Yuna Releases Two Years’ Worth of Bottled-Up Emotion on Y5

by Iman Sultan

A black and white portrait of Yuna wearing a black outfit and a black wide brimmed hat
Photograph by Bibo Aswan

The first time Yuna Zarai performed a concert in the United States, she wore a full-length hijab. “My first show, I remember, was in Austin, Texas,” she recalls with a laugh on Zoom, sitting in the sun-dappled living room of her home in Los Angeles. The same mic she uses to record her songs hangs from her computer, while big black headphones circle her head, which is covered by a gray bucket hat and a hijab. “People were so confused, but at the end of the show, they came up to me and asked, ‘Where are you from?’ They were curious and wanted to learn more.”

It was the early 2010s, back when diversity and inclusion weren’t central conversations within the entertainment industry. The hijab, a way to practice modesty for some Muslim women, was regarded with suspicion in the aftermath of 9/11—a far cry from the visibility of hijab-clad models and actresses in the media today.

“I think a lot of people thought I was crazy to do this,” Yuna, who immigrated from her home country of Malaysia to make soulful, feminine, R&B songs as a professional singer, says. “Islamophobia is a thing in America, but that didn’t stop me from going toward something I wanted. The number-one fear was, will she be accepted by the music industry for who she is? I was like, we’ll find out. I wasn’t surprised when I found my people, who believed in what I was doing.”

Inspired by artists like Usher, Alicia Keys, and Lauryn Hill, Yuna first heard R&B music at school in Kuala Lumpur in the late 1990s, when MTV aired on cable television and Malaysian youth experimented with making their own local version of hip-hop. Yuna’s talent was, indeed, prodigious. Her first single, “Live Your Life,” was produced by Pharrell. Before that, she had learned to play guitar as a teenager, independently writing her own songs.

Yuna is now working on her forthcoming album, Y5, which releases in November. Departing from the commercial model of a record label producing her album, Yuna has released her fifth album over a series of EPs, which drop online with accompanying music videos every few months. Below, the artists discusses her journey of going indie, the influence the pandemic had on her craft, and what she’s listening to these days.

During the pandemic, you turned your father’s office into a studio and learned to produce. What makes this album unique in your career?

I was definitely more involved in the process. Most of the songs I recorded here, with this mic—and with my cat running around. The words and the lyrics are everything that has been bottled up for two years of not being able to work on music [because of the pandemic].

I lost my cousin last year in July [to Covid] and that really changed the way I see life now. She had been there for me since I was a baby, and I don’t have any siblings—so she was like my sister. I talk about that in my album. And being married to my husband, someone so incredible; I can write about that forever. These are all stories I always wanted to tell, so now I’m saying it over 15 songs.

You’ve been dropping a new EP every few months. What kind of engagement have you been getting from posting your music online? Do you feel in some ways you’re able to connect with your fans more directly?

If you put out an album, you have to invest a lot in promotion, and all your energy, effort, and money will go into that one date. But with EPs, it was just very chill and easy for me. I had this continuous conversation with fans in March, in May, in July, in September. Every two months, it’s just me coming in, like, hey, I’m here. How are you guys doing? It’s nice to be able to do that without pressuring them to listen to my [whole] album. It makes them feel involved in the full creative process, because they’ve been there since the beginning of the year, when I only had three songs. And now we’re almost at the finish line.

You’re obviously an observant Muslim. What has been your relationship with Islam throughout your life?

My relationship with Islam is very simple; I don’t like to complicate things. My faith has been a constant in my life, because it keeps me sane and grounded. In my career, I’ve been able to keep making music for this long because religion and family come first, and then comes work. You see it around you, people who put work first: they burn out, get depressed, and fall apart.

When I wrote “Lullabies,” [a track from her first album, released in 2012,] I was very lonely. I moved to a different country by myself, I was far away from my family, and I had to adjust to being this Muslim singer-songwriter in a very Western industry. I had no idea it was going to be something so meaningful for a lot of people. People come to my shows and tell me, “I relate to this song because I lost [someone]” or “I had a miscarriage” or “This song really got me through the most difficult time of my life.”

Making art stems from me embracing my religion—I have this balance, where work and money aren’t more important. Even if life gets difficult, I have faith that it’s going to be okay.

Let’s move onto the Culture Diet questions. What time do you wake up in the morning, and what’s the first thing you do?

I wake up at 6 AM every day, because my cat, Cody, wakes us up. He knocks on the door, literally. And the first thing I do is make coffee for myself.

How do you take your coffee?

With sugar and milk—regular milk. A lot of people say, oh, why do you still drink regular milk? I’m like, why not?

Who are you listening to right now?

I’m listening to a lot of Mac Ayres. I love all of his music.

What books are on your bedside table?

One is Jack Reacher: A Wanted Man by Lee Child, because I love crime novels. And the other, which I have yet to finish, is Surrounded by Idiots by Thomas Erikson.

Who is your favorite writer?

I love Patti Smith’s poetry. As a songwriter, that’s the level I aspire to be—the Patti Smith level. I read Just Kids and that has got to be my all-time favorite book. It’s all about her being young in New York City in the music scene, hanging out at the Chelsea hotel with all these musicians in the 1960s.

What TV shows are you watching at the moment?

I just started watching The Sopranos. And I love Game of Thrones, so I’m watching House of the Dragon right now. And there’s this show my husband and I really like, it’s an Australian crime drama called Mr Inbetween. It’s amazing and everyone should watch it.

What was the last song you had on repeat?

I worked on this album with Ai.Z, he’s this Malaysian singer-songwriter, and we’ve been friends for 12 years. He recently put out an all-English language album; he mainly sings in Bahasa, but wanted to try something new. I helped him out and wrote some of the songs. That’s all I’m listening to, because I’m all about hyping my friends. The album is called Everything in Between. If I had to pick one song, it would be “The Last Thing.”