Award-winning singer Yuna is already a star in her native Malaysia, where she has been on the rise since her debut in 2008. She's also an observant Muslim and an entrepreneur. Yuna runs a fashion boutique that sells funky but modest clothes that meet the requirements of her faith. And while she's climbing the American charts with her new album, Nocturnal, she's not compromising her style or her religion. "I'm a Muslim. I don't try to hide it," Yuna says. "I'm also a girl who loves music."
Yuna spoke with Tell Me More host Michel Martin about her music, her heritage and her faith.
On life as a Muslim "pop star"
When I first started playing music, I was already covered ... wearing headscarves. And, like, normally, people would expect you to change, toss this part of your life away so that you could be a pop star. But I just wanted to make music, not really be a "pop star" pop star. And there's always people who wouldn't necessarily agree with what I'm doing right now. But ... I'm really happy with where I am right now, you know. I'm a Muslim. I don't try to hide it. I'm also a girl who loves music. And I don't try to hide that as well.
On the risk of reaching to the U.S.
I was doing quite well in Malaysia. ... Everyone was so excited about my music, and they started accepting me as an artist. And coming out here was like taking a risk. But it's something that I really wanted to do for a very long time. Like, I need to do something with my English music. ... Coming out here kind of enabled me to experiment with a lot of different music, and I really wanted to come up with music that the whole world could relate to.
On writing songs in English instead of Malay
I kind of always struggled writing in Malay, because Malay is such a beautiful language. And it gets really hard, you know, if you want to make it into a song. It's kind of tricky. You have to make it sound beautiful, use the right words. And with English, you can be direct, like writing a letter to someone.
On "stay true to yourself," the message behind her song "Lights and Camera"
Being in the spotlight, you know, you tend to kind of forget who you are. And being an artist ... it could be a very superficial job. It could be very pretentious as well. People just ... see the surface of it, and not really getting into, like, who this person really is. And ... they don't know what's going on with this person. As that person, sometimes you kind of lose track of who you are. And usually everything is moving so fast, and, you know, you kind of get lost in everything. So I just wanted to write a strong song about knowing who you are and being yourself no matter what.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. So what if I told you she's a lawyer and she runs a clothing boutique where she sells funky-but-modest clothing to meet the requirements of her Muslim faith in style? Would any of that say pop star to you? But pop star is exactly who Yuna is.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ESCAPE")
MARTIN: That was "Escape" from Yuna's latest album. It's called "Nocturnal." Already a star in her native Malaysia, where she began writing songs as a teenager and won the equivalent of a Grammy there, she's in the U.S. now making music and talking with us. And she's with us now from NPR West. Yuna, thanks so much for joining us.
YUNA: Hi. Thanks for having me.
MARTIN: So what is your full name, if you don't mind my asking?
YUNA: My full name is Yunalis Zara'ai, and Yuna for short.
MARTIN: And Yuna for short. And is that - that's the name you perform under in Malaysia, correct?
MARTIN: How did you start writing music? I now understand that your dad, he's a legal advisor for the government. I think your mom is a chemistry teacher, if I have that right?
MARTIN: Now none of that really screams, you know, pop star, but a pop star...
YUNA: Pop star. Yeah, no. To be honest with you, I grew up, you know, loving music. My dad, he used to play in a band in college. And, you know, he plays the guitar. He plays the drums. He plays keyboard. So I kind of grew up exposed to, like, a lot of, like, different types of music. And I started singing at the age of, like, 6 or 7. My parents, they nurtured my enthusiasm in music. But, you know, they never really, like - oh, you're going to be a star. You know what I mean? Like, there's a lot of parents out there, you know, I know who kind of, like, just, when they find out that their kids could sing, immediately they want them to be in the music industry.
But it wasn't like that for me. Like, I went to school, you know. They always told me to do well. And, you know, just every day I just wanted to be smart. And, like, my mission was just to go to college and then graduate. And I think when I was in second year or third year in law school, I started making friends with a lot of musicians. Back then, you know, MySpace music was taking off. And a lot of kids were just like, OK, you know, like, setting up bands and, like, performing at independent gigs. And I just wanted to be a part of that. And I got so inspired with everything.
MARTIN: You know, what I was curious about is that you are obviously bilingual. I mean, you - but you started writing songs in English, which has got to be helpful since you're now, you know, in the U.S. But I have to assume that on the music scene in Malaysia, they would kind of appreciate songs to be in Malay. So why did you start writing in English? Did you kind of have a sense in the back of your mind that you wanted to go beyond Malaysia at one point? Or why is that? Or is that just how you feel most creative?
YUNA: I kind of, like, always struggled writing in Malay 'cause Malay is such a beautiful language, and it gets really hard. You know, if you want to make it into a song, you know, it's kind of tricky. You have to make it sound beautiful, use the right words. And with English, it can be direct like writing a letter to someone. You know what I mean? And...
MARTIN: I've never heard it expressed that way. But I take your point since your English is far better than my Malay. And..
YUNA: But, yeah.
MARTIN: ...I believe you.
YUNA: Yeah, so I grew up listening to, like, the Beatles, the stuff that my dad used to listen to - Eric Clapton. And yeah, I guess it was more natural in me to write in English.
