In Part 1 of our interview with singer-songwriter Yuna, she talks candidly about her new album (you can check it out here). This time round, we focus on her craft, as she shares what inspires her songwriting, the traumatic experience that started it all and who she picks as her favourite Malaysian songwriter.
Art direction & styling: Abdul Aziz Draim, Photography: Micky Wong, Make-up: Noriana Nazuir
BAZAAR: Your songs are known for their honesty and their sincerity. As an artist, are you ever worried about being too honest?
Yuna: Yes, I think so. When I was younger, it was really difficult for me to be honest (in my lyrics). Because back then I would be scrutinised for everything. It was a very tough experience for me trying to find a balance in the media world, you know, being very popular at the time and seen as this teen sensation. I was already wearing the hijab then so I felt like every move that I made, people would scrutinise me. It was really difficult to say what I wanted to say or sing about. (I’d question) if people were just going to hate it… So every time, I would have that in my mind.
But moving to LA [at the age of 23], that enabled me to kind of just start from scratch. People didn’t really know who I was then. So subconsciously, I was trying to write something that maybe America would love—you know, I couldn’t just write the first song about, say, me being a Muslim or something along that line. Because, I wasn’t ‘there’ yet. I thought it better to ease my way in, so to speak.
I think, in 2019, when I wrote (the album) Rouge, that was a time when I felt 100 percent comfortable with truly speaking my mind and telling my truth and being completely honest. That was when I started getting that confidence.
When I wrote Chapters (2016), I had just gotten out of a very public relationship. Our relationship was on social media, people knew about it, and were excited about it, and all that. But then we broke up. So I was going through that publicly and it was very tough for me. I was only 26 then, still young, and it was the kind of experience I hadn’t gone through before.
So when I wrote that album, my management team and I called it the break-up album (laughs). That was when I felt like, “Should I write about this? Let’s just be honest and write about what I feel”… with some details that maybe were true, but without disrespecting anybody. I think that album really changed my whole career in terms of what I would do after that—it was the first time I decided to do an R ’n’ B album. I didn’t want to just beat around the bush with being an R ’n’ B artist, because I was known for being more Pop then and I didn’t want to offend my existing fans. But it was something that I really loved, that I really feel connected to. So why not? So Chapters was the one where I was being completely honest with myself and with everyone else. I just wrote whatever I felt and that album really changed my life and a lot of other people’s lives too, apparently.
Is songwriting something of a catharsis to you?
Yes, definitely. I think t’s the same with a painter or a photographer. When you engage in something creative, you need an outlet, your way to express yourself and show people how you really feel inside. And I’m quite lucky because I’m a songwriter. So even though I can’t really say this directly to a person, I can write it down, into this beautiful piece of poetry or like a letter to someone. You can’t just keep your feelings and thoughts bottled up inside.
You have to let it out. And this is what I tell people, that you can’t keep a lot of things hidden inside, you need to express it. Musically, even if you don’t write a song, you can just play the guitar, just let it out of your system.
To lighten your burden, so to speak.
Yes, lighten your burden—and it has to be yours. And it shouldn’t be work. It shouldn’t be, “I have to do this because of work so I’m going to create something.” It has to be something that’s yours, and you’ll feel great about it. That’s what I like to tell a lot of the young musicians now, to use all that in their music because you’ll never know where it’s going to take you. For one thing, you will feel good about creating something then at the same time, you don’t know if this might just help other people as well. There’s no doubt that other people are going to listen to it and feel connected to it, and they’re going to be healed by your music. So yes, I do think songwriting is definitely some kind of therapy for me (laughs).
Let’s go back to the beginning. When did you start writing songs? And how did that experience originally came about?
The first time, it was really difficult to write songs because I wasn’t… I think you need to go through something very traumatic to start writing something (laughs). You have to be traumatised by some situation. When I first started writing, I was pretty much content with my life. I was a young student and when I started to write something, there was no push, you know? No sense of urgency to write a song right now, so I couldn’t crack the code. I didn’t know how to come up with a melody or the chord progression. Or I would write something super simple but I wouldn’t be able to finish it.
Then I went on this audition, for (the reality singing competition) One In A Million, right? It was just something fun to do, didn’t think I was going to get it… but then I got it. All of a sudden, it became something very serious to me—I’m very competitive. So when I got in, I told myself I have to get to the next round, then the next round and the next round… but eventually, I got kicked out from the competition. It was so traumatising! I remember knowing that I got kicked out because of my sense of style and also the fact that I couldn’t sing properly at the time because I chose the wrong song. I can’t sing like Christina Aguilera or like Alicia Keys, and the competition was all about how well you could sing the song. So I got eliminated, I wasn’t picked.
