“Those were the best years of my life, so far,” Malaysian singer-songwriter turned international sensation Yuna reflects, sitting on top the grass in the middle of UC Irvine’s Aldrich Park.
It was well past 8 o’clock that Tuesday night. On only day two of UCI’s Welcome Week, hopeful incoming students and returners were readjusting back into the school grind, entertained by an array of performances from UCI student organizations, collegiate dance teams and aspiring singer-songwriters alike.
“You learn so much about yourself and that’s where you find friends who will be there for the rest of your life, you know?” she continues.
Yuna, arriving a little later than expected in just one-hour before her performance time, was gracious enough to speak with me about college, her Muslim identity, being a symbol for women, and–of course–her music and possibility of a new album in the works.
But, all music aside, she proved to have a lot more to say to us specifically as young individuals and college students that you, hopefully, will be able to take something home for yourself as well.
So I know you’re very open about your religion. How do you think that influences how you approach your music?
“I feel like with having something you believe in, something you hold onto, regardless of if it’s religion or just your moral values–if you have great moral values, it can take you really far in life. Despite what people think [and] if people think, ‘Oh you gotta push the envelope, you gotta push boundaries,’ I like to think that I’m pushing boundaries in a different way. [Laughs] You know, be myself and just be true to myself. I think that’s an important message to people out there, even when you’re trying to do something.”
“Having a religion,” she continues, “enables me to believe you don’t have to impress anybody. You kind of have that discipline. I believe in working really hard and steering away from the negative stuff–the negative side of the industry, you know. It can suck you in and you can just get lost in it. It’s a good thing I’ve been out here for three-and-a-half years and I feel focused and working on my own stuff. I steer away from all the things I don’t need to do [and] I think I’m really lucky because, later in life you will learn [that] some things you just don’t have time to do anymore.
What do you mean by that?
“Like, partying. For me, it started really early and I was like I don’t do those kind of stuff, I just want to focus on my music. I guess it has a lot to do with my Muslim identity–the way I behave and the way I live my life.”
Do you think [your religion] has affected your career in a bad way? Do people react badly to it or–?
“Oh no! Actually, it’s the opposite. And it’s kind of crazy, you know. Moving out here I thought people are going to be like, ‘Mmmm’ [shakes her head]. I don’t know what people are gonna think about me, because there’s nobody out there doing stuff that I’m doing.”
I think people appreciate you being yourself. People always look up to that!
“I probably represent the normal ‘good girl,’ like, normal good people! Ha ha. I feel like because I’ve been there, I’ve been a teenager and I’ve been a student, I’ve gone through all these things where … there’s peer pressure, or [people] trying to be cool or trying to be something else.”
She goes on, “You see someone like Gwen Stefani and you feel like you can relate to her–or you want to relate to her–because she’s like this badass and cool chick. But [that] wasn’t me, you know. I wish I had someone who’s more like me. People like Norah Jones who managed to stay low-key and make great music, and Adele, someone like that who existed ten years ago [could] also be like me. I could be linked to them.”
With her latest album Nocturnal having been released last year under major record label Verve Music Group with Universal, she says, “Even though ‘Nocturnal’ is not mainstream–it’s underground–it’s really fun to be able to make music for your crowd without trying to sell it [like] a random pop radio hit.”
You were talking about how you went to school [and] you studied law. How did that come about? What made you interested in law?
“Well, it was something that I always wanted to do ever since I was a kid. I loved music, I loved singing, I loved, you know, fashion, art and all these things creative. But at the same time I really wanted to know more and I wanted to gain knowledge about something. I was really interested in law and international law and criminal law and, I graduated. But during my final year, I was getting back into music and I was hanging out with a lot of singer-songwriters, you know, people like this [she motions towards the stage at a musician playing]. Just plays a guitar and performs and I want[ed] to learn how to play the guitar too. So I learned how to play the guitar and started writing my own stuff. After I graduated, it was just full-on music for me.”
Cool. I’m a musician myself and I play guitar and, I’m not sure why, but I like talking to people and doing things like this–talking to musicians especially–because it kind of helps me navigate where I really want to go with this thing.
“Yeah! I feel like you should just be an all a’rounder, you know. Especially at a young age, you just have to try a little bit of everything. Law could have been a really good field for me working, but I feel like I wouldn’t be as happy as I am right now pursuing music because I have the need to create. With law, it’s dry and it’s just from books and facts. But with music, with art, with everything, you’re just able to create and that’s something that I love doing, ever since I was a little kid.”
I was just about to ask you–how and when did you realize that you wanted to pursue music?
“I think after law school. [Laughs] I love singing, but I always knew that growing up in Malaysia, [pursuing music] wasn’t a realistic thing to do. We have singers here and there [and] they’re like, ‘Oh well we have this person already as a singer, why do you want to try and be a singer?’ For me, I looked at it differently when I found out that I could write music [and] write my own things. In Malaysia, it wasn’t like that. It was just singers–”
Just like covering songs?
“Yeah! Singers singing people’s songs, or they hire songwriters to write for them. Kind of just like pop stars. So that was when I decided I’m gonna try to write my own music and come up with my own album and see what happens.”
