2022 has come to symbolize a time of rebirth for many artists. With pandemic restrictions easing and concert venues open at full capacity, many musicians are reintroducing themselves with new projects to show fans just what they’ve been up to during lockdown.
Malaysian songstress Yuna is coming out of isolation in full force, with five projects planned for release throughout the year and a new world that she’s ready to invite fans into. And while it may be a new chapter for Yuna musically, it also represents a return to her roots.
For Yuna, becoming a musician was a dream she envisioned for herself from a young age. “I feel like as a child, I always knew I was going to do something with music. I enjoyed singing very much, but I remember just not enjoying performing in public,” she tells Forbes. “It was just weird. because I love singing and I’m okay with performing at singing contests and stuff like that, but I just specifically remember being like, ‘I don’t really enjoy this,’ because I have to sing really, really good.”
It wasn’t until a few years later that Yuna fell fully in love with music. “Later on, as a teenager, I started learning how to write songs and play the guitar. And as soon as I learned how to write my songs, it was over,” she giggles. “It was just like, ‘Wow, I cracked the code.’” What came next was for Yuna to discover what kinds of sounds spoke to her. “[Finding] where my place is in music and the kind of artist that I wanted to be, it just opened up this whole new world for me.”
Armed with her creativity and a dream, Yuna embarked on her career as a musician. She became a teenage sensation in Malaysia, with young girls looking up to the singer and emulating how she dresses and sings. But the weight of the public eye soon became hard to overcome, leaving her unable to leave the house alone. “It was overwhelming for me,” she reflects, “but I think I handled it very well.” And it wasn’t just her avid fan base that became an obstacle. “I handled the Malaysian press, for example; they can be very brutal to you,” she chuckles.
Yuna remained unbroken, determined to launch her career as a singer known around the world. “That part was really, really crazy, but it didn’t stop me from making more music,” she resolved. “When I was making music in Malaysia, I knew I wanted to take my music further. I wanted to be an international artist.” She was happy with her success in her home country, but worked towards growing it beyond the southeast Asian archipelago. “I thought, ‘Okay, this is cool, whatever I have now in Malaysia,’” she remembers, “’but I know it’s not the real thing that I’m after. I really want to start a music career overseas because I have these amazing English songs and they’re going nowhere. So I have to take my babies overseas and see what happens, you know?’”
While her star was rising at the turn of the last decade, Yuna remained an unsigned artist, releasing her first two EPs and three Malaysian albums through her independent label, Yuna Room Records. She released her self-titled debut international album in 2012, and maintained a steady flow of projects throughout the following decade with Nocturnal, Chapters, and Rouge.
It’s a new decade, and Yuna is ready for something new herself. She’s back to being an independent artist, calling the shots on every part of her artistic and creative process, from conception to distribution. “It all comes full circle,” she muses. But rather than commit to a traditional album cycle — complete with singles leading up to its release — Yuna is taking a different approach to her next major project, titled Y5. Instead of coming out as one complete album, Yuna is sharing parts of the project as she goes in the form of individual EPs. Y1 was released in March of this year, with Y2 dropping two months later.
By breaking up the project into smaller chunks, Yuna hopes to provide listeners an intimate look into her world. “It just gives the listeners a taste of the world that this artist is from,” she remarks. She recounts how she grew a renewed appreciation for the EP after listening to Jhené Aiko and Big Sean’s 2016 release Twenty88.
“It was just easy to digest and easy to understand and easy to get where they’re coming from,” she says. “So as a fan, I was able to enjoy every single one of them. And I thought, ‘You know what, maybe this is the approach that I wanna take for my fifth album. So let’s call it Y1, Y2, Y3, Y4, Y5. And that will give me the opportunity to create freely.”
For Yuna, the process of recording several albums’ worth of material only to narrow it down to a smaller tracklist became exhausting. “I’m so used to putting out albums as a whole, and I would work like crazy for a year and have 30 songs and then at the end of that process having to pick 12 songs, and I don’t enjoy doing that,” she says honestly. “I understand why we have to do it, but I’m like, ‘You know, what if I just work with a producer and as soon as we have three songs that I love, boom, let’s just package it and then release it.’”
While she’s much happier that she’s chosen this route for her fifth album, she laughs as she admits that she’s bitten off a lot to chew. “Here I am thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, this is a lot of work,” she laughs. “This is like I’m putting out five albums. But I’m still having a lot of fun, you know, and I haven’t had this kind of fun in a very long time, just creating and putting out music.” She cites Y2 track “Make a Move,” which went from studio to music video to part of a completed project with cover art in the span of a few weeks. The process brings her back to the heyday of MySpace, when artists shared new music with their followers on an organic level. “That was pretty much how I started out making music, so it’s kind of fun being able to do that and kind of just like package, like a vibe in one in one EP and then moving onto the next one and then to the next one.”
