Yuna is in her happy place right now. She pops up into our Zoom waiting room at 4pm promptly—the exact time of our interview—and seconds later, her screen flickers to life. Dressed in a fitted white T-shirt, a colourful printed kimono top and a khaki headscarf, she is exuberant and glowing. A hand stretches into the frame and hands her an iced latte from Starbucks, which she sips gratefully throughout our hour-long conversation. “I would have four iced lattes a day if my husband didn’t control my coffee intake,” Yuna says with a laugh.
She is speaking to me from a makeshift studio space in her home in Kuala Lumpur, surrounded by various musical instruments that bring her singing talent to life. Yuna and her husband, Adam Sinclair, moved back temporarily to Malaysia in March last year to ride out the pandemic, a day before a nationwide lockdown.
The singer-songwriter enthuses about how ecstatic she is to be back in her home country, which quickly spins into a passionate discussion about her favourite eats in Malaysia—because, how could it not when it is such an integral part of Southeast Asian culture? “Char kway teow is my go-to, and of course, I love traditional nasi lemak wrapped in banana leaf as well as a good asam pedas.”
I nod my head heartily in agreement and almost salivate at the thought. You can hear the internal barriers breaking in both our minds and now the conversation can move on.
Yuna, whose full name is Yunalis binti Mat Zara’ai, is one of Southeast Asia’s biggest global successes. Born and raised in Kedah and Selangor, the 34-year-old graduated with a bachelor’s degree in legal studies before she entertained the thought of a career in music. In a pleasing happenstance while she was in her final year at law school, she started learning how to play the guitar and record her own demos in the same year that she discovered the Malaysian underground music scene.
“These kids knew exactly what they were doing. They didn’t need any record labels to back them and it was amazing because I thought to get signed, you have to join a reality TV show like Malaysian Idol,” enthuses Yuna. “They were recording their own music videos, conducting their own photo shoots and made it a sustainable career with fans who support their music.”
That was all the inspiration Yuna needed 14 years ago as a 21-year-old. She started her own company and found viral success in her music on Myspace, which received over one million plays. In the next few years, she went on to release a studio album and an EP, and secured her status as a gem in the Malaysian indie music scene.
“I could write a song within five minutes and call it a day, but would it mean something? The challenging part with songwriting is saying something meaningful”
Little did she know that global superstardom awaited her. In 2011, Yuna was discovered by Indie-Pop, a record label and management company in Los Angeles. “My manager, Ben [Willis], at the time was like, ‘We are really interested to bring you to LA and record songs’. Being a girl from Southeast Asia, I was hesitant. I thought to myself that this American guy couldn’t fool me and that he needed to come to KL because this was crazy.”
Yuna and Willis hit it off and before she knew it, she was moving halfway across the world to pursue a dream that was previously unfathomable to her. A pivotal moment that she holds close to her heart was producing a track—’Live Your Life’ from her US debut album— that same year with Pharrell Williams. She displayed her tenacity and strength in what she considered her first big gig, reminding herself she was no longer just a fan girl. “When I had Pharrell acknowledging me as a peer, I thought to myself that I had to do this, we had to work together. I was probably the first Malaysian to be in the studio with Pharrell so I had to bring my A game and write something great.”
“I did have a little Malaysian guilt though,” she confesses with a small frown. “What did I do to deserve this? What about other friends from Malaysia? That made me realise I had to do all of us proud.”
Yuna, who cites Bob Dylan, Feist and Coldplay as her music influences, steadily saw the collaborations roll in: there was ‘Crush’ in 2016 with Usher, ‘Castaway’ in 2019 with Tyler, the Creator, and ‘Blank Marquee’ also in 2019 with G-Eazy. Her secret wish list of future partnerships for her dazzling version of lush pop? Rihanna, Beyoncé, Kaytranada and Billie Eilish.
Writing songs is one of Yuna’s irrepressible talents and something the multi-talented star has been doing since she was 14 years old. But it’s not something she takes lightly because every song she writes comes with layers of life. “I could write a song within five minutes and call it a day, but would it mean something? The challenging part with songwriting is saying something meaningful. Time plays its role in this case. You need time and can’t rush things, otherwise it will just be another forgettable pop song.”
