S7 E6 | CLIP

Faithfully, Yuna

Malaysian singer-songwriter Yuna makes unapologetically catchy and confident music for all. Her soul-tinged pop has made her both a global star and a role model for young girls.

AIRED: June 04, 2021 | 0:15:47

(upbeat music)

(upbeat music)

- Today the Malaysian singer songwriter Yuna

is a bonafide international pop star.

Who has sold millions of records around the globe.

In the US, where she has a more modest following

she can still fill a room and has attracted the attention

of many R&B and pop A-listers.

Her music has also been a huge presence in TV & film


(upbeat pop plays)

A H&M ad campaign and even the in game radio station

in Grand Theft Auto Five.

♪ Find your light

♪ Don't hide from what you are

♪ And rise before you fall

♪ And hope for something more

- All this because one afternoon, more than a decade ago

a girl from a modest country on the edge of Southeast Asia

was brave enough, to put pen to paper.

- [Yuna] I never used to write songs before I think

I was like 19 when I wrote my first song

and it was just like, I was determined, I remember

just being like "okay I'm gonna write a song today.

I don't know how but we're gonna try and do this today."

(cheerful music)

- When Lienalis binti Mat Zara'ai began songwriting

and performing at open mics in Kuala Lumpur

it was all just good fun.

Sure, she had always suspected that music could be

life changing but that was just a dream without a plan.

And even if she gained a following in the Malaysian

coffee house scene, Yuna stayed focused on studying law.

On the assumption that she would follow her father

a high profile attorney and high court judge

into the family business.

Instead her dad, a lifelong lover of western popular music

urged her to think bigger.

- [Yuna] He was really surprised that I could like,

I was able to write my own stuff.

So, I remember just like when I was doing music

in the independent scene, he was excited.

- Did he come to see you?

- Yeah yeah, he came and he would like watch me

perform and then I would tell him after a while

you know like, I don't think I'm gonna do this

full-time, you know this is probably a phase.

To me, I was just like I don't know if I'm gonna

you know, be able to generate income from this career.

You know what I mean? He would just tell me like

"oh you know you need to just like focus on this and

you know try because you have this songwriting talent

that not a lot of people can write songs so"

- And that voice.

(She Laughs)

- You know he was really confident, he believed in me

I think you know and back then I was really young and

I didn't know kinda like, I don't know what I'm gonna

do, maybe I'm just gonna be a lawyer or continue my studies

you know, I wasn't sure what to do with myself.

But I love making music and to hear that from my dad

I'm glad, I went through all that like you know

I went to university, I worked really hard so

I had that discipline and feel like my parents raised

me really well to just like you know focus on

one thing and do really well in something and uh

not to be a perfectionist but just to you know like,

try as hard as you can.

He understood, you know, music and as well as

he understood the fact that you know I should be

doing something that I love and um

I'm also the only child so I don't know

that's probably why he's a little bit

you know, you have to do something that you love so

yeah it was like "okay" but I was thinking you know the

other way, like I'm the only child I would need to like

you know, take care of you guys in the future.

But, yeah no, he was you know I feel maybe he just like

had a hunch that I would do really well so

(she laughs)

- By the time Yuna graduated college she was the biggest

names in Malaysian pop. Her self-titled debut EP

had earned her five Malaysian music award nominations

and four trophies, including Best New Artist

and Best Song for Dan Sebenarnya.

(Dan Sebenarnya plays)

- But Yuna wanted the world.

♪ I wanna go wherever, whenever you wanna go ♪

♪ Wherever you wanna, I wanna go with you ♪

- She resisted local management offers in hopes

of attracting a larger international audience.

Soon she had more than a million streams on MySpace

and earned the attention of US based management company

Indie Pop.

In 2011 the 25 year old signed with Fader and

re-released her EP 'Decorate'.

Praise poured in.

♪ I'm all black and white inside ♪

♪ Monotonous from left to right ♪

- Pharrell Williams produced the lead single off her

debut album, then in 2013 multi-grammy winning producer

David Foster signed Yuna to Verve music.

In 2016 they released one of her most popular singles

to date, "Crush", a duet with the R&B singer, Usher.

It reached number 3 on the R&B hip hop charts

and made her the first Malaysian artist to be nominated

for a BET award.

♪ I see you arriving in your car, hey ♪

♪ Jet black Mercedes, built in the 70s ♪

♪ Classic like you and me

♪ I'll be coming down, down, down ♪

♪ Down, down, down, down, down, down ♪

♪ I'll be coming down, down, down ♪

♪ Down, down, down, down, down, down ♪

♪ I feel a little rush

♪ I think I gotta little crush on you ♪

♪ I hope it's not too much

♪ But boy when I'm with you, I hear it ♪

♪ My heart singing

- But getting ahead in the hyper competitive and often

hyper sexualized western music industry,

Has not always been a smooth ride, especially for a

observant hijab wearing Muslim woman like Yuna.

Alternately picked apart for being either too conservative

or not conservative enough over the years she's learned

not to give too much consideration to what strangers

think or say.

