Why Manila has a massive ‘crush’ on Yuna
When Yuna Zarai walked into the room, it’s kind of impossible not to stare. A stunner from stylish hijab-covered head to stiletto-clad toe, the Malaysian songstress responded to compliments with a gracious “thank you” and a sweet smile, and one couldn’t help but be smitten.
Yuna had just flown in from Los Angeles, where she’s currently based, the day before she was set to perform at the recently concluded Wanderland Music & Arts Festival in Alabang.
“It’s going to be my seventh year (in LA). It’s been a long time. Oh, my god, I’m old!” The 30-year-old told Super with a giggle.
Despite having achieved fame and success in Malaysia almost a decade ago, Yuna admitted that it was her first time touring Asia. “It’s definitely very refreshing because it’s somewhat familiar but so different,” she said of her first Manila visit. “Even today, I went to the mall for a little bit, just to see the mall. In the van, I was checking out the roads in Manila and you have like, really cute buses with gold and really old-looking, classic, long…”
As she struggled for words, someone showed her a picture of a jeepney, and her face lit up in recognition. “What do you call that? Jeepney? Even that to me is something new. I told my guitar player, who has never been here as well, ‘Look at that!’ It’s insane and you have a lot!”
In her teens, Yuna started writing her own songs, taught herself how to play guitar and did small acoustic gigs in Malaysia. She also joined singing tilts. “When I first started out with music, I was 17 or 18 and I was singing a lot of R&B. I was a part of an R&B group,” she said.
In 2008, Yuna released her self-titled EP with the carrier single “Deeper Conversation,” which bagged several Malaysian music awards. After Myspace helped propel her to commercial stardom, she inked a record deal and moved to the United States. There, she became friends with R&B producers and artists like The Internet, Future and Jhené Aiko, who’s also lent her vocals on Yuna’s single “Used To Love You.”
Her eponymous US debut album with the uplifting Pharrell Williams-produced track “Live Your Life” was well-received and soon hit the Billboard charts. The smooth smash single “Lullabies” and a haunting jazz-funk rendition of Nirvana’s “Come As You Are” also became fan favorites.
Working with Pharrell
“I learned a lot from them, especially with Pharrell. On my first album, he did not do hip-hop or anything like that; he really created a sound where he thought ‘Yuna would sound nice on this,’” she said. “It was a really cool practice; it was as if I was going through a crash course. We ended up having three or four songs in my album together.”
Yuna’s latest offering, “Chapters,” placed high on Billboard’s 2016 Critics’ Picks for Best R&B Album. Her sensual duet single with Usher, “Crush,” has racked up more than 25 million YouTube views as of this writing.
“I just had that song ‘Crush’ and I thought, ‘Oh wow, this would sound really great if Usher would be singing on this.’ And I didn’t want anybody else—I met him a year before that, and I remember him being so nice!” Yuna gushed. “I don’t like to work with people that I felt I had to beg. With Usher, he was so open. He was like, ‘Send me a song, and I’m down to work on it with you.’”
After nearly a decade of making music across continents, Yuna remains very appreciative of all the exposure she’s had, whether via streaming media apps or good old-fashioned radio airplay.
“In the US, the first single that I’ve ever had was playing on American radio. It really jumpstarted my career to a different level and I’ve been doing this for a while,” Yuna said.
To date, she has around 1.5 million monthly listeners on Spotify. “I’m really happy that I have a really good relationship with all the streaming apps, with Spotify in particular. They’re super supportive—‘Oh, Yuna has a new song, let’s put her song on the playlists,’ you know? That helps a lot in terms of popularity and sales of the song.”
Speaking of, who’s on her playlist? “Sometimes I go through the new releases and the new artists, but I tend to like the artists that I know,” she said, citing The Internet, Frank Ocean, Solange and the ultra-mysterious H.E.R. as staples.
At Wanderland, Yuna not only turned heads, but also won the hearts of fans old and new with her soulful grooves, sweet yet sultry vocals and onstage charisma. If there had been a “Crush ng Bayan” award that night, it would go to her, hands down.
Afterwards, she took to Twitter to express her disbelief at the positive reception she got: “Manila!! My first time here & I had no idea i could get a crowd like that.. have me back again plz! Mahal kita!! See you next time <3”
Well, looks like the feeling is mutual.