Yuna—Torch Bearer

All clothings and accessories by CHANEL Métiers d’Art 2019/20 Collection

Art Direction and styling by
Colin Sim

Photographs by
Nelson Chong

It has been a year since Yuna’s album Rouge was released. The album is a star-studded piece, full of collaborative songs with Tyler, the Creator, Miyavi and G-Eazy just to name a few, about the realities of life and love. Clearly, we see a more emboldened and impassioned version of her through her songs. However, since coming back to Malaysia right before the Movement Control Order, Yuna has been keeping herself busy creatively with many new things—things that is aside from music. The Laterals got on a video call with the Dan Sebenarnya songstress who is currently in social isolation at her parents’ home. 

I really love what you’re wearing now; it looks amazing on you. Is this how you are normally dressed, or this is just for us? (Laughs)

Aw, thank you. No, this is not how I normally dress. Before this call, I had some work. Was doing some social media posting for Rouge’s first anniversary, celebrating with the fans and all. 

It’s really great how you’re engaging with your fans despite the lockdown, cheering them on. But how are you holding up personally? You came back to Malaysia just days before MCO started, right?

I’m pretty good actually. I haven’t been home with my parents like this since I was in high school. So, it’s nice to be able to come back and spend some time with them at home. They just moved into a new house four years ago, and this is the first time I got to actually LIVE here for such a long time. Usually, I’d only be back in Malaysia for a week and then I’d head back to LA. 

So, is this your room?

No! I’m actually in a storage room.

My mom turned this library into a storeroom and I’m like, ‘why did you turn this into a storeroom?’ And, um, I shifted things around. Like, you can’t see them, but there is a mountain of boxes from our old house. So, I decided to turn this corner into my studio, where I can actually work because it’s really quiet in here. So, um, yea, coming back to your question, I’m holding up okay. It’s better for me and my husband to be here with the parents. And, you know, considering how COVID-19 is at its peak right now in LA. We are very glad to be back and closer to the family. Imagine if we were still stuck there. I mean, we’ll still be okay, but to be unable to come back to Malaysia for such a long time? I don’t think we’d be able to survive that. I mean, we’ll still be okay, but to be unable to come back to Malaysia for such a long time? I don’t think we’d be able to survive that.

But like you mentioned, you usually only spend about a week with your family in Malaysia. But it has been, what, four months now? How does it feel like? For me, being stuck in an apartment with my friends… Every waking moment has been a journey, to put it nicely. 

Um, it’s good. Surprisingly, I’m not annoyed yet. I love being at home.

Do your parents share the same feeling? Since you’re in their space now. (Laughs) 

(Laughs) Yeah, they are annoyed with me. Because I’m such a control freak at home. For example, my family is the kind to throw everything in one trash bin. I was like, ‘No! What are you guys doing? This is for the paper, the plastic, the organic stuff…’ I also go around the house, and be like, ‘Make sure you feed the cat’, ‘Make sure you this and that’… Honest, I think my parents feel they are under Queen Yuna’s control.

Sounds like you’re enjoying your time!

I do love being back home. Music-wise, like workwise, um I mean, in LA, you can’t perform anywhere anyway. 

What do you miss most about LA then?

Probably the ability to work with the producers that I love. But we can still do it online. We can still exchange songs and files. So, for me, this is like the ultimate test! I’ve always wondered if I could still be an international singer working from KL because I see it happening with other people. Look at Lorde, she is based in New Zealand. Also, a lot of Australian artists are still based in Australia.

These artists travel to LA whenever they need to. So yeah, this is like the ultimate test for a Malaysian girl like me, ‘Can I eventually move back to Malaysia and still work as an international artist?’ I think we’ll find out soon enough.

Is it because of COVID-19 that this idea came to mind? Or it has always been something at the back of your head since way before?

