When asked to describe the new and emerging Malaysian singer, Yunalis Zarai, or her stage name Yuna, the word “unique” should come up. Everything about Yuna, who hails from one of Malaysia’s federal capital, Kuala Lumpur, is simply unique. From her music to her journey to where she is right now is just unique. Her hit single, produced by Pharrell, “Live Your Life,” and the rest of her songs on her first album, “Yuna,” is the type of music you can’t categorize or label it a genre. Even Yuna, herself, can’t seem to classify it, let alone describe it. However, that’s the beauty of Yuna and her music. As she claimed during our interview, her voice is the only component in all of her songs that holds them together – the rest is just a little bit of everything: everything from Malaysia to America. Her soft, folk-like voice with a twist from her Malaysian accent that sings songs that were inspired from her travels is another element that makes Yuna unique and is what made Pharrell want to jump in the studio with her and her recording label, Fader. In a society where its pop culture is a pool of artists with a pattern of similar types of music and personas, Yuna isn’t afraid to be herself – especially when it comes to her music.
Having an updated vlog on YouTube is another way that Yuna shows to her fans who she really is and how genuine her music is. She claims that she doesn’t need to put up an act around her fans and she most definitely prides herself in not being a gimmick in current day’s pop culture. This is why she is not afraid to reveal that she has learned and grown from working with Pharrell and that her knowledge in music has expanded since her music days in law school. That’s right, Yuna was once a law school student and once had dreams of becoming a lawyer. However, she discovered her talent in songwriting and music during her final year in law school when she began to hang out with independent musicians and decided to chase after a career in music. Letting her strong intrigue in their mere independence in music guide her, she soon began to teach herself how to play the guitar, write songs, and produce them. Her unique style in music and her voice is just what this society needs: genuine, real music with no outrageous costumes, smoke machines, and flashy lights. Continue reading for the full interview and for her music!
AM: Can you introduce yourself, where you come from, and what you do for our readers who aren’t familiar with you?
Y: My name is Yunalis Zarai and I’m a singer, songwriter. I’m originally from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. I love music. Music has been a part of me for a very long time – ever since I was a kid. I’ve been singing all my life I think. The songwriting came [about] 7 years ago like I just discovered that I could write songs when I was 19 or 18.
AM: I know that you went to law school, so I’m going to assume that law was of your interest at one point in your life then you decided to become a singer/songwriter. Could you talk about that transition and your journey to where you are right now?
Y: Yea, I went to law school and I loved going to law school; I really enjoyed reading and speaking. During my final year in law school I started hanging out with a lot of musicians, and I was exposed to the music scene back home in Malaysia – the independent music scene. The [musicians] were just jamming and playing music; they were really passionate about music. Immediately I was attracted to that; I was intrigued like, ‘Omg this is something that I could do as well.’ I tried learning how to play the guitar and I tried writing songs and it was kind of like to test the water to see if people liked my stuff and they did. That was the turning point for me and ever since then I just kept on writing music and I haven’t stopped.
AM: You were intrigued because you were so fascinated by their passion for music?
Y: Yea. I’m a music lover as well and [their music] was something new to me. I was so used to being set: going to your car and you turn on the radio and that’s the only music that you listen to. Then I made friends with all of these musicians and they were just like, ‘Have you heard of this band – they’re local’ and I [was] like, ‘what, they’re local?’ It was just really interesting to me like how they were doing their own thing and making music and I got into it immediately.
AM: What kind of music were they playing?
Y: Everything. Most of them were playing a lot of Indie-Rock and R&B and Electronics.
AM:Your music and your voice is very different and new from the music that most Americans currently listen to. How would you describe your style in music?
Y:I guess it’s just Pop music, but I try to use some other elements like Jazz and Hip-Pop. I try to mix it up so it doesn’t sound the same. As a listener, I’m not a huge fan of listening to the same vibe. When an album is monotonous, you’re not into it so much so I try to keep things interesting but technically it’s singer/songwriter, pop, folky – just a little bit of everything.
AM:So I’m guessing you’re like that (listening to a little bit of everything) with your own choice of music and the people that you listen to?
Y: Yea, kind of. I listen to a lot of music: Indie, Folk, Hip-Pop, R&B, Americana – everything. Like for example, if you listen to all of my music the only thing that’s holding them together, because they’re so different from each other, [are] my vocals. I guess that’s just the style that I’m holding onto and if you notice all the songs that I sing [the’re] me so I don’t know how to categorize my music.
AM:When you’re writing your songs where does your inspiration come from?
Y:I travel a lot so I get inspired [when] meeting people and the things I see. From traveling you learn a lot about yourself and you learn a lot about other people and you feel a lot of things.
AM:Can you share your most memorable memory from traveling all around the world?
Y:It has to be my first American tour. I have never gone on tour before so it was really intense for me like I didn’t know what to expect. We drove from [the] East Coast to [the] West Coast – it was really cool. I know a lot of bands have done it a thousand times but it was the first time I did that and me coming from Malaysia America is so big and so huge [to me], and I [got] to see a lot of things. It changed the way I saw things. I see things differently now and [so] that would have to be the most memorable [memory]. Specifically, I went to Bonnaroo and we couldn’t get our hotel rooms just yet and I needed to perform, [but] I didn’t have anywhere else to go…we went to the public restroom and that’s where I got ready. I remember that’s where I put my makeup and got ready there.