- [Yuna] Those things are normal, it's not just me

and I know like that I'm not the only person who's going

through this, you know like, there's no point

of like whining and thinking like "oh I have to go

through this" you know like, people are judging me

blah blah blah, you know, I don't think about this

kind of stuff that much because I have a lot of

other things to, you know, focus on and um

but I do take criticisms seriously when it comes to

my music, you know and I learn from that and I

listen to them, I wanna be better, I wanna be

a better musician but when it comes to the personal

things and I know myself, I'm a big girl.

So you know I, I know myself, I know where I stand

- And this is you, and this is the performer over here?

- Yeah

- She's not affected by anything bad that people say

about this person?

- Oh yeah, no, I mean, it is what it is like there will

always be people, when you're like in the public eye

obviously you know you get like, a lot of hits for

whatever, it doesn't have to be me it could be

you know, it could be another American singer,

it's just how it is.

(upbeat pop music)

- Yuna prides herself on being a strong, independent

woman, young fans can look up to.

Her 2013 song "Rescue" was celebrated as a

feminist anthem though Yuna doesn't think of it

that way. She was, she says, just trying to capture

the spirit of the women she models herself after.

Chief among them, her mother Datin a retired

high school chemistry teacher, who is now Yuna's business

partner in the terrarium shop.

- [Yuna] My mom is the strongest person I know

she has gone through so much, you know she's so wonderful

and she's always helping out people, you know she's

she doesn't think about herself, like she doesn't think

about money, she doesn't think about you know what

she would have to sacrifice for anything, for her family

for the people that she loves, you know and

so yeah I mean yeah she's the strongest person I know.

I feel like, I'm probably I'm not even half the

person she is so, yeah.

I grew up that.

♪ Things were bad

♪ They were beyond repair

♪ She was scared

♪ She couldn't handle it

♪ Things were bad

♪ But now she's glad

♪ Can't you tell, that she's walking on air ♪

♪ Yeah, she's got light in her face ♪

♪ She don't need no rescuing, she's okay ♪

♪ Yeah, she's got life in her veins ♪

♪ She don't need no rescuing, she's okay ♪

Yuna's confidence is evident in the

bold yet modest fashion sense

that has made her an international style icon.

For several years she ran a boutique

in Kuala Lumpur, called 'November Culture'.

Then, in 2017, she collaborated with

a Malaysian designer 'Hatta Dolmat' on a clothing line.

Today she signed with the renowned 'Wilhelmina'

modeling agency, and is a front row regular

at high end fashion shows.

Stil, songwriting remains her most

powerful form of expression.

- [Jim] I've heard Randy Newman say that if he was all

the characters in the songs he's written

he'd be a crazy man by now.

(She laughs)

- How much of what you write is written from you?

- Me?

- If some of it is messages to other people, but there's

there's a lot of 'I' language in there as well.

- I get inspiration from a lot of things.

Sometimes it's, it's, you know

based on my personal experience, but sometimes, you know

whenever I have a conversation with my friends or, you know

whenever I read books or when I watch films, you know

these are like things that's not necessarily made up

but based on something that's real, you know?

So normally it's like that.

I think I feel it, I feel

like maybe 50% or like 60% of the songs are, you know, mine

but 40% probably, you know

based on something that, you know. There's a lot

of dramatization that goes into

Song writing, you know? like you're telling a story.

- Some of them sound like you're giving advice to others

about what you've experienced.

Sort of don't make the same mistake

I made is there a lot in there?

- Maybe a little bit.

I don't know, probably when, you know, whenever

I write songs about relationships, but I don't know, like

you know, it depends like sometimes I feel like, okay

I'm going to write something, you know, very

uplifting today.

Like something for the younger girls, you know, like

for example, like I, I feel for them, you know, like

for example, like the younger girls in Malaysia

I know they were like very shy and timid, and they're

like scared to travel the world and see the world.

And I just want them to, you know, like be inspired

by these things and not in a preachy way, but in a fun way

like telling them that, you know, Oh, go see the world.

Or, you know, like, don't be afraid go

after your dreams and be fun, be special.

♪ Don't have to call me, I turned my phone off ♪

♪ Let the pillows here protect my heart ♪

♪ You don't have to check up on me ♪

♪ I'll be alright

♪ I turned off the lights and swim into the night ♪

- In Malaysia, Yuna is a national treasure. In Los Angeles

where she now lives with husband, Adam Sinclair

she's a talented and well-respected songwriter

but not a household name, yet. Her fourth album

2019's 'Rouge' peaked

at number 18 on the billboard hot 100

but she has no desire to return to a smaller pond.

Number one hits or no.

Yuna has managed to build a devoted fan base

that has been tuning in for her in-home concerts.

But perhaps most serendipitously 2020 also

saw the perfectly timed release

of a previously shelved song stay where you are.

It became a soundtrack of solidarity

for fans around the world who submitted videos

holding signs with her lyrics.

And so even in isolation Yuna continues to create community

a Testament to her remarkable music making

and to her steadfast commitment

to the values that have gotten her here.

♪ I prayed every night

♪ For someone to mend my broken heart ♪

♪ When I couldn't see the light ♪

♪ You're walking with my in the dark ♪

♪ And all of this time

♪ You were right there from the start ♪

♪ All I ask from you is just to stay where you are ♪

♪ You were right there from the start ♪

♪ All I ask from you is just to stay where you are ♪

(violin music plays)

Articulate with Jim Cotter is made possible

with generous funding from the Neubauer Family Foundation.

[Outro Music]


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