced, head tilted, arms gesturing to her heart, to the audience. Later, during a slow, stripped-back version of “All I Do,” Chapters’s closing track, she croons, “A little after noon / I’ll go get some food / Call up anyone / To go do something fun,” singing as if each line were a still-purple bruise.