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There’s a timeless groove to the R&B of Yuna on her fourth forthcoming album Rouge, one that’s been two years in the making. It’s the most ambitious project the songwriter has ever taken on, and the first album she’s putting out as a fully realized woman. It’s also an LP that she worked harder than ever on, re-visiting songs, editing them down, adding new layers, enriching every single moment to make it the most luscious musical experience for her audience. Yuna makes soulful pop that contains the sultriness of Sade, the flair of Aaliyah, and the sweetness of Brandy. There are clear forebears upon her art, but her story is so singular that it’s hard to draw a line in the sand when it comes to Yuna’s lineage in the urban pop spectrum.
Yuna was born in Kedah, Malaysia and spent most of her life growing up in Kuala Lumpur. An only child, she was the apple of her hard-working parents’ eyes. She was raised a devout Muslim but within an assimilated and secular enough society that she was exposed to a great deal of pop culture. In fact, her earliest memories of music are being driven around by her father in his second-hand BMW listening to ‘80s pop icon Paula Abdul, German metal band Scorpions and Swedish rock duo Roxette. As a kid she was accustomed to transition, moving around the country to accommodate her father’s work as a government servant. She was quiet and hard-working, well-behaved and good at keeping herself company—a day-dreamer. When she started to display musical tendencies as a six-year-old, her mother was very encouraging of it as a future path. But at the time Yuna rejected the idea of becoming a professional singer. Music was her first major love. “I always knew I wanted to do something in music,” she says. “I just didn’t know what or how.”
It wasn’t until Yuna was in her late teens that she began to write music, playing songs on her guitar, performing at local jazz clubs and bars. “That changed the game,” she recalls. In the years before, music had become a vehicle for Yuna to learn the English language. She’d mimic songs on the radio, recording the ones she liked on her cassette deck. “I’d memorize the lyrics but didn’t know what they meant,” she says. So she researched and earned a whole new vocabulary. It took a longer time to find the right setting for her softer singing voice. Yuna was expressing herself creatively elsewhere, investing her time in making art, drawing, painting and building things. She had a keen fascination in emerging technology, computers and programming, studying it in high school. Her discovery of The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill at the age of 13 encouraged her to write poetry. Making something from nothing was a big driving force.
The way music manifested itself was largely in talent competitions. She’d apply for TV show contests to varying degrees of success. It was her attempts to feature in the first series of Malaysia’s version of “American Idol” (called “One In A Million”), however, that would change her own history. She decided to enter on a whim. Making it past the first audition and several rounds, she was eventually eliminated and sent home. “I was really affected by that,” she recalls. “I guess I thought I could go really far but I didn’t. I got really frustrated. I went back home and said, ‘Screw this.’ I’m gonna force myself to write my first song. So I did in my bedroom. I didn’t know why I’d waited that long to try and write a song.”