Tired of playing ukulele, Malaysian singer Yuna ventures into R&B and hip-hop

Yuna got to work with Usher and their single is doing well on the Billboard chart.
Yuna got to work with Usher and their single is doing well on the Billboard chart.PHOTO: UNIVERSAL MUSIC SINGAPORE

Malaysian singer-songwriter Yuna explores a different sound apart from her previous acoustic releases for her third album

Malaysian singer-songwriter Yuna faced a lot of doubters when she first told those close to her that her recently released third album, Chapters, was going to be different from her past indie-pop, acoustic works.

"A lot of people were like, 'Are you sure you are going to do an R&B, urban album?'," the 29-year-old recalls in a telephone interview from Los Angeles, where she has been based for the last five years.

"I was just trying to be myself. More importantly, I'm trying to create music that I like and something my friends will appreciate as well."

The contemporary pop and hip-hop sounds that she dabbled in in past releases come to the fore on the new, 10-track album, which features cameos from R&B star Usher and acclaimed hip-hop DJ and producer DJ Premier.

It is her second to be released by iconic jazz record company Verve Records, and the label's chairman, multi-Grammy-winning Canadian producer and hit-maker David Foster, serves as executive producer.

Yuna says: "For this album, I wanted to take another route. I was so used to playing the guitar and ukulele and, after a while, you get tired of that.

"It's not that it's something that I don't enjoy anymore, but I wanted to try something new, and for this album, I got the opportunity to explore the world of R&B and hip-hop and DJs. I was intrigued with that world and I wanted to try and add a Yuna touch to that."

The shift in genre seems to be working in her favour.

Her single with Usher, Crush, is fast becoming one of her most popular songs. It has been steadily rising on Billboard's Adult R&B Songs chart and is currently at No. 13, its highest position to date. The music video on YouTube has clocked more than four million views.

Yuna, who has collaborated with American acts such as producer/singer Pharrell and pop singer Owl City, started out writing the song as a solo tune before realising that it would work better if she had a male voice on it.

"Usher came to mind because I met him about a year before I wrote the song and we were just talking about music in general."

They did not discuss making music at that first meeting but after she had the song ready, she asked him if he would like to sing on it, and he said yes.

Born in Kedah, the singer, whose full name is Yunalis Mat Zara'ai, started singing and writing songs while she was studying for a law degree in Selangor.

Her early tunes became popular on social networking site MySpace, eventually cementing her position as one of Malaysia's leading indie acts.

In 2010, she moved to the United States and signed on with independent record company Fader Label, which released her international debut EP, Decorate, in 2011 and self-titled album in 2012.

She signed on with Verve in 2013, and the label put out two of her releases in the same year, an EP titled Sixth Street and a full album, Nocturnal (2013).

In the past few years, she has released several Malay albums under her own music label, Yuna Room, including Terukir Di Bintang (Carved In The Stars) released in 2012, and Material, released last year.

Yuna, who is single, is acutely aware of her status as one of the very few Malaysian artists who have had success in the international music industry. Being in that position means that there is pressure to always keep her standards high, she says, but it is not something that gets in the way of her work.

"I don't like to give in to pressure. Whatever I'm doing right now is something that's never been done before by any Malaysian, but I feel that there are no shoes to fill but mine, I'm walking in my own shoes.

"I'm just trying to constantly do better and be a better artist."

•Chapters is out now.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 01, 2016, with the headline 'Taking the R&B route'. Print Edition | Subscribe