Sounds often evoke images: when we hear an artist for the first time, we may find ourselves painting a picture of the source. Music itself is inherently illustrative, but the pictures we paint aren't always true to the music, or to the artists themselves. When I first heard Yuna's collaboration with Jhene Aiko, "Used to Love You," I found myself picturing the next major pop/R&B artist and although Yuna's silky soprano invokes soft, wistful, surrealistic sonic dreamscapes, I'm not embarrassed to admit that I simply was not envisioning the 29-year-old Malay vocalist in her stunning and colorful hijab.
Yuna's rise following her recent collaboration with Usher, "Crush," has only been spotlit on the international stage in the past few years, but she's been releasing music in her native country of Malaysia since 2005. Her third album, Chapters, grabbed the attention of American audiences, landing her appearances alongside Usher at Philadelphia's Root's Picnic and more recently, her own solo performance at NY's first edition of the aforementioned festival. Leave it to one of the most iconic curators of great music, Questlove, to recognize Yuna's ability and give her a platform in two of the greatest musical cities on earth.
Although Yuna herself is absent from the video her creative vision is not, the concepts of which she developed in tandem with the album. The final moments of the video play out like a moving portrait of sorts, a moment intentionally used to allow listeners to focus on the light, pilowy synths backing Yuna's soaring soprano. It also includes some dope choreography. Yuna explains that "while I was working on Chapters I had this idea of releasing the songs in stages, and every song goes with a narrative video, or short film, to really bring the song to life. I worked with Raul Sanchez on this video, the story and the concept was a collaborative effort."
Noisey: How did you end up falling in with Usher?
Yuna: He was on tour and I don't know how he found out about my music, but he reached out to me. Our managers were talking to one another and so we met and ended up just talking about random things. Not even like a, "Yeah let's work together" y'know? A year later when I finally had music, the new material, that's when I reached out to him to say. "Hey, just asking but…" you know to see if he's going to say yes.
What was it like working with him?
It was really cool! He was super sweet, really really talented. I sent the song over to him, he was in Atlanta and I was in LA. He got the song and I gave him the freedom to just do whatever he wanted to do. But I was just like, "Maybe write a verse? Or something like that…" and he was just like, "I want you to send over your lyrics." Which was really cool, he kind of changed it a little bit, but it's pretty much my lyrics and it was really cool to have a song with Usher and he's singing the words that I wrote. So, it was amazing.
So it was a couple of days of back and forth?
I feel like I waited for him to like respond with the tracks and everything. He was really busy he was working on his album which is out now. I waited and all of a sudden I got an email from him, this was last year in July, and I sent over by the song and maybe by like April or something he sent it back and it was perfect. It's basically how the recording is right now. It was perfect.
So it took a while but it was just kind of in one shot?
Would you self identify as R&B?
I don't know! There is an R&B influence in it, for the new album especially. My background being an acoustic/folky artist, I moved out here for this first album and that kind of opened doors for me to work with more contemporary R&B artists like Pharell and DJ Premiere and Jhene Aiko. So it was very interesting how after that I was just very into working and collaborating with people and I thought, "wow maybe this is the sound for me?" And I decided to just follow my gut and go for it. This album, it's a pop album with an electro/R&B vibe with hip-hop producers.
Was that all new for you?
It was familiar, it wasn't like a shock. Because my previous albums I kind of had a couple of songs that sounded like that. I worked with Robin Hannibal who worked with Kendrick. I worked Fisticuffs who had worked with Jhene Aiko. So it was just kind of natural for me to fall into the R&B scene in LA. I love it.
Before moving to LA did you listen to R&B growing up in Malaysia?
Yeah of course! I guess that's kind of why I felt like, you know I should just do this. Back home in Malaysia R&B is not a huge scene, there are no R&B artists and it was never huge where I came from. I was still a kid hanging out with rock bands and folky singer/songwriter bands so eventually I just kind of like molded into that artist. Coming out here, I started writing pop records and I was writing a lot and eventually I fell in with Pharell and I'm like "OK what do I do with Pharell?!" I didn't know what kind of music we were going to produce together.
Was their a culture or stigma around R&B and Malaysia at all?
No! I remember listening to TLC and Aaliyah and then like covering Lauryn Hill on the radio. But it wasn't as huge as the Malaysian ballads. Growing up I was always tuning into MTV watching the music videos and that was how I would discover music back then. I would record everything that would come on the radio like "Oo! I love this!" and record direct to tape on a cassette player.
That was the only exposure we had to hip hop and that culture. So when I started making music I kind of had to go back to my roots like "what do my people like?" They love when I played the guitar they love when I was kind of folky, but I still wanted to bring something different, I didn't want to be just like any other artist that was doing music in Malaysia.
Are there any Malay influences in your music?
I feel like the melodies, they're subtle. I grew up listening to a lot of classic Malay music from the 50s and 60s, the melodies are simple and I'd listen to that and I always know how to keep things simple and not overly complicated when it comes to writing music.
Do you identify with a larger audience in the US than you do back home or do you have an equal following?
I feel like majority of my followers are still coming from Malaysia/Jakarta/Indonesia, but it's definitely slowly coming out here. It's insane. I just got back from Europe, and I hadn't been back there in two years and I went back and sold out all of the shows which was really crazy. I sold out Rotterdam which was crazy cause it's like….
Who do I know in Rotterdam?
Yes! Exactly! I don't know anyone in Rotterdam. It was really cool to see that scene and that my music is really in Europe.
What are you looking forward to?
Grammy Nominations! [Laughs.] It's really exciting because it was my first time visiting the Grammy office in LA and they're letting me know how the system works and the voting and I'm like "Ah crap I probably won't have any chance but, let's just do it!" It's crazy like all these artists that I look up to, like damn Frank Ocean came out with his new album, and now I've got to be in the same category as Frank! No! [Laughs.] But it's exciting!
Chapters is out now via The Verve Music Group.
Follow Pat Shahabian on Twitter.