Images by Jonathan Meter
Interview by Abbey Miller
If you ask Yunalis Zarai (better known as Yuna), love, loss, break-ups and make-ups never get lost in translation. After speaking with the beautiful Malaysian-born singer/songwriter (while she was awaiting to take the stage at Beachland Tavern in my native land, Ohio) one thing became clear: Whether she is expressing herself in English or her native Malay, she strikes a chord with her audience, proving that the language of the heart is universal.
What’s your AMMO?
Out here in America, everything I see and hear inspires me. I have been writing music for six years and everyday I just think “what can I write about today?” I just go along collecting memories and experiences. Making music really keeps me going.
So you started songwriting at 19, while in law school. What made you pick up the guitar at that particular moment? How did you transition from law student to singer-songerwriter?
I went on Youtube and watched a video of Feist performing in Paris. I was so in love with her, I decided right then I wanted to write my own songs. I wasn’t really focused on necessarily having a music career. I started just making friends with a lot of kids in the music scene and thats how I got started. That happened my final year in law school, so when I graduated I just decided to pursue music and see what happened. I am really happy it all worked out.
You write songs in both Malay and English- do you find it difficult expressing yourself fully in both languages?
It’s actually more difficult to express myself in Malay than in English! To be honest, I only have like 5 Malay songs as opposed to my 50-some English songs. It’s more natural for me to write in English because it is so much simpler. Malay (as a language) is so pretty, you don’t want to ruin the language by trying to express and idea, like you want to be proper. English you can write songs that are more relaxed, like unsent letters, and still be able to relate to your audience.
You received a lot of recognition for your first EP in Malaysia. What was it like breaking into the English market?
I love being in the English market. People from everywhere experience friendship, relationships and loss. We all go through the same stuff, so it’s great to reach a bigger audience. The most gratifying experience in songwriting is having people relate to my music. As far as the market goes, it’s surprisingly a lot harder in Malaysia to break in as a new artist. You have to do everything yourself. When I got here and got signed to (my label) Fader, I got to work with Pharrel and went on a 25 date tour. I guess the struggles are similar, but in the English market there is more help and you do things on a larger scale.
What gives you such universal appeal?
I don’t know! I’m just this kid! I guess I feel like people relate to the music. I feel like I sing about things we’ve all experienced.
Your songs are obviously very personal. How do you feel when you’re singing one of your original songs for a crowd?
I’m used to it now. It just feels like I am having a conversation with the audience. I try not to think too much, I just do the best I can. I have to perform like i’m doing it for the first time, every time. I have to make an impression.
What was it like being on MTV’s “Best New Band?
The MTV thing was really funny. Being one of the finalists was interesting. I was like “how did I get into the top 5?” But I was really happy to represent Malaysia.
Have you had an “Oh my God I’ve made it” moment yet?
I was on Conan a couple of weeks ago, that was my ‘I made it’ moment. The first thing I ever did on live TV and it was Conan O’Brien. It was nerve racking! But it was really great, I was surprised he pronounced my name right! My family was actually more proud of Conan for pronouncing my name right than of me performing I think! He was such a nice guy though, and he is really tall.
What would be your dream collaboration?
Maybe one day the stars will align and I will work with Damon Albarn (of Blur and The Gorillaz) It would be interesting to see what we could come up with.
What has been the most difficult part of your journey thus far?
Being away from my family is really hard. Before I came to the U.S., I had never really been away from my family for more than three months. I live in L.A. now, and though I really like it, it can get lonely. I don’t mind being here, just sometimes I wish I could be with my friends.
What advice would you give other singer/songwriters who want to break into both markets?
Stay connected with your fans. Just get your material out, and test the waters. I did everything on my own at first, so my social network was my platform. It’s also important to be original. The most difficult thing to do in the music business is to stay authentic.
What would you be doing if you weren’t making music?
If I wasn’t doing music, I would probably be in film making, or clothing and design. I actually have my own store in Malaysia called ‘I am Jet Fuel.’ I pick clothes from suppliers that I really like. It’s fun.
What’s next for you?
After this tour I want to get right back in the studio. I’ve been working on this album for a year and a half, so I am excited to make and perform some new material. I just never take a break. I am always working on stuff. I guess that is my motto- if you work hard, you will eventually get somewhere.
For more from Yuna go to, yunamusic.com