What would you say is your personal philosophy on music? Like, why do you think you do what you do?
“I think you just do whatever makes you happy. Because in life, I know one day you will realize that your dream job is not your dream job. For example, this could be my dream job, but I’m learning a lot of new things around it. Like I love fashion, I love business, and I’m thinking maybe I’m more of a businesswoman than a singer, you know, because that’s where my passion is. [Yuna has her own fashion line called 14NOV. You can visit it at novemberculture.com.] You don’t really know where you’ll end up.”
It’s kind of like growing up is kind of like a process, where you’re trying to figure out what you’re good at, in a way.
“Yeah! Your philosophy should be like you’re always growing and you’ll always have to be a student. You will just not stop learning things. Some people think they know everything and don’t want to accept something new and, for me, that’s not the way I want to live life. I’m always learning and I’m always like a kid. Not childish, but childlike–”
You’re always curious.
“Always curious about stuff. I was wanting to learn new things so I think that [to] always be a student in life. [Laughs]”
When people listen to your music, what do you hope they get from listening to your music?
“I just want them to feel good about themselves, most importantly. Like, I don’t want people to get drunk and listen to my music.”
Oh no! Haha.
“[Laughs] Because that’s why–it would be such a waste because I put in so much effort into writing stuff, very emotional stuff. So, I’m not about to write club hits and stuff like that. I love working with DJs and stuff like that, [but] it has to be something meaningful. For example, I worked with Adventure Club, right. And they’re a dub-step DJ [and] they’re so successful. But we worked on this song called ‘Gold’ and it has a positive message. I listen to people [who say], ‘Oh I work out to that song’ and–see–that’s what I’m trying to do in life, you know. I’m not about to write songs that are mindless, like, ‘Tonight’s gonna be the night!’ and ‘We’re gonna live forever!’ These things are fantasies. They’re not real. So I just want to write about, real stuff!”
I know a lot of women look up to you, so what is your stance on being a symbol for women? And would you call yourself a feminist? I know this is a crazy question, but–
“Oh no, it’s fine! I don’t know if I call myself a feminist! I got a lot of flag when I said in this one interview, that I don’t see myself as a feminist. [Laughs] And all the feminists out there would just be like, ‘Oh why does she say that?!'”
You’re kind of just doing your own thing, in a way?
“Yeah, I’m doing my own thing and I believe in humanity. You know, I help wherever I can. I had this opportunity to work with UN Women and I believe in that cause. But what about kids? Unisex? I try to get as involved as I can and, of course one of the things I want to do is [empower] women to not be afraid and always take care of themselves and always know their limit, you know. Not be afraid.”
She continues, “Find your strength. Because women, we are special people. We’re the special ones. [She begins to motion emphatically] We’re the most emotional, we’re the most passionate, we’re the most nurturing between the sexes, you know. So I feel like, yeah maybe a part of me is a feminist, but you know, at the same time it’s not like I’m out there. I want to make something that everybody can use, because I feel like happiness and the right to feel good about [your]self is universal. Anybody should be able to feel that.”
Cool, definitely. So do you have any upcoming plans for a new album, or–?
“Yeah I’m working on a new album. I’m on tour right now and I’m currently recording for a new album. I’m trying different things [because] I feel like as an artist you constantly have to grow. I’ve been working with a lot of R&B/Electronica producers, so I guess it would be a little different from the last album, which was more percussion and fun drums and stuff like that. Maybe this time around it’s more laid-back, more R&B and more 90’s laid-back, chill vibe kind’a. I don’t know what to call it! [Laughs] It’s heading that way.”
Do you have any last comments you want to tell everyone?
“Yeah! I just wanna say thank you so much for having me, this is exciting. I feel like I’m always excited to perform for universities.”
Especially in this mindset–
“Yeah because I’ve been there, you know. I was a student myself and those were the best years of my life, so far. [Laughs] I still have friends who I met in college who are still with me. [So] just go for your dreams. You’re young and don’t waste it. Don’t be one of those wasted youths! [Laughs]”
Oh man, I don’t intend on that!
“Ha ha! Don’t waste your life.”
Graciously asking my friend if he wanted to snap a few photos of her before leaving, she readily smiled, posed and charmed the camera just as any natural would. With confidence and a carefree attitude, her spirit was shining.
As students eagerly surrounded the stage for Yuna to finally grace them with her presence, she was met by an uproar of cheers, love and welcomes.
Saying that she enjoys “listening to a lot of different types of music,” Yuna cites a lot of 90’s music as her biggest influences in developing her sound (The Cardigans, Fiona Apple) and more current artists (Little Dragon, Corinne Bailey Rae, Norah Jones and Drake).
She even adds, “My passion would be to do something more of a Björk-ish kind of sound. I’m not there obviously, but it’d be kind of cool to have a [big] orchestra sound.” [Is she hinting at what we should expect for her next album?]
But with the music bumping and a live band right behind her that night, she transported everyone into an atmosphere of good vibes, chill tunes and some haunting lullabies.
“I just want people to feel good about themselves,” she reflects.
Watch Yuna perform her song “Mountains” live in Aldrich Park below (video credit to YouTuber MissTheaterLIFE):