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All over the world, speaking English is considered a useful skill. But not for Yuna, a Malaysian singer who found her English-language skills were virtually useless as she became a top artist in her home country.
Born Yunalis Zarai in Alor Setar, Malaysia, the singer/songwriter wrote her first English song at 19 after viewing a YouTube clip of a Feist show. Performing while she attended law school, Yuna wrote mostly in English, but her Malay material proved more successful-her biggest hit, "Dan Sebenarnya," racked up millions of hits on YouTube and won a Malaysian people's choice award for best song.
"In my final year of law school, everything became real," she recalls. "Malaysian TV shows wanted me to perform big concerts. So, after graduating, I decided to go for it. I didn't think I'd be a good lawyer anyway."
While her profile skyrocketed in Malaysia in 2010, however, her English-language songs were falling on deaf ears. Though English is the second language of Malaysia, only a niche market exists for local English music. "We already have music from America," she says. "But I had at least 30 songs in English, and I didn't know what to do with them."
The solution was clear: Yuna had to travel to America.
Two years after she arrived stateside, Yuna's self-titled debut of breezy, trip-hop pop will be released April 24 on Fader Label, distributed by RED and with tracks produced by Pharrell Williams.
How did a Malaysian folk singer meet up with Williams? It started with an email. Ben Willis of management firm Indie-Pop contacted Yuna in 2009 to set up a meeting after seeing her clips online. "It was so weird," Yuna says. "I'm this kid from Malaysia, and this guy was introducing himself to me with these long emails, asking to bring me to L.A."
Yuna waited for six months before writing back. In the meantime, Willis had decided to fly to Asia and meet Yuna himself. As a result of the meeting, Yuna was compelled to fly to Los Angeles. After shopping for a label, Yuna signed with the Fader imprint in early 2011 and quickly released her Decorate EP.
"We bring a lot to our campaigns, so anything on the label gets really scrutinized," label co-founder Rob Stone says. Fader Label's roster is small but noteworthy, including such taste-making records as Matt & Kim's Grand and Neon Indian's Psychic Chasms.
While Yuna was recording her full-length album in 2011, Fader contacted Williams and asked that he spend some studio time with Yuna. Scheduled for just two days, the duo worked together for nearly a week, creating some of the album's best tracks, including the Sade-like first single, "Live Your Life."
Performing in a traditional Muslim hijab head covering, Yuna presents a global twist on the recent crop of rising female superstars, and her new music is a sonic boost from the beautiful but bare-bones "Dan Sebenarnya." "Music has to change," she says. "I don't want to stay the same forever. I can't."