Yuna’s music career began in an exotic place that most people these days don’t know much about: MySpace. The story of the Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia artist’s music, however, goes further back and farther away.
“Growing up, my dad used to love to listen to a lot of pop music from the States,” she said. “I remember having CDs of Michael Jackson and Paula Abdul. He loves rock and roll; he’d listen to Lynyrd Skynyrd. Bands not everyone would know in Malaysia.”
Her parents loved music. Her father played the piano and guitar. Both her and her mother sang. But they didn’t work in music; her dad worked in law and her mom was a teacher.
“We didn’t have the luxury to pursue music or the arts. It was very important to find a real job, as they say, to support yourself,” she said. “So, it was important for me to be really good in academics. I didn’t plan to be a singer.”
Which is where the Internet came in. Yuna learned how to make her own music, to use the software and equipment, by reading about it online and teaching herself. Then she put her songs on MySpace (kids: that’s a site that was Facebook, YouTube and SoundCloud all rolled into one in the mid- to late-2000s) where it caught on and spread.
“The music scene in MySpace was very, very lively,” she said. “I was discovering new bands every day. I had no idea there was that kind of scene in a country as small as Malaysia. I realized it was all changing; that I didn’t have to audition or send my demo tapes to labels.”
She wasn’t only getting fans in Malaysia but all over the world, so she started writing and recording music in English as well. The idea that people from around the world were relating to her music made her realize that she had a chance to do something few, if any, Malaysian musicians had done—come to the United States to build a career here.
But first she wanted to become the best in Malaysia. She didn’t want to sign with a major label, because she didn’t want to be bound to it if she got an offer overseas, so she started her own. She made Malay music to build a local fanbase and make a living, but she made English music to grow her fans in America.
“I don’t know how I thought of any of this. I was so young,” she said. “Most people don’t think of these things. I have no idea how I did it. But I’m glad I did.”
Eventually she became the best in her country, according to the Malaysian Music Awards, their equivalent of the Grammys. She won Song of the Year and Best New Artist in 2010.
“I never really thought I was a great singer, but I knew I had a voice,” she said. “I guess it takes a little bit more than being a great singer to be a great artist. And I’m happy I have that little more, I guess.”
In 2011 she signed a contract with an American label—one that discovered and had been following her on MySpace—and moved to Los Angeles.
“Malaysia is great but I felt I reached the ceiling of what I could do there. Within a month I made my decision, ‘OK, let’s go to the U.S. and see what happens,’” she said. “It was scary but it was exciting. And now I’m here, I’m working on my fourth album, I’m touring. I never would have been able to do this if I had stayed.”
The touring is bringing her back through San Francisco, a city she loves to play.
“I love performing everywhere, but the energy is a little extra in San Francisco. My fans are a melting pot, a lot of different backgrounds and cultures, and San Francisco is like that too. It’s the perfect energy for what I do.”
That fourth album, which she’s in the process of finishing up, brings everything full circle by going back to the music her father listened to when she was young. “It’s still Yuna, it’s pop music, but it’s pop and R&B. For this album we wanted to bring back the feel of old records, old vinyl. We were inspired by how you can pluck out an old record from the ‘70s and it would probably be good. Bring in that bluesy, funky feel of the era.”
The album also has a Bay Area connection—Oakland’s G-Eazy, who she’s known for a while through mutual friends, is featured on one of the tracks, although she wasn’t ready to get into details just yet. She plans to release the song the day of the Noise Pop show on Friday. Like her music and her career, the record should bridge the old and the new, connecting her new home with her first one.
Follow editor Daniel J. Willis at Twitter.com/BayAreaData.