Girl Crush: Yuna
In this series, we ask our favorite ladies the basics: what’s fun, who’s cute, and which movie is the best movie literally ever.
Yuna comes sliding into our noisy Mid City brunch spot cloaked in a vintage satin overcoat with bright abstract print and equally loud head scarf, a chunky rope-cord necklace dangling low around her neck. Immediately I'm taken by the contradiction she embodies: her look is striking, almost demanding, and yet when she reaches for a hug, I can barely hear her over the din of chatty L.A. noshers. Not that she’s meek—definitely not that—but in a town where extroversion imposes itself as a near-requisite, her understated demeanor is an unexpected companion alongside such a bold mien.
Unexpected, I soon find out, is the new expected for Yuna. The Malaysia-born singer-songwriter has been blowing off norms since day one. “When I started making my way as a singer in Malaysia, people told me that I would have to take off the hijab and stop singing in English,” she explains. “They had such a rigid view of what would work, and it just wasn’t me.” So instead, she started her own record label, and in 2008, put out an EP that would earn her four trophies at the Malaysian Music Awards.
Impressive, but not enough for the self-taught musician. Her decision to move to Los Angeles several years later came at the disapproval of just about everyone in her circle. She was seeing peak success in Malaysia, but “once you’ve broken that ceiling, where do you go?” she poses, sipping her iced coffee.
To Hollywood. Wide-eyed, Yuna moved into an apartment on Cahuenga, supplied and furnished by the FADER label, which she’d just signed to. “It was fun, but I felt like an outsider,” she remembers, though not with regret; enduring a sense of alienation would, paradoxically, end up being key in smoothing her transition. “Everything was new; that’s what made it easy in the beginning—there was no ego clash because I was so willing to learn from everyone I worked with.”
That same learning curve might have worked against someone less talented, but Yuna’s international success was imminent. 2012 saw the release of her self-titled album and collaboration with Pharrell Williams, and her 2013 record Nocturnal garnered rave reviews. But something was off. In the shuffle of continents, countries, and cultures, her identity had suffered the pangs of multiplicity. “In Malaysia, everyone thought I was this crazy liberal, and in America, everyone thought I was super conservative.” The disconnect spilled into her work. “You can hear it in the music. I tried a little bit of everything in Yuna and Nocturnal, went with a lot of producers, incorporated elements of folk, of R&B—it was such a mix.”
It was also a lesson that pushed her forward into today, fresh off the release of her newest album, Chapters (if you haven't already indulged the addiction, her duet with Usher, “Crush,” is a must listen), and midway through an American/European tour that’s seen night after night of sold out venues. “I’ve grown. I’m still open to learning, but if I don’t like something, I say so.” It’s the kind of confidence that comes with knowing who you are, what you love, and where you want to be. “I’ve put my roots down. I got a new place downtown that’s all my own: I decorated it; I chose the furniture. It’s mine. And now with Chapters, it’s my sound. It’s finally me.”
She smiles as she says this, and I realize time has flown by—the crowd of blaring brunchers has thinned—and without realizing it, I’ve forgotten to interview Yuna. My list of questions sits untouched on our table. The reticent woman I'd met not an hour before has disappeared, replaced by someone so articulate and thoughtful that I'd become totally engrossed in our conversation. I laugh, pick up the list, and begin our interview.
Name: My parents and my close family call me Alis because my full name is Yunalis. I never went by Yuna until I started playing music—in fact, I always hated that name. But I embrace it now.
Age: I’m turning 30 soon. I’m actually excited; the last two years have been “The Journey to 30.” I’m ready for it.
The best and worst part of what you do: The best part is knowing that whatever I put out into the world can reach millions of people, which I know comes with a certain responsibility. Some people have that power and they act like a loose canon, but I feel like I became a better person because of it, and that it taught me to think bigger. Like, for me right now, the most important thing going on is [the Syrian] war and the refugee crisis. It’s a feminist issue; 80% of the victims are women and children. A lot of women will call themselves feminists without looking at issues outside of their experience, without considering women all over the world. I don’t think we can talk blindly about feminism without looking at the international level. That’s an issue that means a lot to me.
The worst part of what I do is not having privacy. I’m a very private person, but I know that if I’m upset about something, I have at most five minutes before a fan walks up wanting a photo; There’s no down time. That’s more in Malaysia though. Here, it’s a different story, and it’s probably why I love being here. I love walking by myself—I can’t do that in Malaysia. It only takes one person asking for a photo before everyone starts crowding around me.
What is your dream vacay and have you taken it? I really want to see Africa. I want to stay in one of those tree houses and watch animals all day. I thought that for my 30th I would do some kind of big vacation, but I’m working the entire month!
Who in history do you wish you could have been? Patti Smith. I love her. I read her book, Just Kids; she had such a cool life! Her journey was so interesting, especially her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe. I related so much to her process of writing music and moving into new and different environments. That book really helped me.
What’s your favorite city? Honestly, I would say L.A. Especially after going on this tour because every day I would wish I was back in L.A. I love that I can just drive to Malibu and be at the water, and then I can go to Joshua tree and be in the desert. When I want snow, I go to Big Bear. I’m an island girl, so this environment is so different for me. Malaysia is one temperature all the time, but here, I can be in almost any climate, and if I get tired of one, I just pack up and go to the next.
What one thing in your closet are you currently obsessed with? That’s hard—which just shows that I have too many clothes. I think it would have to be this duster coat I got from Nasty Gal. It’s a silk pink duster that I wear on tour, but I think I’m going to rock it after the tour and just wear it around town. I love it.
Where’s the best time every time? Tatsu Ramen. I love that place. Everything is open 24 hours in Malaysia, so I’m used to eating super late. Out here, restaurants close so early, but Tatsu Ramen closes at 2 a.m. They have the best fried rice and veggie ramen. I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, so if I want to have a good time, that means food. Or bowling! I go to this alley in Koreatown. I actually used to bowl professionally back in the day. This was when I was 15, 15 to 22. I represented my university and had my own bowling ball and glove. Bowling is huge in Malaysia. It’s so hot there, so I think the fact that it’s an indoor sport makes it super popular.
What is the greatest movie of all time? Jurassic Park—the original. I can watch it over and over. That movie changed how I thought about the entertainment industry and was the first time my interest in art and film was really sparked. I wasn’t impressed by any movies as a kid, but when I saw Jurassic Park, it made me want to go to America and see how they had made that film.
Favorite song of all time? It would have to be “Don’t Speak” by No Doubt. It’s one of the first songs that I discovered as a kid, and I thought Gwen Stefani was so cool. I was only seven or eight at the time, but I wanted to be her.
Childhood memory that makes you the most nostalgic? My grandmother lived in a little village in Malaysia, and when I was little I would go there with all my cousins to play badminton. We’re still close to this day; they’re like brothers and sisters to me, and I know the reason we have the bond is because of those weekends at my grandmother’s.
Who would you die to work with? Radiohead. They’re amazing.
What’s next for you? I’m touring now, and I’m doing another tour next year through Asia. I’m just promoting Chapters right now. We released it in May, which feels like a long time ago even though I’m only five months in. I’d love to do more collaborations with other artists as well.