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Malaysian singer, songwriter Yuna performs at RISE music series

Colette Greenstein
Colette Greenstein has been a contributing arts & entertainment writer for the Banner since 2009. VIEW BIO
Malaysian singer, songwriter Yuna performs at RISE music series
Yuna (Photo: Autumn DeWilde)

Influenced in part by Michael Jackson while growing up in Malaysia, Yuna began singing at the age of seven, and writing poetry at 14 both in Malay and in English.

“I didn’t know those two things could tie in together,” says the singer and songwriter, who’s scheduled to perform at the sold-out RISE music series on Thursday at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s Calderwood Hall.

She would enter contests, she says, and audition for shows, finally landing a spot on the American Idol-like show “One in a Million,” where she was one of the top 40 contestants before being eliminated.

The singer always knew that she could carry a tune. “I wasn’t like a crazy, powerhouse vocalist but I knew I could sing,” she says, but she didn’t yet know her style, how to define her genre or how she should sing. She would often sing Christina Aguilera’s songs but, she says, “I didn’t know how not to do her style. Those were the things I had to learn very early.”

At 19, she learned how to play the guitar. It was an instant love affair.

“Wow, this is how you write music. This is how you write a song. This is incredible. I’m going to write all my stuff,” the singer/songwriter recalls thinking. “And that’s how it started.”

A year later, it all came together for Yuna, whose music is a mix of pop, acoustic folk, R&B and hip-hop. “It’s really funny,” she says, “how life brings you these kinds of things and you totally don’t realize it.”

Born in Malaysia’s capital of Kuala Lumpur, Yuna was exposed not only to Malay music but also to American pop, rock, blues, and jazz. Her musical idols also included No Doubt, Nirvana, Lauryn Hill, Aaliyah and Janet Jackson.

After performing in the independent music scene in Malaysia, Yuna decided to head to Los Angeles to break into the music industry. It was only a matter of time before she was signed to Fader record label in 2011. The label paired her up with Grammy-winning producer Pharrell Williams, who produced the mid-tempo groove pop/R&B-flavored song “Live Your Life” for Yuna’s self-titled album in 2012.

Of her experience working with the music superstar, Yuna says, “I’m really grateful that I got the opportunity, and I’m really grateful to him, because he was practically a platform for me, like artists use YouTube. When I put my music out, his fans were probably the first fans. It was a very special experience for me.” She adds, “I was in Miami a week to work with him. He’s a really cool guy. He’s super sweet and super hard-working. I learned a lot from it.”

Up next for Yuna is a new album set for release in January 2016. She says she’s excited about the project, about her maturity as an artist, and about working with Fisticuffs, the production duo behind singers Miguel and Jhene Aiko.

“It’s pop, urban, [with] a little bit of singer/songwriting value to it,” says Yuna. She believes that when the album comes out, it will offer her fans and new audiences a chance to see her as the woman she has become. “Not some kid from Malaysia, but a musician from L.A..”