AM:You come all the way from Malaysia and you came to New York about 2 years ago. How did you meet Pharrell and come together to record your single “Live Your Life?”
Y:I met Pharrell a year ago. I was working on this project, my first album, and my label [was] really excited about signing me. They were just putting my music out there and [were asking] producers if they wanted to work with me, and Pharrell happened to be one of the producers who were really interested. I was like, ‘Wow that’s so cool; Pharrell wants to work with me.’ It’s an amazing experience being in the studio with him. He’s a really cool guy and he knows what he wants. He wants the best out of you and recording with him I really learned a lot about myself. He really wanted me to think outside the box and just ‘be crazy with my music.’ I’m really glad I had the opportunity to work with him.
AM:You said you learned a lot about yourself from working with him. Could you reveal one thing that you’ve learned from working with him?
Y:I’ve always limit[ed] myself. Before [my music] was strictly acoustic, Jazz, and maybe rock. When I hung out with Pharrell, it opened a lot of doors for me like maybe I could fuse a little bit of R&B in here or Soul. I’m more creative and I’m more open to new sounds and new things.
AM: Is there anyone else you would like to work with?
Y: I’ve always been a huge fan of Coldplay and I really like their new stuff. I would like to work with Chris Martin.
AM: I’m absolutely in love with your cover of Frank Ocean’s “Thinking About You” and I could have it on repeat for days. All of my friends and people all over are loving it and raving about it, but have you heard anything from Frank Ocean himself?
Y: No, I haven’t heard from Frank Ocean. I would love to work with Frank Ocean. I love him and his album. I bought [his album] the day it came out [and] 5, 6 days later I was recording [the cover]. I’m so happy a lot of people liked it.
AM: The cover video makes it seem as if you’re recording the song in your room. Can you tell us where that took place and where you recorded your music before you got signed to Fader?
Y: Before I got signed to Fader, I was recording in my house. I [used to] set up in my house: my recording mic, my Macbook. I’m still doing it now, but that’s how I started out just recording everything on my own with my guitar, my mic, and my Macbook.
AM: Did you teach yourself?
Y: Yea! I mean I had some help from friends after [teaching myself], but in the beginning I was just like, ‘ok let’s figure this out; okay what do I need?’ ‘I need that I need this and that.’
AM: So you’re currently on tour…
Y: I’m currently touring in the U.S. and also Europe – a little bit of Europe. I was just out there last week. I was in Paris, Amsterdam, Germany, Berlin, and London so it was a tiny run – a small run in Europe. I’m planning to go back there in November.
AM: You have a Vlog and I think it’s really cool how you’re so open about your daily life. What made you decide to keep a vlog?
Y: We try to mix [things up] as much as possible. I try to record a lot of stuff, especially on tour, so [vlogging] is a way to update the fans and what I do and they get to see the real person that I am. I don’t mind that at all, I’ve always been that way for a very long time for the fans. I don’t put up an act in front of them.
AM: What could we look forward to in the future?
Y: I’ve been writing a lot lately, especially coming back from tour I got so inspired. I can’t wait to come out with my next album. Now I’m just writing. My team is just [looking for] possible producers we could work with. I’m figuring out the right sound I want for this next album and I just want it to be properly planned. Yea, I’m just planning on my second album – hopefully it’ll be a really cool one.
AM: When’s the last time you cried? Y: 3 days ago.
AM: What always makes you laugh? Y: My guitarist, Lincoln. He makes me laugh all the time.
AM: What’s your go-to comfort food? Y: A Snicker’s Bar.
AM: What is the last thing you ate? Y: I’m a huge fan of Thai food, so I had rice and beef.
AM: What is currently on “repeat” on your Ipod? Y: Frank Ocean’s “Monks.”
AM: What’s your guilty pleasure you don’t feel guilty about? Y: [Going] on Tumblr and [looking] at pictures of models.
AM: What is your current favorite place? Y: Malibu.
AM: What is your favorite drink, alcoholic or otherwise? Y: Starbucks’ Caramel Macchiato.
AM: What is your current obsession? Y: My film camera.
AM: What is your pet peeve? Y: Overly fanatic fans.
AM: What’s a habit that you need to break? Y: Picking my nails.
AM: What’s a talent you’d like to have? Y: [To] sew – designing clothes.
AM: What word or phrase do you most overuse? Y: ‘You know.’
AM: What is your most treasured possession? Y: My Casio watch.
AM: What is your greatest fear? Y: Falling from a really high place.
AM: What is your favorite childhood pastime or memory? Y: In school during, lunch breaks.
AM: What is your motto? Y: Keep doing what you do and don’t care about what people are saying about you because they’re going to talk about you anyways.
AM: What do you love about being Asian? Y: Looking young.
AM: If you weren’t doing what you are doing now, what occupation would you be doing? Y: A lawyer.
To learn more about Yuna and her music, visit her website at www.yunamusic.com.