Yuna: “If I cared about the comments, I would’ve quit years ago – but I love music”

The Malaysian R&B luminary and newly independent artist forges ahead with ‘Y5’, an album on the joys and pains of womanhood

It’s 9AM in Los Angeles. Bright-eyed, fresh-faced, headphones on her head, Yuna beams into the Zoom window from her living room. In the background, soft light spills in from tall windows; her husband Adam Sinclair, filmmaker and frequent collaborator, walks in and out of frame; every now and then, their two cats Cody and Shiloh trip over her streaming set-up.

This is where Yuna made the music of ‘Y5’, her fifth full-length album that finally arrived last Friday. Finally, because the record was released in five stages throughout the year: the four-track ‘Y1’ arrived in March, followed by ‘Y2’, ‘Y3’ and ‘Y4’ in May, July and September respectively. “It’s how it was for me when I first started out on Myspace,” Yuna says. “It’s like coming full circle – I’d record three songs, drop it the next month, keep it bite-sized.”

She might’ve gotten her start making bedroom indie pop, but Yunalis Zara’ai has turned up the volume since. In Malaysia, and now on the world stage, Yuna has established herself as a force to be reckoned with. To date, she is one of the few Malaysian musicians to successfully cross over into the US; in record deals with New York-based FADER Label in 2011 and later with Verve Music Group, she’s released a slew of critically acclaimed albums and collaborations with the likes of Pharrell Williams, Tyler, the Creator, and Usher.

“‘Y5’ has a very raw beauty to it. She’s cute, she’s fun, she has personality”

Released as five mini projects instead of committing to the conventional album cycle, complete with singles, ‘Y5’ is a little offbeat. But it’s Yuna’s first release as an independent artist in 10 years, and a girl’s gotta have some fun. “It keeps me on my toes. It’s like, here we go again! every two months,” she laughs. “I was so spoiled as a signed artist — I didn’t know how much studio time cost — and it’s been a learning curve, but I love being more hands-on now, even with the business side of things.”

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And on the artistic side of the coin, Yuna has taught herself how to produce. “There’s something very empowering about all that: recording, mixing on my own,” she remarks. “The music is mine now. I own it, and on top of that, I wrote everything. Some of it I even recorded at home, in my safe space, with people I love, with my cats. I’m feeling like, this is all I need.”

Yuna
Credit: Adam Sinclair

‘Y5’, in Yuna’s words, is a “free-flowing, free-falling” record – a description that resonates with the paradigm-shifting circumstances it emerged from. In March 2020, what began as a ho-hum work trip turned into a year-and-a-half’s stay in Malaysia under lockdown at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Yuna has had to sit with the pain of her grandmother’s passing, and the grief of losing her cousin and her niece to the coronavirus – three staggering losses in nearly as many years.

The unplanned time off allowed her some pause. At long last, she rid herself of the pressures she no longer wanted to carry. “Coming back to Los Angeles, to music, was challenging for me,” she admits. “I didn’t want to be like, this is how it needs to look, this is how it needs to sound.” The result of intense introspection, ‘Y5’ exudes a bright, expansive warmth through sweet melodies and soft, tender lyricism about love and loss, catharsis, metamorphosis, and womanhood. It’s telling – and “on purpose”, Yuna says – that ‘Y5’ has no guest features, especially following her fourth record ‘Rouge’ which enlisted the likes of Little Simz, Masego, Jay Park and more. This time, the spotlight is firmly on the self.

Hello”, Yuna begins the record, “I’ve been waiting for you”. The opening track ‘Hello’ could be read as a warm welcome to the album, but in the wake of her loved ones’ departures, it’s actually a meditation about death and what comes next: “If I go, don’t let the tears become you, I’ve only left to the next room.” Subdued but by no means plain, ‘Hello’ is an anticipation of eternity, a refuge from sorrow. “This is my most personal project to date,” Yuna says, but even as its most mournful, its most intimate, there is a sparkle to the record. “I love all my albums, but ‘Y5’ has a very raw beauty to it,” she giggles. “She’s cute, she’s fun, she has personality.”

“There’s no way I’m never going back to Malaysia”

‘Y5’ is infused with subtly inventive touches: the choral shimmer that closes ‘24 Hours’, the warm bass strut of ‘Don’t Wanna Know’ and ‘Risk It All’, the sheen of reverb on ‘Fool 4 U’. On ‘Cigarette’, “the road seems endless”, as Yuna wonders if she’s “made to last” amid the unrelenting give-and-take of the music industry; on ‘Make Believe’, she’s “down on her knees”, “devoted to the core”.

‘Pantone 17 13 30’ is a sweet-voiced, multilayered manifesto: a celebration of “the colour of my skin”, a mantra of healing kindness. It’s the sound of one Malay woman recognising and reclaiming her beauty, both skin-deep and within, in a society that has long favoured fair complexions. What’s touching is – intertwined with the airy, self-assured beauty of its accompanying video, lensed by her husband – a visual of Yuna’s hands outstretched, as if saying, this is my experience. Maybe it’s yours, too.

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Like everyone else, Yuna makes art borne of her experience. But hers, as a Malay Muslim woman ever-oscillating between her adopted city and home country, is a singular expression. In Malaysia, where over 60 percent of the 33million-strong population is Muslim, believers practice a conservative-to-moderate brand of Islam; the choice to wear the head scarf is a personal one nevertheless coloured by religious obligation and societal pressure. Yuna has become something of a fashion icon and poster girl for ‘hijabsters’ in the US – attending New York Fashion Week as a guest of Coach, gracing the covers of Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue – but she’s still an unwilling lightning rod for Malaysian keyboard warriors who feel strongly about what she should, or shouldn’t, be doing. On Facebook, Instagram, and Malaysian tabloid sites, criticism of Yuna is a constant: “Please cover your aurat”, “she’s no longer anchored to her religion”, and “Yuna is colonised”.

Yuna
Credit: Arjarina Hitomi

“All year long, every single day, I get comments about how I dress, how I’m not a good role model as a Muslim woman. I’m like, guys, are we still talking about this? I’m way past it,” she says wearily. “I understand now that it’s more a reflection of them, than of me. If I cared, I would’ve quit years and years ago – but I love music. This is my life, and I can’t believe I get to do this for a living.”

An airy tenacity carries ‘Girl U Used 2 Know’: “Aku rasa kau memang langsung tak pernah cintakan aku / Apa yang lahir dari kau bukanlah cinta, tapi kuasa.” (“I feel like you never loved me / What is born from you is not love, but power.”) The lyrics – “I know that you’ll be looking through my Stories” and “Make up / Change clothes / Strike a pose / No, I’m not the girl you used to know” – read like a post-breakup kiss-off, but it also sounds like a clapback to the comments, a nod to her “complex” relationship with home.

“I know I have a lot of support back home. I see it in the numbers, on my Apple or Spotify; the most plays are still coming out of Kuala Lumpur. My city,” she affirms.

“There’s no way I’m never going back to Malaysia. I read what people say about me sometimes, that I’ve lupa daratan [forgotten my homeland]—but it’s not true, it’s far from the truth. I love Malaysia. It’s still home.”

Yuna’s ‘Y5’ is out now.

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