Since moving to Los Angeles three years ago, Yuna has encountered a host of interesting faces and talents. “I love seeing their ideas, their passion,” she states. “I feel driven and motivated by these people.” The people in question are a growing list of talented collaborators like Frank Ocean’s producer Om’mas Keith, Robin Hannibal of Rhye, Incubus Michael Einziger and the one and only Pharrell Williams, who pumped up her single “Live Your Life” off of her second album, 2013’s Nocturnal. Blending the diversity of her helpful peers with her background as a singer-songwriter in Malaysia’s growing music scene, Yuna created a special slice of breezy and sweet pop music that helped get her name-dropped in a list of “20 Artists to Start Listening to in 2014” by the Huffington Post.
Before her concert tonight at Highline Ballroom, the budding singer and fashion designer (who recently launched her basicwear line 14NOV), discusses her decision to pursue music instead of her law degree, Feist, and her take on censorship controversies between her home of Malaysia and American pop stars.
Who were some artists that inspired you to pursue music early on?
To be honest, I never thought I would become a singer-songwriter. I always wondered how people made music, you know? I could sing, in the beginning, but my involvement with music didn’t grow past that. I thought “oh, I’m just going to sing and people are going to like me because I sing.” It’s just so on the surface. I didn’t know how people were able to write songs. I started playing the guitar after watching Feist. She was performing in Paris; I remember watching her video and it was so inspiring. She was so cool on stage, singing and playing the guitar so I wanted to learn how to do that. So I said “let’s just learn how to play the guitar.” I learned like five chords then wrote my first song. It was refreshing for me, and I think Feist really influenced me to start my own thing instead of just singing other people’s songs and making covers.
Other than that, I grew up listening to a lot of different artists, like Lauryn Hill and Alanis Morissette. These are all songwriters, so I felt inspired by these artists that had their own aesthetic and their own style of music.
Do you remember that first song you wrote?
I do, actually! It was called “Greek Goddess.” It’s a story about a girl whose life from the surface looks really perfect, and she’s beautiful. She’s so different from who I am as a person. I wrote this when I was 18. So it’s based on my high school years and how being in high school there’s always the “popular girl.” I’m like, “okay, yeah, she’s popular, but I’m okay with being who I am.” I really wanted to write about that because a lot of people at the time, growing up, really wanted to be popular and beautiful and well-known. I felt that a lot of people could relate to that song, so it was the first that I wrote [laughs].
It seems like so many of your songs have an empowering message in the lyrics, similar to what you just described. Was that empowerment and “role model” status something you set out to be as an artist or just a natural direction of your music?
I don’t really think too much about what I write, but I just really want to write something meaningful. We’re living in a world where people are so obsessed with things on the surface. It’s fantasy. When you listen to music, it’s all fantasy. Like yeah, tonight’s gonna be the night, we’re gonna live forever, and stuff like that. I just want my music to be pulling people back into reality. That’s not to say I’m “real,” but I just want to make honest music. I want to make something positive that’s really useful because there are lots of good things about music that could make a difference in someone’s life. It would be cool to be able to do that. Since I can write songs, then why not?
Since you attended and graduated from law school, what made you switch paths and become a musician?
Well, I always thought I was going to be a lawyer [laughs]. During my final year, I started to make music and perform. I just had come to a point where I had to make a decision that was going to determine the rest of my life. I was doing really good in Malaysia in the music industry. I thought “should I let this go in order to become a lawyer or should I focus on music?” I just decided to focus on music. If you asked me if I would go back to law in the future, I [would say] I might! We’ll see! [laughs].
Do you think that in any way what you studied in law school has influenced your songwriting?
Yeah! I never regretted going to law school. Sometimes I think I should’ve gone to music school instead, but that would change the person that I am today. I wouldn’t be here anyway if I took a different route in terms of music. The beautiful thing about it is that I found music while I was in law school. I was going through a rough time in college and music pulled me out of that routine. Like getting up, going to class, coming back home and studying. For me, it was unfulfilling. I wanted to be creative, and I was so desperate to be creative and that’s how I found music. I got really passionate about it. Going to law school opened up that part of me, my creative side, that had been so pushed away because of school.
What was coming up in the Malaysian music scene like?
You know, it’s a small country. There’s not a huge entertainment industry in Malaysia, but we are creative. We love film and music and art and culture. It’s small but it’s growing. I kind of got into the singer-songwriter scene, and it was in both Malay and English, so we have a lot of English songwriters in Malaysia. It’s normal to us, but for people from other countries, they’re like “ah, there’s actually a music scene in Malaysia!” I’m telling you now, there’s a lot of talent there, and they’re not out there yet. I’m really blessed to be able to have a family back home that really support my music. It’s where I came home. The music industry is growing and a lot of kids are getting into producing and learning how to use Logic or Pro Tools on their own and making beats and setting up bands. It’s pretty cool. I hope it’ll grow and turn into something like how there are a lot songwriters and artists like Lorde and Gotye and Kimbra from New Zealand and Australia [getting international recognition]. I hope that’s where we’re going.
Who are some of the artists from that scene that would like to see get the type of international success that you’re starting to see for yourself?
Oh, wow! There’s a couple. There’s a really talented artist named Aizat. He’s super talented. Other than that, I know another singer-songwriter from Malaysia who is actually already out here, in America. Her name is Zee Avi, and she was the first Malaysian girl to come out here and make music. She was signed to Brushfire Records, and she was out here before me. I hope to see her [become more successful] as well.
When it comes to music in Malaysia, what mostly makes news in America is the censorship of songs and concerts. I was wondering what your perspective is on a lot of that coverage.
Malaysia is a Muslim country, but it’s also multiracial. We love music, we love and accept the music scene from other parts of the world. We have bands come and perform, a lot of bands actually. I’ve seen, for example, Black Eyed Peas and bands like Incubus and [singers] like Robin Thicke. Malaysia is a very conservative country, and there are certain moral values that adhere to. We don’t want any negative influences coming into the country. I love how pop artists, like from America, are able to kind of comply to the moral values in Malaysia. For example, you can’t really wear anything revealing so a lot of cancellations from an inability of an artist to comply to these rules. But there are a lot of artists who come to Malaysia to perform and are willing to comply. It’s very unfortunate that there are a lot of cancellations, but I like to see things in a positive way! There are plenty of people in Malaysia who would love to see their favorite artist come there and perform, but that’s the thing. We have these rules that make it a little bit hard to adjust to, but it would be cool to see artists try them out. Like, if Fergie can come and do a performance in Malaysia a couple of years ago then why can’t other artists do the same, too, you know? I guess it gets blown out of proportion to make it seem like Malaysia is not a cool country to perform in, but we love music and artists like Lady Gaga and Beyonce.
Plus, there’s a whole up-and-coming music scene there on its own.
So what does 2014 hold for you?
I’m really excited to tour! I’m really happy to do that again with new material. I’m really happy with my first album, but Nocturnal is a different thing for me with different energy. I feel really good performing these songs for my fans, and I’m really excited to show them that. So I’m excited about touring, and I’m excited about making appearances. For example, I’m going to be on Jimmy Kimmel, and that’s really exciting for me! [Her episode aired last night, 1/8]. I’m going to be working again, with a lot of different produces. Or just one, I think. I’m not so sure! I don’t know, I just feel there a whole lot of possibilities this year.
Yuna plays at Highline Ballroom tonight, 1/9. The show begins at 7 p.m. and tickets are $20/$25.