Muslim Songstress Yuna Talks Breakups and Usher Collabs
It’s not often that an interview with a musician ends with plans to meet up and recommendations for dinner restaurants. But, then again, most musicians aren’t Yuna. Born Yunalis Mat Zara’ai, Yuna is a Muslim songstress who picked up ten Malaysian Music Awards and a law degree in her homeland before crossing over to America. She’s lovely, and as content talking about her smooth, ’90s-infused R&B music as she is gossiping about how hard it is to meet guys. She’s also a social media fiend, quick to Snapchat everything from her latest photoshoot to her post-fasting feast during Ramadan. Even as we sat talking on a couch last week, she stopped twice to take photos of the pins on my denim jacket to send out to her fans, which made me feel better about my own incessant Snapchat addiction—though mine usually consists of dogs on the street and horrifying face-filtered selfies.
By the time we get to the subject of her favorite movies (Interstellar and Star Wars), it’s easy to forget that Yuna is one of the most promising singer/songwriters in R&B—although, that may be because we went deep in disagreement over the quality of the Hayden Christensen-led Star Wars trilogy. Fresh off the release of Chapters, her new album featuring smooth vocals from Jhené Aiko and Usher, Yuna will be playing at the New York debut of the Roots Picnic in October. With all that and an upcoming clothing line set for release in August, it’s safe to say that she is (almost) 30, flirty, and thriving. After the musician showed off her uncanny ability to be photogenic at every angle on the Milk Studios roof, we sat down to talk about her duet with Usher, how much we miss Myspace, getting stared at by Shia LaBeouf, and more.
Before you got into music, you went to college and got a Bachelor’s degree in Legal Studies. Did you want to become a lawyer?
I did! For the longest time, I think since I was little. I wanted to be a singer, but being a singer and being raised in an Asian family, my parents were just kind of like, “Well probably not a singer, Yuna. Probably a lawyer.”
Did your parents practice law at all?
My dad is in law! He’s a High Court judge.
I was about to say, usually when kids are young they want to be astronauts and stuff. What caused the jump from law to music?
I’ve always been into music ever since I was a little kid—I loved singing. When I was 17 or 18, I decided to focus on school and got into law school. I focused on it for a year and a half, but that’s when I started making friends with a lot of local bands who weren’t signed to any record labels.
They had their own CD and put out their own albums. I didn’t know you could actually do this! I was so inspired by them, and when I started to hang around them so much, I learned how to play the guitar better and I learned how to write my own songs. That was when I put out my music on MySpace.
Aww, I miss MySpace!
I know! [Laughs] It was a lot of fun because you just put it out there and let things happen organically. In my third year of law school, I started getting gig offers. I released my first EP and got put on the radio so by the time I was in my final year, I was already doing music professionally. It was really weird!
You just had a video come out for your song “Crush” with Usher. How did that collaboration happen?
He wanted to meet me two years ago in L.A., so I went with my manager to meet him and he said he loved my music. We were talking about music and at the time, I wasn’t working on my album yet. When I finally did [start working on it], I hadn’t talked to him in a very long time. I was writing “Crush” and I thought it was beautiful but it wasn’t going to be anything if I didn’t have anybody on it. I asked him if he wanted to be on the track and a couple months later, he sent the full track!
I want to talk about your album, Chapters. The album is really about the feelings you have after a breakup. Do you have any post-breakup tips?
[Laughs] Try something really new! Just do everything new. After the breakup, I became a cooler version of me and I really like that. I got my license. I failed twice, but when you focus on something getting better in your life, you forget about everything else that was bringing you down.
I bet he feels stupid now!
Yeah he does. [Laughs] My advice for people out there who are going through a breakup is to just try something new. You’ll surprise yourself! It’s a lot of fun when you learn new things about yourself.
“What I’m trying to portray not just to Muslim women, but to every woman, is just to be yourself.”
When you started doing music, you never showed your face. And when you did, people realized you wear a hijab. What would you say to the people who criticize you for it?
To me, it’s my identity. Women are women no matter what we wear—we’re still the same. We can still be successful, we can still be free, and speak our minds. It’s a part of me. What I’m trying to portray not just to Muslim women, but to every woman, is just to be yourself. Keep that magic to yourself. You can still be stylish.
Speaking of that, you’ve got great style. Has that always been important to you?
Kind of, yeah. I really take care of my appearance and I know fashion. I normally wear sneakers, but I’m in New York—I’m going to be wearing my boots. [Laughs]
It makes sense considering you have a clothing store, November Culture. How’d that start?
I opened it in Malaysia and I sell clothes, scarves, and accessories, but then at the back, we run a business called Tiny Forest Terrariums. My mom runs it and it’s doing really well.
That’s great! Do you have any style inspirations?
I love Cate Blanchett. It’s not really her style, but the way she carries herself. Very poised! That’s the kind of vibe I want to embody. But I also like Gwen Stefani. That’s the grungy side of me but with the poise of…
Cate Blanchett? [Laughs] Now, you’ve been in L.A. for a few years. What’s your favorite part?
I love the beach life! I love being able to drive to Malibu almost every weekend.
No juice cleanses or turning vegan?
No, I’m not vegan. I can’t function without meat, but I respect people who become vegetarian. I mean, it is healthier to be vegetarian.
Oh yeah totally. Have you had any weird run-ins with celebrities since you moved there?
Kind of! [Laughs] I went to Tender Greens in Hollywood, and freakin’ Shia LaBeouf was right in front of me in line and he kept looking at me. I was so nervous. Do I say hi? Do I look at him? He was just staring at me.
Did he ever say anything?
No! He was just at the counter looking at the food and then looking at me. We had a moment.
Stay tuned to Milk for more from Yuna.
Images shot exclusively for Milk by Yulia Zinshtein.
Check out Yuna’s latest album, Chapters.