MARTIN: How would you describe your sound?
YUNA: Before I started doing the singer-songwriter thing, I was in this R&B group - five-girl group like Destiny's Child kind of thing. You know, we did that. I did that. It was - yeah.
MARTIN: Although, I think the outfits were a little different since you are observant, and you do cover your hair and...
MARTIN: I don't think you've quite the same wardrobe concepts, but...
YUNA: No, no. But going through those different phases helped me a lot in discovering my own style. It's pop. Like, my music is pop, generally. But I try to experiment with a lot of different styles, you know. Oh, well, let's put jazz in here or hip-hop or electronica or R&B. So, yeah.
MARTIN: Well, let's play something. What should we - we were going to play "Rescue." Do you think that is a good...
YUNA: Oh, yeah. Sure.
MARTIN: ...Example? OK. All right.
MARTIN: Here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RESCUE")
MARTIN: So tell me about that one. That's interesting 'cause I'm kind of hearing some of the current popular British pop-star sound in there, like a little Adele, a little of Emeli Sande in there. But I also feel like...
YUNA: Oh, cool.
MARTIN: ...If am I right about this, some instruments - do I have this right? That may be more traditional - that we associate more with traditional Asian music, some of the instruments there?
YUNA: Yeah, we wanted to do something uplifting and something catchy. And at the same time, you know, like, very - there's a realness to it, I feel, you know, like, the music, you know, the instruments. So, yeah.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we are talking with the artist Yuna. We're talking about her latest CD "Nocturnal." And we're also talking about, you know, her journey from Malaysia to the U.S., where she's living and working now. I did mention your amazing look. I don't know what you're wearing now. But on your album covers, you've always got these great head wraps and these great patterns and a lot of - I don't know. You've got a very distinctive look. And then in your country where you have this boutique, as we mentioned, you know, people are - you opened it in part because people wanted to copy your look. So first I wanted to ask, how is it that you happened to get here? And is it hard to, in a way, start over here?
YUNA: I was doing quite well in Malaysia. You know, like, I had a stable income and great momentum. You know, everyone was just, like, so excited about my music, and they started accepting me as an artist. And coming out here was kind of like taking a risk. But it's something that I really wanted to do for a very long time. Like, I need to do something with my English music. That's what I really, really wanted to do. Like, back home, I was doing a lot of English music, but they weren't going anywhere. Coming out here kind of, like, enabled me to experiment with a lot of different music. And, you know, I really wanted to come up with music that the whole world could relate to and - so, yeah.
MARTIN: One thing I was curious about is what your experiences have been performing in the U.S. as an observant Muslim. It is important to you to observe the - at least the modesty requirements of the faith. Has that at all been a challenge?
YUNA: No, not at all. I started out - you know, when I first started playing music, I was already covered. I was already, you know, wearing headscarves. And, like, normally, people would expect you to change - toss this part of your life away so that you could be like a pop star. But I just, like, wanted to make music, not really be a pop-star pop star. And there's always, like, people who wouldn't necessarily agree with what I'm doing right now. But, you know, I feel like as long as I get blessings from my parents - they were the ones who were just really, you know, supportive. And they really believed that I could contribute something. You know...
MARTIN: You thank them in the album. I know that one of the things I like is that you thank them in the liner notes of your album. You say, thank you to my parents for all their love and support.
MARTIN: And they are the first people you thank along with everybody from Malaysia. You have fans all over the world. So you have a lot of people to thank in the liner notes, but the parents are number one.
MARTIN: So your attitude is, like, if they're supportive, and they are, then...
MARTIN: ...You know...
YUNA: Although, I mean, you know, like, as long as I'm comfortable with myself. You know, I'm really happy with where I am right now, you know. I'm a Muslim. I don't try to hide it. I'm also a girl who loves music, and I don't try to hide that as well. So, yeah.
MARTIN: We were talking about the importance of kind of being comfortable in your own skin. How about "Lights and Camera"? I just want to play...
MARTIN: ...A little bit of that. And then...
YUNA: Yeah, of course.
MARTIN: We'll play a little bit of that, and then you can tell us about what was the idea here.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIGHTS AND CAMERA")
YUNA: I just wanted to, you know, put it out there, like, being in the spotlight, you know, you tend to kind of, like, forget who you are. And being an artist, you know, it's not exactly, like, it's - it could be, like, a very superficial job. It could be very pretentious as well. And, you know, people just kind of, like, see the surface of it and not really getting into, like, who this person really is.
And, you know, they don't know kind of, like - you know, what's going on with this person. And as that person, you know, sometimes you kind of, like, lose track of, you know, who you are. And usually everything is moving so fast and, you know, you kind of just, like, get lost in everything. So, you know, I just wanted to write, like, a strong song about, you know, like, knowing who you are and being yourself no matter what.
MARTIN: That was singer-songwriter Yuna. We've been talking about her latest album. It is called "Nocturnal." And we're going to go out on one of the cuts from the album. She says it's her favorite. It's called "Mountains." And she was kind enough to join us from NPR West, which is in Culver City, California. Yuna, thank you so much for speaking with us.
YUNA: You're welcome. Thank you for having me.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOUNTAINS")
MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.