Yuna is a Malaysian pop singer-songwriter who released her first full album in the United States, Nocturnal, last year on Verve. She took time out of her current American tour to talk with CP about moving to the States, working with Pharrell and running her own business in Malaysia.
Is this your first full U.S. tour?
This is probably my first headlining tour — the past tours have been supporting Allen Stone and Michael Kiwanuka.
How does that feel — is there a noticeable difference?
Yeah! It's so much fun; prior to this tour, I was playing a couple of headlining shows in New York, and you can tell when everyone in the crowd is there for your headlining artist. It's exciting to see your fans and look into the crowd and see faces and say, "This guy is singing along to my song!"
When you were coming up in Malaysia, was it always a goal to come to the United States and establish your career?
Oh, yeah. When I started writing music, it was all in English. I kind of had limited opportunities to promote my music outside of Malaysia. And I always thought it could go really far if I took it overseas. When I got the offer to come out to Los Angeles and record, work with different producers, it was scary in the beginning, but I wanted to try. And now I feel comfortable with it.
In Malaysia, presumably it's not common for a pop artist to sing in English?
Yeah. That was one of the biggest problems, why I wouldn't sign any recording deals: because the deal would probably be 70 percent of the album should be in the Malay language, or no English songs at all. That wasn't my forte — I knew my strength was in writing in English. I ended up doing everything by myself — I had an independent label that I registered, put out my own albums. But the main market there is Malay music. I had to come out here and see how far I could go with my English stuff.
You went to law school while you were establishing yourself as an artist; was that a fallback idea, or just a matter of having disparate interests?
To begin with, I really thought I was going to be working in the legal field, when I went to school. But I think when I was in law school, I got into music, and I saw an opportunity to have a career in music. Before that, I didn't know how to work within the industry, but I learned on my own, and with a lot of people being helpful and supportive. So I decided this is what I'm going to do, because it would be a waste not to do what I love and make it a career. If anything happens, people say, "Oh, you've got a law degree to fall back on!" But I don't think that's going to be an option.
On one of your first singles you released in America, "Live Your Life," you worked with Pharrell Williams, who's golden these days. What did you learn from him?
Working with Pharrell, I gained so much knowledge and experience. I think if I did not work with him, I wouldn't be able to find a style, and hip-hop beats and electronica beats. I think he taught me to be adventurous musically. I think that was how I became a braver singer-songwriter. After that, I worked with Chad Hugo [of N.E.R.D.], who's more hip hop; Mike Einzinger [of Incubus], who's more of a rock influence. Working with all these different producers wouldn't be easy for me if it wasn't for me working with Pharrell, learning to come up with all these different things you aren't used to, but at the same time [making] it your style.
There's a single on the new album, "Rescue" — it almost strikes me as a feminist anthem. Is that a correct assumption?
It's funny — when I put that song out, I never expected people to call it [feminist]. People ask, "Do you consider yourself a feminist?" It's mainly a song I wrote to promote self-confidence. I think it's men and women. When I wrote that song, I just really wanted to make something really like an anthem, but for yourself. I remember talking with my producer, Chris Braide, who worked on that music; I said, "This is a really uplifting song, and it has to be!" I guess I got my inspiration from, I worked with U.N. Women for a little bit; I went to Geneva — I was kind of involved with the United Nations, and I'd never done anything like that before. So I guess [that was] one of the inspirations for making that song and singing about self-empowerment.
What's on the docket for 2014?
I was looking forward to this tour for the past few months and it's finally happening now; I think, in April, I'm going to go back to the studio and try to write again, start recording again.
In between tours, do you live in America now, or do you go back to Malaysia?
I live in Los Angeles, but at the same time, I go back to Malaysia quite often, because I run a clothing store, IAMJETFUEL.com — I run several companies in Malaysia. That was already there before I left for America. I like to go back and see my family and friends and work on my personal projects.
Do you ever have time to actually stop and relax?
Oh, not yet! Hopefully soon. I was thinking about that: I never took some time off, a holiday. My holidays are still working holidays. Maybe one day.