Yuna, who grew up in Malaysia’s capital City of Kuala Lumpur, began writing confessional songs at the age 14. At home she was exposed to a mix of homegrown and western music, largely due to her father’s eclectic taste that ranged from American rock and pop to blues and jazz.
Over the course of three English language LPs and a string of early EPs Yuna has demonstrated remarkable songcraft. Comfortable across many genres, her sound has evolved over the years but her ability to articulate universal human experiences has remained constant. In Malaysia she developed a fervent fan base before being courted by labels in the United States.
Albums Yuna and Nocturnal were released in relatively quick succession and helped build a steady buzz, drawing favourable comparisons to the likes of Feist and Adele. Following their release she returned to the studio and in May 2016, with a greater degree of creative control, released Chapters.
Chapters, which was self-written, is a stunning and artfully constructed collection of tracks which showcases her contemporary pop sound – a blend of acoustic folk and soul with a splash of R&B. The lead single was the DJ Premier-produced track “Places To Go” which set the tone for a record about self-discovery and moving forward. In an interview with The Fader, Yuna sad the song was: “about when you’re growing into the person that you’re meant to be. Sometimes you go through all these things that will change you as a person and you find it hard to deal with all of these challenges.”
Chapters featured production from long-time collaborator Robin Hannibal as well as Paul Salva and David Foster. A frequent collaborator, there were also guest appearances from Usher and Jhené.
Having completed a European tour and about to embark upon a string of US dates, she’s getting the mainstream attention her music has long deserved. We chatted to Yuna on the roof of the Scala in King’s Cross ahead of her sold-out concert.
How many shows have you played in London?
Prior to me moving to the States and releasing the American albums I’ve been here a couple of times because there is such a huge Malaysian community. They’re always calling me to come and visit students and do some shows – small acoustic gigs. Tonight’s fun because I’m pretty sure those kids are going to be here.
Does it feel like its building every time you come back?
Oh yeah, definitely. I remember the last show at the Ace Hotel and that was a lot of fun even though it was it a smaller venue but this [Scala] is a big room!
The queue tonight is around the block…
Really? That’s so cool!
Is it exciting to be playing the new material to such dedicated fans?
Really exciting, this is the first time I’ve been back since the album came out. This is by far my favourite album, not that I don’t love the earlier albums, but this one is more personal. I put more work into it and we had more time to go back and forth – do we like this or do we not. When it finally got released it was something that everybody agreed that was ready, everyone was at peace and we just let it out there.
How much of the new album are you drawing on when you’re putting together a setlist for shows?
For a show like tonight it’s about 80%. I try to play as much material from Chapters as possible but I also want to play some of the stuff from previous albums. I love being on tour and performing live, we’ve just got to fit as much as we can into a set!
Songs like “Lullabies”, I love to play that and it’s from the first album.
It was three years between records; did you approach this album differently?
Yeah, very differently. We reached out to different producers but we kept Robin Hannibal because I love working with him, he’s just so talented. I wrote all of the songs instead of working with other writers because I felt that this album had to be more personal, I had to be more vulnerable. The label just had to trust me! The only song that involved another writer was the Jhené track, she wrote her own part and I wrote mine.
You worked with some amazing people on the record, how do you approach collaboration?
It always happens naturally, we were working on this album for a couple of years so we took our time. I started writing early and then would work on something for fun with friends and then later on we really got into it.
There were never any plans to have Usher involved or Jhené or DJ Premier, everything just happened. We went to New York and hung out with DJ Premier or we saw Usher at his tour rehearsals and just chatted for a little bit and then once I had something to work on I got back in touch.
It was like that with Jhené. We’ve known her for a few years and we’ve talked about working together since 2014. I’ve always been a huge fan, so for her to say yes to being on track was so cool. You don’t often get two women who are just free to make music. We weren’t looking for that radio format hit; we just wanted to make something. It was a break-up record and she’s an expert in that! She was like “say no more!” It’s just fun to work with super talented people.
The sound for Chapters is quite different, it feels like an evolution. What kind of music were you listening to when you made it?
When I was making this album I just went into a ‘90s R&B moment. I was listening to a lot of that! I went back to records like The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill and artists like Aaliyah.
I was always recording in L.A. so when I was free I would take dance lessons and my teacher would always play really cool songs. We would dance and I would be like “what song is this?!” It would turn out to be The Weeknd or PartyNextDoor and then I would go and listen to the tracks after the class. I was going through a phase when I was exposed to all kinds of music.
On some of the tracks of Chapters there are shades of Babyface and Mariah’s Fantasy. It’s a really great mix…
Yeah, it’s still me though. It’s urban contemporary. It’s is pop but it’s also a singer-songwriter record with an R&B vibe.
Your songwriting is very personal; do you work on your lyrics first?
I’m pretty flexible. Normally a producer has a sound and we’ll work on it. Or we’ll start from scratch.
You’ve just completed your European tour, what’s next?
I’m going on American tour – starting from the East Coast and then we’re doing a lot of the southern states this time and then we’re going to Asia.
Chapters is out now.