Packaging a certain vibe into one EP before moving on to the next one has been a boon for Yuna fans around the world. “I think this is a movement for them as well,” she says. “I think for the fans, it would be special to them because it feels like you’re a collector again, you know? Like, you’re collecting Y1, Y2, Y3, Y4, Y5.” Yuna will continue to work on the Y5 suite throughout the year, discovering the sound for the completed album as she goes. “It’s gonna be pretty exciting to have it all together packaged as one album, because even I, as the creator of this album, I don’t even know how it’s going to look or sound like, you know?” she says. “It’s a journey that I’m experiencing myself as well.”
Yuna’s fans are an essential part of her life as an artist — and with Y5, they’ve become a part of her creative process as well. Y2 cut “24 Hours” was written and produced while she live-streamed on Twitch and asked fans about what to include as she experimented in Ableton. “I was just like, ‘Okay, well, this is actually a really great song,’” she laughs, “‘so we have to put this on the album.’”
To connect with her fans even further, and to give them an even closer look at the creation of Y5 every step of the way, the singer launched Yunationals, a community of Yuna fans that brings listeners together from around the world. For a subscription fee, Yunationals get exclusive access to video diaries, new releases, livestream shows, behind-the-scenes clips, and studio recording sessions as Yuna continues her work on the Y5 pentalogy.
Yuna is personally excited to dictate just how and when she reaches her audience without the need for social media. “I felt like it would be cool to have just like a space where I feel safe sharing my journey and my videos,” she says of the endeavor. “I want to be one of the first people to kind of just have that freedom and also control over my content and what I put out. So the Y5 project being the centerpiece of it all for Yunationals, I think it’s something very cool for the fans to follow this journey as well, and my day-to-day things and what I do with my cats.”
Yuna takes pride in her fan base and the love they have for her. She values the connection so much that she often connects with them on a firsthand basis. “I’m active on Discord,” she says. “I talk to the fans. And the fans, they’re everything! It’s where it’s at. Like, they know you and they want the best for you. And I feel like it’s worth putting your energy into that, your energy and love into that, and care into that.”
As the music world emerges from two years of lockdowns, Yuna is ready to get back out there, but not quite in the same way she once did. Having spent the course of the pandemic in Malaysia, she built a comfortable home studio for herself in her own bedroom. It was here where she recorded the vocals for Y1.
“That’s the one thing that I enjoy: being able to create from home. I’ve embraced that,” she said. “It was in my bedroom and it was just so chill.” She’s no stranger to making music in her bedroom, though: she started out building songs in her room as a teenage sensation in Malaysia, and was in many ways returning to the place where she first found her music. “It’s so freaking cool that I’m able to do that again.”
Besides her new work-from-home setup, Yuna is also taking lessons of self-reflection that she picked up during lockdown forward with her. She no longer stresses about the “rat race” of reaching traditional celebrity milestones like winning a Grammy or being invited to the Met Gala, and instead soaks up every moment with peace and gratitude. “I think the pandemic really showed me how to work within my means and just embrace what I have going on, and also take time to just grow and enjoy the little things in life and not overwork yourself,” she said. “For me, it’s like, ‘Why am I working like crazy over something that’s very temporary?’ Whereas I think I should be focusing more on music when this is the thing that’s gonna last forever.”
With live music back in full swing and festival season heating up, Yuna is keen to get back on stage and perform for audiences everywhere. She was reinvigorated after taking a trip to Coachella this year, admitting that she felt “a little bit of FOMO” watching other artists perform. When during the Y5 process she gets back on the road remains to be seen, but she’s already started planning her return to the spotlight. “I’m definitely already thinking of how I’m gonna look on stage,” she said. “After watching live shows and performances at Coachella, I’m like, ‘Wow, I love this lighting.’ ‘Oh, wow, I love this three-piece band that’s going on right now.’”
“For me, watching a live show just amplifies your love for this type of music or this song,” she says. She mentions Harry Styles, chuckling as she admits that she hadn’t known much about him or listened to his music in the past. She liked watching the “As It Was” video, but it wasn’t until she saw the British pop star perform the hit single live at Coachella that she realized how powerful the art of performance can be. She and her husband went into a Harry Styles rabbithole, deep-diving into his discography and drawing comparisons to the British pop stars they grew up with like Robbie Williams and Boyzone. When reflecting on the story, she hopes to have the same effect on new listeners who discover her music. “That’s so important to me,” she says. “There’s a lot of people watching and they can just dive into my catalog and be fans.”
Yuna has much to be proud of when reflecting on her years in the industry, and now knows the joy that loving and celebrating your art brings. For her, it was a long time coming. “Starting out, I was kind of second-guessing myself a lot. I was very afraid of looking like I didn’t know what I was doing,” she admits. “I was just a singer-songwriter. I wasn’t a musician or anything; I wasn’t the world’s best guitar player and I felt very ashamed of it.” But with the hindsight she has today, she reassures her younger self that she has nothing to be afraid of. “Just do it and just have fun,” she says emphatically. “They enjoy watching you have fun performing your music, so just have fun.”