“We constantly think nobody is going to take us seriously because we’re Asians—in particular, Southeast Asians. I really want kids to come out of that mentality”
With four albums under her belt, Yuna goes on to reveal a potential new album this year—“hopefully after Hari Raya”—with soulful tunes that reflect her inner calm. “My last album was very passionate, very upbeat, confident and empowering. For my upcoming one, I feel like it’s back to being one with my soul with what I’m going through right now. I feel very relaxed and at peace with everything that is going on at the moment,” she says with a smile.
Yuna and I might be meeting for the first time, but when you put two women hailing from Southeast Asia and born in the same year together, you can expect flashes of great synergy. She squeals when she discovers I’m only seven months older than her. We have a moment reminiscing how much TLC and Alanis Morissette we listened to growing up and assured each other how Gen Zs are the hardest to crack.
It was poignant when we delved into the topic of her representing Southeast Asian countries in the music scene. Growing up in the early 1990s, you never saw anyone from this side of the world succeed on such a global scale.
“I feel deeply connected to Malaysia and Singapore, so putting Southeast Asia on the world map is important because kids who look like me and grew up like me can believe they can also be international artists,” Yuna explains. “It’s not easy, but at the same time, it’s not that hard. If you put your mind to it, you can do it.
“We constantly think nobody is going to take us seriously because we’re Asians—in particular, Southeast Asians. I really want kids to come out of that mentality.”
There’s no better time to shine than the present, when Hollywood has been all for embracing representation in its recent movies and TV shows. For Yuna, she believes you can no longer ignore the diversity in talent in the entertainmentindustry.
Her commitment to modesty and wearing a headscarf as part of her Islamic faith speaks volumes about her character and how her actions have defined her more than words. She says, clasping her hands to her chest: “My faith helped me focus on what’s really important and not be tempted by fame and other things in Hollywood. I want to be committed to this identity that I’m portraying.”
Yuna’s wonderfully grounded demeanour is refreshing for an artist of her stature. She is firm when it comes to her beliefs and clear when making a stance on what she will and will not do. For instance, a record label executive once told her she had to remove her headscarf and render a sexy image to the world. Yuna flat out refused, telling him that it went against what she was trying to do and that making good music had nothing to do with appearances.
“Being a Muslim Southeast Asian woman in the American music industry, I’ve gone through every single thing: being put in the Muslim box, or the hijabi box, or the Southeast Asian box, or the ‘we don’t know where to place her’ box. But I’ve managed to find my people, those who understand what I’m doing and listen to my music. There is a place for everyone, regardless of where you come from or what you look like. My husband, family and faith are the things that make Yuna—not just Yuna who wears a hijab, Yuna the singer- songwriter or Yuna who has a song with Usher,” she adds, beaming.
Supporting women from Southeast Asia remains one of Yuna’s impassioned objectives. Her goal is to collaborate with small, locally owned businesses fronted by women “because we’re talented and we have what it takes to compete on a global level”.
“Women these days just need to bring it. You shouldn’t apologise for being yourself, especially Asian women”
The pathways are open and Yuna has indeed paved the way. She leans in, her gaze flitting back and forth from the camera as she ponders the future of women from conservative Asian backgrounds.
“Women these days just need to bring it. You shouldn’t apologise for being yourself, especially Asian women. We come from a culture where we have to do everything, and the men sit back and relax. Don’t let that write your future. You deserve your time to shine.”
Editor-in-Chief: Norman Tan
Photographer: Chee Wei
Videographer: Soo Teng
Fashion: Desmond Lim and Jonathan Liang
Art Director: Henry Thomas Lloyd
Make-up: Chu Fan
Photographer’s assistant: Max Ong and Tajul
Stylist’s assistant: Leon Ng
Hijab stylist: Naz Living A Style
Outfit: Khoon Hooi
Production: Flier Equipment Rental House