This interview with the country’s favourite hijabster has been a long time coming, much like her music career. From the shy and young girl capturing our hearts with ‘Deeper Conversation’ and ‘Rocket’ to becoming Malaysia’s hometown glory when she was picked up by the New York record label FADER (now Verve), to seeing her on our televisions performing with Owl City, to watching her perform live on a festival stage meant for big acts like Sigur Rós and Sheila Majid. Despite being worlds apart from Yuna, JUICE has pulled many strings for a chat with her, proof that “ain’t no river wide enough, to keep me from getting to you” – that and of course, the wonderful invention called the Internet.
It has been one helluva journey for you since you signed the deal with New York based record label FADER in early 2011. At what point of your music career in the US did you realise that you can definitely get used to this?
I think it hit me when I performed The Croods’ theme song ‘Shine Your Way’ with Owl City on The Jay Leno Show. Being a part of the Dreamworks animation film, performing with Adam Young, and not to mention, on a talk show hosted by Jay Leno that’s broadcasted on national television – everything about it was just so cool!
Have you gotten used to it all then?
To be honest, not really (laughs). I still get star struck and excited about a lot of things!
We read that the FADER management actually flew out to Malaysia to convince you to sign with them! How was that like?
At first, of course I was a bit suspicious. My management label was really new back then, so much so that they didn’t even have a site up yet! But my manager Ben was an understanding fellow, and he flew out to Malaysia to talk to me, instead of getting me to go to them. I thought it would be great for my career, so I went for it. They’re really cool for being so supportive, and they really believed in my music.
How was the transition like for you, from being an indie local musician here in Malaysia, to an international singer-songwriter?
It was easy, really. I travelled a lot, and took part in exchange programs when I was younger, so I was able to adapt to things quite easily. As for creating music, in the beginning, it was a little bit of a challenge. I was not used to getting into a studio, and writing music with other people, and over in the US that happens a lot. But I grew to love it, and to not fear it. It’s always amazing getting to work with creative people. You kind of expand your horizons creatively with them.
The beginning is always the hardest for any indie musician, not just in Malaysia. It was definitely no overnight success for you, since you started your music career back when you were just 14. How did you keep your passion going during the initial years, when no promises of a bright future had yet been made?
What mattered most to me in the beginning was just the fact that I was able to write music, jam with my band, and perform a few shows along the way – that was it. I never really pursued it as a career, but I knew back then, that if I were to focus on it and, like what my mom told me, just do it sincerely, it will take me somewhere.
Now that you have achieved international status, how do you keep on progressing from here on out?
I try to find new projects to be creative in, be it music, fashion, or collaborating with another artiste. It helps to keep your fans excited with whatever you are doing.
Like producing your 2012 debut single ‘Live Your Life’ with the Pharrell Williams? What was it like, working with a “Grammy Award-winning producer”?
Oh, he was super sweet and super supportive. He is a very down to earth guy, and he loves working with new artistes like myself. I feel that he is where he is now, because he really works hard, and he is constantly involved in super cool projects. I learned from him to not be afraid of trying something new when it comes to music, and making it entirely mine, or in accordance to my music style. It was really inspiring working with him.
There was a time, when your fans in Malaysia get to see you live for free at acoustic gigs. Now, not only do they have to pay to see you live – on a bigger, headlining stage, might I add, local organisers too have to go through the usual formalities with you, as they do with big, international acts. How do you feel about this change of status into something foreign but better, in the eyes of the people from a place you called home?
I don’t think there’s a change of status at all! I think every artiste strives on progression, and I am no different. Years ago, I used to perform at gigs with no one making sure the sound system is right. There were limited resources, and I probably lacked in confidence, commitment, and experience. I went through that for years, and I had to work hard to progress as an artiste, but now, I am thankful I’m in a position where I can give more to my local fans, who have been there since the very beginning. I’m even able to get a reasonable budget for my band and crew as well! I have gained a lot of experience and confidence in putting a show together, and all these things that makes a great show – it is all for the fans. If there’s anything that has changed for me, it’s not a change of status, but the ability to offer a better and bigger show. It just so happens that I’m based in Los Angeles now, and that I’m signed to a major label, and everyone that I work with… these formalities are called for. Only so my team and I can continue to work efficiently, and I’m able to continue being creative, and perform at more shows. Other than that, I’m still pretty much the same girl (laughs). It’s for the better, not just for me, but for all music artistes, be it local or international; they should be taken care of.
You have recently released your second full length studio album, Nocturnal, under Verve Records, spearheaded at the creative front by multiple Grammy Award-winning producer David Foster. Was it pressuring this time around, especially with the record label switch and global anticipation of it, compared to Terukir Di Bintang some two years ago?
The pressure was there obviously (laughs), but everyone, including the label, was super supportive, and they wanted what I wanted as well. They just thought that first and foremost, it is important that I feel good about making the album, before anything else comes into the picture. There were a lot of good vibes, from writing a song, to producing, to recording, to deciding how the album cover would look like… Everyone was just great throughout the process.
Tell us more about Nocturnal.
I wanted a more solid body of work. I wanted to make a pop album with a lot of strings arrangement in it, and I also had in mind that I wanted to write songs that would be a lot of fun performing live. This time around, there was better planning coming from my side, and I took control of the music direction for Nocturnal. There were also discussions with my manager and producers of my visions for this album, and it was completed within six months! So, it was really great to be able to come up with this project, and have a window into what I was feeling musically at the time. It helped build my confidence a little bit more and above all, Nocturnal was created in clarity.
You have come this far and achieved this much in the span of 13 years. Looking back now, after knowing where you will end up, what would you tell the 14-year-old you, who still had no idea that all of this is going to happen?
(Laughs) Wow. As a 14-year-old, I used to get bullied so much that I dreaded going to school every day! Writing songs and poetries was my outlet those days. If I were to tell the 14-year-old me something, it would probably have to be, “Hey, don’t be so sad. Those kids who are so mean to you now, they are going to treat you very nicely in 10 years’ time whenever they see you in your neighbourhood! So, stay kind and stay true, and most importantly, stay connected to your feelings and keep on writing.”
Yuna will perform with other stellar international acts at Future Music Festival Asia 2014’s main event on Saturday 15 March ’14 at Bukit Jalil National Stadium.