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Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Yuna Brings Sounds From Malaysia To The U.S.

Yuna is a Malaysian singer, songwriter, and businesswoman. (Larry Hirshowitz)

Yuna is a Malaysian singer, songwriter and businesswoman. (Larry Hirshowitz)

The artist known as Yuna joins Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson to talk about her U.S. tour, her new album “Nocturnal” and how her belief in Islam factors into her music and what she wears when she performs.

The Malaysian singer-songwriter is also a businesswoman. She co-owns a clothes boutique in Subang Jaya, Selangor called IAMJETFUELshop.

Interview Highlights: Yuna

On getting attention for her headscarves

Yuna and Lincoln Jesser are pictured at the Here & Now studios. (Jesse Costa/Here & Now)

Yuna and Lincoln Jesser are pictured at the Here & Now studios (click to enlarge). (Jesse Costa/Here & Now)

“Even in Malaysia it was a little bit of a new thing. We have Malay Muslim girls who were performers, they were artists. But for me, I was the first one who covered up and, you know, I just wanted to be myself. I didn’t want to change for the industry or anything like that.”

“Seven, eight years ago, I was approached by a recording label. But this was in Malaysia, so they were telling me like it would be a little bit difficult for me if I were to be wearing the hijab, so that was kind of why I didn’t go through labels. Instead, I started my own company and I recorded myself, you know, like produced my own albums and stuff like that.”

On who she’s singing to

“I see myself as a storyteller so sometimes I feel like I’m writing to an audience. But at the same time, sometimes I feel like I’m writing to just one person, if it’s like based on my personal experience. But yeah, I mean, I get my inspiration from a lot of different things. For example, like if I talk to a friend and, you know like if she’s going through a bad relationship and stuff like that, you know that’s something that would — like oh okay maybe I will sing about this, I feel like a lot of people can relate to this.”

On how religion figures into her music

Here & Now host Jeremy Hobson (center) is pictured with Yuna and Lincoln Jesser. (Here & Now)

Here & Now host Jeremy Hobson (center) is pictured with Yuna and Lincoln Jesser. (Here & Now)

“It plays a huge part. Obviously, you know, it is what it is. I’m a Malaysian Muslim, I grew up practicing Islam and there’s a focus there to just make music for a greater good. You know what I mean? Like I don’t sing about dancing in clubs and stuff like that. I feel like I have a little bit of a responsibility, and just making music to make people feel good about themselves. And you know, I just want to spread this positive energy and I think, even though we’re all different, in music there’s no — it’s borderless, you know? And I feel that’s a way for me to reach out to people who are not like me but they could relate to my songs.”

On people calling her song “Rescue” a feminist anthem

“I find it really weird because I don’t consider myself a feminist. And I don’t see how that song is a feminist anthem. It’s just a song I wrote about all the strong women I know in my life. For example, my mom and my friends back home in Malaysia. They’ve gone through so much and they’re so strong. And my mom, she’s a really strong individual, emotionally and physically and spiritually, and she’s always out there, looking out for me. I guess I just wanted to celebrate that strength.”

Guest

Transcript

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

It's HERE AND NOW.

And if you've been listening to this show regularly, you've probably heard our DJ Sessions. And if you have, you may have heard from this artist, who's actually been featured a couple of times. Her name is Yuna.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOUNTAINS")

YUNALIS MAT ZARA'AI: (Singing) Place me in the corner inside your heart so that you remember.

HOBSON: This song, "Mountains," is on Yuna's new album, "Nocturnal." She is from Malaysia but is currently headlining a tour in the U.S. for the first time and was kind enough to come in to our studio for a visit. Yuna, welcome to HERE AND NOW.

ZARA'AI: Hi.

HOBSON: And we've also got Lincoln Jesser, the guitarist, here with us as well. Thank you for being here.

LINCOLN JESSER: Thanks for having us.

HOBSON: And Yuna, you are on tour now for the first time in the U.S.

ZARA'AI: Yeah. It's actually my first headlining tour. So it's really exciting, especially when you get to travel, going from one city to another, knowing that, you know, the crowd that's going to show up is my crowd. So it's a lot of fun.

HOBSON: Well, let's - for people who have not heard you before, I want to get right to the music so we can hear a little bit of it. Let's listen to your song "Rescue," if you could do that for us.