After getting married, the idea has been at the back of my head. Like, if I want to start a family, would it be in LA? In the end, either way is fine. We would still be the parents to our kids. It doesn’t matter where we are, as long as we’re together, we will survive. But of course, it’d be nicer to be able to live in Malaysia. Our parents are getting old, so it’d be nice to be around more with our family. Even my sister-in-law’s kids are getting bigger and we don’t want to miss that. During COVID-19, you see everything, and it changes your perspective on life. Especially after losing my brother-in-law earlier this year, it just made us think about what’s important in life. 

It’s interesting that you’re talking about changing your perspective on life.

Yeah, because I’m a workaholic. I can’t stop if you don’t tell me to stop. I’ll just keep on working.

“During COVID, you see everything, and it changes your perspective on life… It just made us think about what’s important in life.”

Since you released ‘Stay Where You Are’, I read a lot about your inspiration for it. But the word ‘self-reflection’ is stuck on me. So, what did you discover about yourself? I mean, the first half of the year has been a big rollercoaster in everybody’s life.

For myself? Um, it would have to be the ability to just be there for the people you love. In the last 10 years, I’ve worked so hard. I’m a go-getter. I was chasing my dreams. I didn’t care what other people say. And now that I’m a little bit older, I feel a bit tired of the same stuff, like the album cycle routine. Currently, I’m looking for something new, especially since coming back to Malaysia and I’m kind of forced to take a break. Which is nice, don’t get me wrong, but 2020 was supposed to be a busy year.

So, what are your plans for the remaining of 2020?

It’s kind of nice to have this wild card of not knowing. As an artist, you’re not out of work, but you’re kind of ‘out of work’? Not sure if I made sense (Laughs) Like you can’t go on tours, you can’t perform at shows, and that’s how we survive as artists traditionally. For me, I’m freestyling my way through this, and try out other things. Like, what else can we do to generate income and stay creative as well?

Any examples?

Okay, so my husband, Adam and I started an online learning platform called Tiny Class. It requires a lot of work, but it’s fun! Whenever we feel like teaching, we would promote a class. For instance, hmmm, okay, so this weekend I can be teaching introduction to songwriting. Or my husband will be teaching an introduction to producing or directing. In a way, it’s nice to be able to give back to the community during this forced break. (Laughs) At least we’re staying creative but also contributing. We’re not wasting away and not doing anything. So yeah, it’s nice to be able to do that at a time of quarantine.

Speaking about quarantine, did you ever experience the kind of uncertainties or sadness during that period? Myself, I was going through all these crazy emotions—am I going to lose my job? How are my parents doing back in Ipoh? How did you process all these thoughts and negativity?

I understand what you’re saying and it’s just a matter of trying to stay positive, figuring out a way—trusting that everything is going to be all right, no matter what. I did think about the future of my career. Since everything is cancelled, pretty much. And other artists are going through something similar as well. Some have it worse because they are just touring artists.

I’m quite lucky because I started my music career working with brands and fortunately, they love working with me. And even during this difficult time, I’m able to get jobs. 

That’s good to hear!

Well, yeah but I do think about these artists who are not brand artist, where all they do is just music, perform, and go on tours—making their living through that. It’s important for me to feel blessed and thankful for what I currently have and able to maintain while planning ahead. What does the future look like for artists? Is it virtual streaming? How do you build your social media presence?

Oh yeah, you did a mini concert via live streaming.

Yeah, I did a couple of that with some of my friends, and also brands like Levi’s and Umobile. I’ve been living in front of the screen, learning how to play my own songs and performing, and it’s good. I get to be independent and do my own thing. It’s a very intimate experience when you do that on an online streaming platform. But back to your question about how to fan away negativity—just keep on doing stuff. I have a lot of friends who lost their jobs and they started going back to doing what they love. So, this is the time for me to do what I love. I love music but at the same time, I actually love building websites. This is a weird thing that I’m sharing with you.

This is crazy! You build websites?

Yeah! I’ve been building websites since I was 13! Given that I’m spending so much time in front of my laptop now, I got to build a website for Tiny Forest, the indoor plant store that me and my mom are running together.

