Yuna Gets Real About Love, Music and Defying Conventions

Miles Davis famously said, “Man, sometimes it takes a long time to sound like yourself.” And that’s particularly true for singer-songwriter Yuna, who has come a long way from writing songs in her bedroom back home in Malaysia. Now based in LA, she’s worked with the likes of Pharrell Williams, Usher and Jhene Aiko, and even lit up the streets of Time Square in New York when she recently appeared in a campaign for NASDAQ. The most beautiful part of her story, however, is that despite her meteoric rise to fame, Yuna has never forgotten who she is, where she comes from, and she isn’t about to change that for anybody or any price.

On finding your voice…
“I quit singing for a little while because I felt like I wasn’t going anywhere. I was so young, and I wasn’t an amazing singer. I couldn’t carry some songs like Christina Aguilera, or whoever. And then music found me again. I started going to independent gigs in Malaysia, and making friends with musicians who were just kids doing their own thing.

I wanted to do the same, so that’s when I started writing my own songs. That’s how I found my own voice. What I’ve learned is that you just have to find your own strengths, and you have to take what you have and make it work.”

On songwriting…
“I guess I’m a very emotional person (laughs) a lot of my songs are about unrequited love, about heartbreak and stuff like that. They’re all songs that I feel, even though they’re sad, they’re quite uplifting. I try to stay true to myself when I’m writing. I try not to hold back too much. I guess, in a word, my songs are honest. That’s the kind of music that I want to do – I want to make honest songs. They’re not songs about “let’s go out to the club and forget all of our troubles.” My songs are more about things that you experience in real life.

Some of my songs are empowering, like my song “Rescue,” which is about a girl who’s been through a lot. You know, she came out of this storm a stronger person. I guess I just want girls to feel like they’re not alone, like they can relate to me. I’m here. It’s the same feeling that I got when I listened to singers like Alanis Morisette and Fiona Apple.”

On growing up…
“Because I started out by making music in my room with nobody around, I was coming from a very timid place. I didn’t want to stay in that place for too long – I’m not that young girl anymore. I don’t want to be in that same place anymore. If you asked me if I could do the old Yuna, I couldn’t do it because I’ve gone through all these things since then. Also, being in America really changed the way I see music. Working with Pharrell or Usher, I constantly have to grow up, and quickly. I have to learn things fast. How do I write a good pop song that’s also emotional and relatable, but still sounds like me? I’ve had that practice for a few years now, and I feel like I’m finally getting a hang of it. It’s been an amazing journey, and I’ve learned so much about myself.”

On challenging conventions…
“The entertainment business can change you, but you just have to be headstrong and firm in your decisions. Younger girls these days see so much on social media, and a lot of what they see teaches them to feel insecure about their natural beauty. You see girls changing their face, their lips, their bodies, and it doesn’t have to be that way if you want to do music. Music is such a beautiful thing. Acting is one thing, modeling is another, but music is different. You can really talk to a person’s soul through music, and you don’t have to be a sex symbol to do that. You don’t have to live up to other people’s standards of beauty.

I let my music speak for itself, and I know I have to work twice as hard because I don’t have anything else. It becomes all about the music.”

Photos by: Stanley Cheng

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