ZARA'AI: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RESCUE")

ZARA'AI: (Singing) She thinks she's all alone and all her hopes are gone. And so I wrote this song so she can move along. Things were bad. She was in despair. Things were bad and you were never there. Oh, things were bad. She came up for air. She said a little prayer, and she found herself. Yeah, she's got light in her face. She don't need no rescuing. She's OK. Yeah. She's got life in her veins. She don't need no rescuing. She's OK. No SOS needed, no rescuing. She's fine out there. No SOS needed, no rescuing. She's fine out there. Yeah, she's got light in her face. She don't need no rescuing. She's OK.

(Singing) She looks into the sky, and all her tears are dry. She kiss her fears goodbye. She's going to be alright. Things were bad. They were beyond repair. She was scared. She couldn't handle it. Things were bad, but now she's glad. Can't you tell that she's walking on air? Yeah. She's got light in her face. She don't need no rescuing. She's OK. Yeah. She's got life in her veins. She don't need no rescuing. She's OK. No SOS needed, no rescuing. She's fine out there. No SOS needed, no rescuing. She's fine out there. Yeah. She's got life in her veins. She don't need no rescuing. She's OK.

HOBSON: Wow. That was great. What an honor to have you do that right here.

ZARA'AI: Thank you. Thanks for having us.

HOBSON: That song that we just heard, "Rescue," people have called it a feminist anthem. Is that the way you see it?

ZARA'AI: I find it really weird because I don't consider myself a feminist, and I don't see how that song is a feminist anthem. It's just a song that I wrote about, you know, all the strong women that I know in my life, example like my mom and my friends, you know, back home in Malaysia. And they've gone through so much and, you know, they're still strong. And my mom, she's a really strong individual, emotionally and physically, you know, and she's always - spiritually. And she's always like out there, you know, looking out for me. And I guess I just wanted to celebrate that strength.

HOBSON: Well, tell us a little bit about yourself, because you did go to law school before you became a musician.

ZARA'AI: Yeah, I did. And my final - during my final semester, I was doing a lot of music. I was hanging out with a lot of my musician friends, and these are like Malaysian kids who were just like doing their own thing and their own music and their own recording and - without going through any labels in Malaysia. And I was just so impressed by that and I wanted to do it as well, you know what I mean? So that's how I got into music.

HOBSON: You're also Muslim. You're wearing a headscarf right now.

ZARA'AI: Yeah. Yeah, I am.

HOBSON: And you have actually gotten some attention for wearing headscarves that are very fashionable.

(LAUGHTER)

ZARA'AI: Yeah. A little bit, I think. Even in Malaysia, you know, it was like a little bit of a new thing. We have, like, Malay Muslim girls who were, you know, who were performers. They were artists. But with me, I was the first one who covered up and, you know, I was - I just wanted to be myself. I didn't want to change for the industry and anything like that. So...

HOBSON: Did you feel pressure to do that?

ZARA'AI: Well, no. Not at all. I mean, obviously the way it was before, this was like, you know, seven, eight years ago, I was approached by a recording label and, you know, they - but this was in Malaysia. So they were telling me, like, it will be a little bit difficult if, you know, if I were to be wearing the hijab. So that was kind of like why, you know, I didn't go through labels. Instead, I started my own company and I recorded myself, you know, like produced my own albums and stuff like that. So...

HOBSON: Was it harder, though, when you do it that way to become, for example, a big success here in this country?

ZARA'AI: Well, coming out here, you know, I had like a positive mindset. I really just wanted to make music, and I felt that, you know, Los Angeles was a perfect place for me to do so because it's just a creative hub where everyone like - there's a lot of talent in Los Angeles and, you know, for example, that's how I met like Lincoln and a lot of other producers that I work with, and I love it. You know, like - it's like a really great working atmosphere for me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WANT YOU BACK")

ZARA'AI: (Singing) Because I just thought I should let you know. I want you back.

HOBSON: We're speaking with Yuna, who is headlining her first tour in the United States. This is her song, "I Want You Back."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WANT YOU BACK")

ZARA'AI: (Singing) It's giving you a heart attack. Hate myself for doing that. You're the best thing I've ever known.

HOBSON: This is HERE AND NOW.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HOBSON: This is HERE AND NOW. And we're back now with Yuna. Here is her song "Lights and Camera" off her new album.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIGHTS AND CAMERA")

ZARA'AI: (Singing) Lights, camera, strike a pose. Have someone help you put lipstick on. Yeah. High heels, now you're six feet tall and everybody knows who you are. And nobody cares if your heart is aching. Nobody cares if you want no more. Nobody wants to know you cried the night before.