I went home, I cried for a little bit because the whole process was so exhausting, emotionally as well. You’re in this production where the stress level is crazy. There was a lot to deal with, with the many competitors and their various attitudes, the stress… and I was just 19 or 20. I hated it, and then I got booted. So I had to deal with that rejection.
It was then that I decided, “Okay, now I have to write a song because whatever that song was that I was singing in there, it wasn’t my song.” I thought, “I’m just going to write my own song where I will sound good with my vocals because I know I can sing. But I have to sing my own songs.”
So immediately that day I wrote maybe three songs and one of them was Deeper Conversation. Deeper Conversation was included in my US-released EP (Decorate, 2008), so I was really proud of that. And then everything changed. I started to learn how to put out music on my own, to seek out open mics, practising on my guitar and started finding friends in the indie music scene where I became friends with Noh Salleh and AG [of the band Hujan].
Was pursuing a singing career always in the plans for you or was it just a hobby at the time?
It was definitely just a hobby, but I wanted to also see and feel things out. I love music, but I didn’t know what to do with it. I wasn’t groomed to be an artist, like a lot of artists at the time, especially in Malaysia, they were all groomed to be a singer from an early age.
I studied law and I think towards the the end of the course, I just… I don’t know, I felt like I couldn’t express myself, I had all these things bottled up—I just couldn’t stand law school (laughs)! It felt too dry and I was a creative… But it wasn’t depressing. I just felt that I needed to get out of Shah Alam and go to KL to see colourful things or people doing creative stuff. That was my every weekend, I’d check out open mics and gigs, and saw that musicians were selling their own CDs so I began asking them about it. Because I’d assumed you needed to be signed to a record label for that, or join a TV talent show. Eventually, I started to produce my own music.
Soon after, I graduated from law school but it all changed when my first Malay song, Dan Sebenarnya, became a radio hit. In the beginning, I would perform the song at an independent level but eventually we brought it up to mainstream media. And I knew then that that was something I wanted—I didn’t want to be indie forever. It has to go to TV, it has to go to radio, it has to be a career path for me. So I really worked on it. So that hobby became a serious career.
And speaking of Dan Sebenarnya, will you be releasing a Malay song again soon?
You know, now the Malay song is like a unicorn—it disappears suddenly, then out of nowhere it’s there again. In my last album (Rouge), I did have a Malay song called Tiada Akhir. So that was another unicorn. Actually, it was more of an Easter egg for the fans— if they listened right to the last track, they’ll find the Malay song. And when they did find it, they really loved and appreciated it. I like to do that for the fans. But who knows? Maybe one day I’ll do one again. There’s no deadline to this and I’m planning to make music for as long as I can (laughs). So maybe next year, in shaa Allah.
Is there a difference between writing in English and writing in Malay?
It’s kind of the same, but it’s different. If you listen to a lot of Malay songs on the radio, you always come back to the same theme, to the same words. I think vocab-wise it’s very hard to write in Malay, because it’s very poetic. Our words fit in differently, when it comes to trying to fit them into a melody; it takes a lot of craft. So this is why I really look up to the old school songwriters from the ’80s and the ’90s. They’re amazing songwriters when it comes to Malay songs because they know how to use their words, and their vocabulary was so rich. Back then it was like a different game. It’s tough, and also I don’t want to just write a Malay song for the sake of it. I really want it to be something special and magical. Like Dan Sebenarnya, or Terukir Di Bntang, or Tiada Akhir.
Which Malaysian songwriters do you admire?
I have to say, Noh Salleh is a great songwriter. Like, I don’t even think twice about that—I always want him to write my songs! I’d go, “I’m out of ideas! Noh can you help?” (laughs) His lyrics, I don’t know where they come from. I think it’s from really just listening to a lot of old school music, from the ’70s and the ’80s. His ability to pair words with really good melodies and chord progressions, it’s amazing. It’s beautiful, what he does.
And of course, P. Ramlee. Nobody can top him. He’s a great reference. When I try to write in Malay, I’ll ask, “Okay, what would P. Ramlee sing?’ Or “What from P. Ramlee can I borrow to make this song more beautiful?”
(Stay tuned tomorrow for Part 3 of our interview, when Yuna opens up about her style evolution and tackling criticisms. For Part 1, go here).