I actually went through the website and it’s pretty amazing! And you’re telling me that you actually built it?

Yeah, I did. It’s an online store where we deliver indoor plant and terrariums. It’s doing really well now. But I’m just really excited about building websites again, because I never used to have the time to do that. It’s always like work and travel. 

What other websites have you been building?

Well, I send my cats for grooming at this local store called The Mewington, which I became friends with the owner. The service is so good. Like, they can help pick up and drop off your cats. I didn’t know this kind of services exist! And the owner was telling me they provide a lot more services but wasn’t able to shout it out as they don’t have a website. So, I offered to build their website. Although they told me they have someone else looking into it, I was like, ‘No, I will build you a better one. Just give me all your information.’ (Laughs)

“It’s nice to be able to give back to the community during this forced break. At least we’re staying creative but also contributing.”

Makeup by
Cat Yong

Videography by
Aun Chua

I can imagine this whole scenario!

It’s kind of fun! And I’m doing it for free. Because everyone’s in a difficult place right now. It’s sad to see businesses closing down, especially the smaller one that were just starting to grow. And I know that feeling so well because I run a small business too. It’s no multimillion-dollar business. We really started from scratch and work our way from home. So, I do get how it feels to struggle. If I can help, why not? Building a website is nothing to me. It’s like writing a song. I can get it done within two hours. Other than that, I do make music. And now that I finally have time to set up my studio, I’m gonna go right back in and just continue to stay positive while doing stuff. I think that’s important; money will come later. And that’s what I’ve been telling my friends, ‘just keep on doing whatever that you want to do creatively’. 

This kind of support really comforts me, how Malaysians are shouting out in support for local businesses on social media… And it does keep me positive—even though there’re uncertainties circulating, everyone is trying their best to support each other. And it’s really important. 

Exactly! Where would all these tiny businesses be without the support of happy customers, you know what I mean?

There’re so many businesses out there that are really good, but they don’t get the recognition because they don’t have the funds for advertising. So, I try to share as much as possible.

How do you ‘share’?

When I meet people, I get super excited and would ask them to try things. Even with Tiny Class, I had a really good speaker. Her name is Aisha Preece and she teaches people how to improve their financial health. And during MCO, that was the bestselling class. Like you get a lot of moms joining the class—those who wants to make additional income; those who want to learn how to start up their business; those who want to learn how to save money. I feel I’ve served an actual purpose. I mean I know I make people happy working on my music, but sometimes, when you are an artist, your job does feel a little bit superficial, you know? So, I like to do other stuff to bring myself back to the real world. It helps to keep myself sane. (Laughs)

It’s really nice that you’re sharing this with me. It’s rare to see the human side of a celebrity or an artist. And now I have you showing me that. Thank you!

You’re welcome! I mean, I’ve met all kinds of people and sometimes, when they’re an artist, they give this air that they’re better than anyone else, because yeah, it’s true, some of them do have that gift. But it’s important to have the human side as well. Like where’s the humanity in you? At times I meet people who are real, like Usher, and I know he’s real—I feel like this is someone that I can learn from. I met people like Michael Einziger from Incubus who’s super successful and super nice. If I have a question or something that I want to bounce ideas off, I can easily go to them and they would always be there to help me. 

I’m glad that you managed to meet great people like these in your career.

You know, in the last 10 years, I’ve been exposed to a lot of different types of successful, famous people, and I try to take their positive trait. From there, I get to improve myself, to be better for others. And that’s why, if there’s like a new artist in Malaysia who genuinely wants to learn from me, they could just reach out to me and I could give them the 411 about the music industry. I’ll share my creative processes—I’m not stingy. There are people who are secretive, but for me, yeah, I’ve done this already. I’m here! I might as well just share it with those who want to learn.

Because, why not? I’m not going to BE you and I’m not going to be young forever. I need to leave a legacy and have someone carry the torch. And I don’t want people who are unprepared to carry it. I want them to be GREAT, and ready. That’s why I feel like I have a responsibility to empower and support the younger generation. I believe this is what’s lacking in the Malaysian music industry. I see a lot more love in the American and the Indonesian music industry. I hope we can be that way.