HOBSON: Well, as we have been hearing, Yuna is from Malaysia. She was in law school when she decided to focus on music instead. She has her own clothing business, offering fashionable yet modest clothes for Muslim women. And she's headlining her first tour in the U.S. right now. And Yuna, when you're singing or writing music, who are you thinking of that you're singing to?

ZARA'AI: I see myself as a storyteller, so sometimes I feel like I'm writing to an audience. But at the same time, sometimes I feel like I'm writing to just one person if it's like based on my personal experience. But yeah, I mean, like, I get my inspiration from a lot of different things.

For example, like if I talk to a friend and, you know, like if she's going through a bad relationship and stuff like that, you know, that's something that would - like, oh, OK. Maybe, you know, I'll sing about this. I feel like a lot of people can relate to this.

HOBSON: Does your religion figure into your music at all?

ZARA'AI: Yeah. It plays a huge part. Obviously, you know, I'm - it is what it is. I'm a Malaysian Muslim. I grew up, you know, practicing Islam, and there's a focus there to just make music for a greater good. You know what I mean? Like, I don't sing about dancing in clubs and stuff like that. I feel like I have a little bit of a responsibility, and just like making music to make people feel good about themselves.

And you know, like, I just want to spread this positive energy. And I think even though we're all different, in music there's no - it's borderless, you know? And I feel that's a way for me to like, you know, reach out to people who are not like me but they could relate to my songs, you know what I mean? So yeah.

HOBSON: Is there anything that the Malaysian audience gets about your music that the American audience doesn't? Do you notice?

ZARA'AI: I don't think so. I don't feel like whenever I go back to Malaysia I'm another person and when I'm out here I'm another person. Basically, I'm just me. You know, like, I find it really hard to pretend to play parts. You know, how like sometimes artists they have, like, their alter egos and stuff like that? Like, I'm not that person.

Basically, like, I grew up, you know, being a singer-songwriter. And out here, I'm just like growing from that into, like, you know, something bigger and, you know, making, like, exploring different types of music. And that happened to me, like when I move out to Los Angeles like three years ago and now it's still like a growing process. And then, like, when I go back to Malaysia, it's - I'm still me.

HOBSON: Who are your biggest influences?

ZARA'AI: My biggest influences would be Leslie Feist. She's amazing. I think the first time I saw her perform, you know, it was a YouTube video on - and she was performing in Paris. And she was performing, you know, she played the guitar, she sang and, you know, she was flawless, and I fell in love with her. So I just, like, oh, one day, I want to be just like her. And so, yeah, that kind of like motivated me to write my own music as well.

HOBSON: Well, I want to hear another song from you...

ZARA'AI: Of course.

HOBSON: And this is the song "Falling."

ZARA'AI: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FALLING")

ZARA'AI: (Singing) Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh. It's been a long day. I can't seem to get up again. I want to fall asleep so I don't have to remember. Oh, don't have to call me. I turned my phone off. Let the pillows to protect my heart. No, don't have to check up on me. I'll be all right. I turned off the lights and sweep into the night. I keep falling. I keep falling. I keep falling. I keep falling. I keep falling. I keep falling. I keep falling. I keep falling for you. I wanna forget all this burden in my past. Oh, I want to fall asleep so I don't have to remember. Yay. Oh, don't have to call me. I turned my phone off. Let the pillows to protect my heart. No, don't have to check up on me. I'll be all right. I turned off the lights and sweep into the night. I keep falling. I keep falling. I keep falling. I keep falling. I keep falling. I keep falling. I keep falling. I keep falling for you.

HOBSON: Thank you so much.

ZARA'AI: Thank you.

HOBSON: Yuna Zarai'ai, also known as just simply Yuna, and her guitarist here with her, Lincoln Jesser, thanks to both of you for coming in.

ZARA'AI: Thanks for having us.

JESSER: Thank you.

HOBSON: And, Robin, I was able to see Yuna perform as well in concert.

ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:

Mm-hmm.

HOBSON: And, wow, she is really fantastic. You can check out her tour dates at hereandnow.org. And you can also see a photo of her visit to our studios.

YOUNG: We'll do. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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