Making a lasting name for oneself as a legitimate entertainer in this era of viral videos and one-hit wonders (that are shared around on social media one day and forgotten the next) is a challenging one for many an aspiring singer-songwriter. Fortunately for Yunalis Mat Zara’aior fondly known as Yuna, her foray into the once-popular social media platform, Myspace, to promote her music has proven to be extremely successful to say the least. Top 10 takes a look at how this homegrown international crooner, currently based in the United States,has made it big without compromising anything about herself – including not being labelled a popstar.
Born in AlorSetar, Yuna began writing her own songs at the young age of 14 and was garnering a large following among teenagers when she started putting up her music online. Albeit she found fame early, Yuna still managed to complete her law degree in Universiti Teknologi MARA in 2009. It has not always been stage performances and photoshoots for the ambitious lass. There was a time when she was still trying to make it in the real world, outside of the Internet, where she was still fairly unknown. Yuna decided that she ought to take hold of success on her own terms or she would not have it at all when a local recording company wanted to sign her up but did not want her in her ‘hijab’ – which she deemed her identity.
Instead of taking the easy path, she started her own company called Yuna Room Records and recorded music that she felt reflected who she really was, establishing herself as a rightful indie artist. Her unique sound came to be an organic blend of contemporary pop, folk and R&B, while her words spoke of love, heartbreak and self-discovery, relatable-by-all themes that have become synonymous with the name, Yuna over the years. She recorded two EPs and three complete albums under her label, which became great hits in Malaysia and neighbouring countries, garnering her numerous awards and accolades that included the Anugerah Industri Muzik.
Word soon spread of the talented lawyer-turned-songstress thanks to the power of Internet and she quickly found herself on a flight to the United States – where she signed with the American management firm, Indie Pop. Before long, she took small steps into the tough-to-break American market when FADER Label, an independent record label based in New York City picked her up for their roster. As someone who has always written and performed songs in English, the US musical landscape proved to be the perfect location to experiment and evolve while still being comfortably herself. However, she admits moving across continents is an enormous risk not many Malaysians are willing to take but points out that life would not be life without an adventure.
After releasing two LPs under the indie label, she was given the opportunity to sign up with Verve Records by hitman David Foster, who is well-known in Asia as one of the judges in Asia’s Got Talent. This progression from a small-time singer to a big-label star living in Los Angeles may not be a common occurrence but it is clear evidence of the artist’s talent and hard work. Even though being attached to a well-established recording company, Yuna has managed to keep her music as personally-charged as always.
Her acute talent for balancing sweet vocals, catchy melodies, and a hint of mystery are now sharper than ever, as her songs become “trendier”. Long gone are the days of a single acoustic guitar as her performances are backed by a full band these days as she belts out refreshing and honest tracks in her ‘sugar’ voice. As of now, Yuna has already worked with numerous industry heavyweights, including Chad Hugo of The Neptunes and musical prodigy Pharrell, and has performed live to huge crowds in music festivals like Lollapalooza, Bonnaroo and SXSW. Currently based full-time in Los Angeles, she also frequently makes appearances in talk shows like Last Call with Carson Daly, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Jimmy Kimmel Live! and Conan.
Unlike many other performing artists who shun taking responsibilities for their actions, Yuna embraces her role as an influencer of her fans. Never low on advice, she uses her prominence on social media to reach out to those seeking her guidance, advising them on confidence and inner beauty. Her sense of duty is also very much prevalent in her music – she doesn’t write songs about going to the clubs, but rather on self-love and hope, which truly are her values in life.