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There’s a timeless groove to the R&B of Yuna on her fourth forthcoming album Rouge, one that’s been two years in the making. It’s the most ambitious project the songwriter has ever taken on, and the first album she’s putting out as a fully realized woman. It’s also an LP that she worked harder than ever on, re-visiting songs, editing them down, adding new layers, enriching every single moment to make it the most luscious musical experience for her audience. Yuna makes soulful pop that contains the sultriness of Sade, the flair of Aaliyah, and the sweetness of Brandy. There are clear forebears upon her art, but her story is so singular that it’s hard to draw a line in the sand when it comes to Yuna’s lineage in the urban pop spectrum.
Yuna was born in Kedah, Malaysia and spent most of her life growing up in Kuala Lumpur. An only child, she was the apple of her hard-working parents’ eyes. She was raised a devout Muslim but within an assimilated and secular enough society that she was exposed to a great deal of pop culture. In fact, her earliest memories of music are being driven around by her father in his second-hand BMW listening to ‘80s pop icon Paula Abdul, German metal band Scorpions and Swedish rock duo Roxette. As a kid she was accustomed to transition, moving around the country to accommodate her father’s work as a government servant. She was quiet and hard-working, well-behaved and good at keeping herself company—a day-dreamer. When she started to display musical tendencies as a six-year-old, her mother was very encouraging of it as a future path. But at the time Yuna rejected the idea of becoming a professional singer. Music was her first major love. “I always knew I wanted to do something in music,” she says. “I just didn’t know what or how.”
It wasn’t until Yuna was in her late teens that she began to write music, playing songs on her guitar, performing at local jazz clubs and bars. “That changed the game,” she recalls. In the years before, music had become a vehicle for Yuna to learn the English language. She’d mimic songs on the radio, recording the ones she liked on her cassette deck. “I’d memorize the lyrics but didn’t know what they meant,” she says. So she researched and earned a whole new vocabulary. It took a longer time to find the right setting for her softer singing voice. Yuna was expressing herself creatively elsewhere, investing her time in making art, drawing, painting and building things. She had a keen fascination in emerging technology, computers and programming, studying it in high school. Her discovery of The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill at the age of 13 encouraged her to write poetry. Making something from nothing was a big driving force.
The way music manifested itself was largely in talent competitions. She’d apply for TV show contests to varying degrees of success. It was her attempts to feature in the first series of Malaysia’s version of “American Idol” (called “One In A Million”), however, that would change her own history. She decided to enter on a whim. Making it past the first audition and several rounds, she was eventually eliminated and sent home. “I was really affected by that,” she recalls. “I guess I thought I could go really far but I didn’t. I got really frustrated. I went back home and said, ‘Screw this.’ I’m gonna force myself to write my first song. So I did in my bedroom. I didn’t know why I’d waited that long to try and write a song.”
Yuna had already begun to play guitar but purely for fun with friends. Her first concert as a kid was No Doubt and watching Gwen Stefani onstage gave her a taste for the idea of being in a band and having fun with music (“To be in a band? Hell yes!”). That day in her room, something shifted. She went straight to her computer, sat down, started playing guitar and wrote her first love song. By the age of 19, she’d built her own band with a guitarist, bassist and drummer, and they’d perform locally. Yuna never fell into the club culture that a lot of her peers were participating in, but when she discovered the gig scene she knew she wanted to be a part of something greater than just herself.
“That was–wow!” she remembers. “They were really talented musicians all under one roof, all friends, it was a family I wanted to be a part of. That was how I started making my name.” Her interest in tech morphed itself into an early interest in social media, and Yuna explored MySpace and Live Journal to share the music she’d make DIY. From there she built an artist page and an audience, gleaning a large fanbase and millions of views. Yet at the time, she was studying law at university, a decision she made because it didn’t seem like a music career was viable for her. She never had her heart fully in the degree. While at college, she had started to earn real money for her English language music and had a huge Malay hit at home. She was being offered opportunities overseas, so when LA-based management company Indie-Pop came calling she took the meeting.
Via her three pre-existing albums, Yuna has built her palette of melodic, uplifting soul. Her third album Chapters in 2016 was something of a breakthrough, featuring production from Fisticuffs and features with Usher (“Crush”) and Jhene Aiko. They were formative and exciting experiences, but she’s flexing her collaborative muscles even more now. Her forthcoming fourth album is titled Rouge, the details of which remain sparse, but the list of features is mouth-wateringly impressive. It includes: Little Simz, Kyle, G-Eazy, Jay Park and Masego. The rappers have taken Yuna by surprise the most. She wasn’t sure she conceived of her music as fitting that vibe before.
Lyrically, the album is rooted in her emotional experience. “The music that I write has to be something that I understand,” she says. “I wanna have songs that have humanity, that people can relate to. As I grow older, it’s important to write songs that are empowering.” Take the track “Likes” which is about her relationship with social media; how it’s left her feeling stuck between two worlds. “Who’s this Muslim kid? She’s Malaysian but she’s Americanized. I’m not Malaysian enough, I’m not American enough. What am I? Even though that situation is very unique other people can relate to it. It has a very empowering message. I’m still me.”
“I’ve always wanted to make a very classy album,” she continues describing the new LP. “It’s like one of those vinyls that you listen to from the ‘70s.” Together with executive producer Robin Hannibal and team of producers (Jason “J. Lbs” Pounds, Fisticuffs, Cardiak, Jordan Reyes) she explored sampling culture for the first time. The title Rouge is for the color red, which has been calling to her at this moment. “It’s a feeling I’m having right now. I just got married. I’ve become the woman I’ve always wanted to be. The whole album is about how I am with myself: I’m comfortable with my relationship, with my focus on my career. It’s the color of becoming this woman that I am.”
Crucially Yuna has never had to compromise her identity, style or vision. “I’m a Muslim singer-songwriter but I never saw myself as that,” she offers. “That label became more obvious to me as I moved to LA. 80% of the population is Muslim in Malaysia like me, and we make music and I wear the hijab. It was really cool that everyone I met supported the fact that I do my own thing and don’t sacrifice my identity for the music.”
In 2019, Yuna splits her time between Kuala Lumpur and LA where she recorded Rouge. She lists recent inspirations in Post Malone, H.E.R. and Anderson Paak. However, she really does think of herself in her own lane. “I’ve done this for ten years and I still feel like I surprise people,” she laughs. “It’s fun because I get to educate people and I don’t feel a pressure to be a certain way. People have to understand that I’m different. Above everything I’m just a normal human being who loves making music, who believes in something. I don’t feel like I need to conform. I need to be my own person first.”