And to be that way, you need to be here!

(Laughs) I KNOW! But I can do it remotely, right? I still want to create. I’m an artist. If I’m going to do that, I need to be 100% just doing it. For now, I still have things to achieve, things I want to do, music to make. And it’s important for me to find that balance. I need to master my life first before anything.

That’s a good one.

It’s true, right? You need to master your life first before you want to get into someone else’s life. And all these lives are depending on you. I need to focus on my life first.

Speaking about life, I was just reading through the interview you did with us last year and you talked about wanting your music to be cinematic. Quoting yourself, ‘ Soundtrack of my life’.

Oh my God. (Laughs)

Yeah. I can pull it back out for you. But honestly, Rouge can be an excellent example to be themed ‘the soundtrack of my life’. Well, at least for mine.

Thank you so much.

We also got an opportunity to watch your performance at the Sony Music Hall in New York City last year. What was beautiful was when you sung ‘Tiada Akhir‘. A brief, three-minutes of just pure, lyrical wonder that awed the audience. What was in your thought to actually sing a Malay song in front of a non-Malay speakers?

I don’t really think too much about it. I’ve been doing it for like eight years. When I’m touring in the US, I do sing ‘Dan Sebenarnya‘ sometimes, and also throw in random Malay words to the crowd.

So, I don’t know. I just know that it’s a beautiful song. I always get excited performing ‘Tiada Akhir‘ because I know it’s gonna blow their minds and they’re gonna be so impressed because we have a beautiful language.

I know my time is up, but I have one final question!

Yeah, no it’s okay. Go for it!

I wanted to know your personal experience in Paris with Chanel. Like how does it feel like to actually be in the front row of the Spring-Summer 2020 show?

It meant a lot to me. I’m not making music so I can sit in the front row during fashion week. That wasn’t my goal. I never imagined in a million years that I could be the Chanel girl for Malaysia. I always thought that it’s normal-lah, that Malaysians always attend fashion weeks in Milan, Paris, or New York. When I found out that I was invited to represent Chanel Malaysia to go to Paris, I was ecstatic.

Have you always been in love with Chanel?

Candidly, I was never raised to wear expensive, lavish things. But I do appreciate designers and their craft. I love fashion shows, and Chanel always puts on one of the most amazing shows ever. So I know that Chanel is the brand to work with. 

Knowing you’re going to work with the brand, how did you feel?

When I found out, it was just like, ‘oh wow, no pressure.’ (Laughs) but I guess I was pretty confident. I knew I could bring something to the table. That’s what I do when I work with the brands that I love. I give them like 110%, you know? And they put me in this really amazing, red leather trench coat. Anyway, Chanel is definitely a brand that I love working with and I feel very blessed to be able to work with such an amazing team. I absolutely loved my experience in Paris. I wish I got to go to the last one, but of course, you know… COVID-19 happened and we didn’t get to go. Anyway, yeah, I’ve been to fashion shows before, but it was nothing like the one I attended in Paris for Chanel.

Do you feel pressured dressing up now you are at the forefront of fashion?

You know what, not really. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. There’s this one thing about me that I’m really proud of: My mom taught me to always iron my clothes before I go out. So that’s the number one thing. Secondly would be to wear shoes, not flip flops, when going out. So, I guess there’s no pressure to just like, ‘every time I have to go out, I have to look like I’m ready for an OOTD’ or anything like that. I’m still the same me. I like to wear chambray shirts, scarves and earrings. I guess I do dress up just a little bit, but not to the point that where it’s fresh and off the runway. You have to live a little. As much as I love fashion, if you look at my closet, you’ll know that I’m a simple girl. I don’t have a walk-in wardrobe. I only have a few favorite things that I love. I strive to be Marie Kondo.

Yuna is photographed by Nelson Chong for the digital cover of The Laterals in Kuala Lumpur on July 19th 2020.

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