Three years since her last album Chapters, Yuna returned Friday (July 12) with her new album Rouge. Coming from a different place than her last release — not only has the world changed a lot since then, but the Malaysian singer got married last year –Yuna’s latest is a star-studded album full of collaborative songs about the realities of life and love. A bit more emboldened and impassioned, Yuna captivates on each track, joined by the likes of Tyler, the Creator, G-Eazy and Little Simz, along with several other artists from across the globe, including J-rocker Miyavi and Korean-American hip-hop artist Jay Park.
While in New York City last month ahead of this month’s upcoming Rouge tour, Yuna sat down with Billboard to discuss the release of her new album, her artistry, collaborations and what it means for her to interact with the the music industry and stardom while staying true to herself.
How are you feeling ahead of the release of your new album Rouge?
I feel really great. I am so happy I get to do this again. It’s been kind of…, I wouldn’t say stagnant. I keep myself busy when I’m not busy. When I’m not doing this or touring, I just focus on spending time with the family have in Kuala Lampur, Malaysia. I don’t really tell my management or my label whenever I’m like working on stuff back home. I have a management company back home that we used to manage my career back home before I came out here, but now we manage three really talented indie artists based in Malaysia. We directed a few music videos, my husband [filmmaker Adam Sinclair] and I. It’s great, but now it’s my time so it’s kind of nice that I gave my all to them [then]. It’s that feeling. I contributed something to my home, you know? And now I’m here, I’m doing my own thing.
Your music video for “Forevermore,” one of several of your music videos directed by Sinclair, really highlighted Malaysia. Was that related to this?
I feel like, for people who already knew about me, this is kind of like an introduction or a reminder that, “Hey, this is me. This is where I’m from.” Malaysia is a huge part of me still. I wasn’t born and raised here. I was born and raised in Malaysia and I moved out [to Los Angeles] like 10 years ago. So it’s kind of nice to be able to share that with my older fans and the fans that are just new to my music.
A great way to reintroduce yourself after a few years out of the spotlight since it’s been three years since you released Chapters.
Yeah, exactly. To me, 2016 is like, “Oh, it’s like last year. Oh, wait a second. It’s 2019.” I’m really happy we waited. It’s just a nice. This is the right time to put out an album.
What makes it the right time?
Everything just sort of worked out for me. I got married last year. I focused on that a little bit, preparing a dream wedding. My husband and I, we’re two creative people. We met on a set shooting commercials and music videos, so now we kind of get to work together creatively for like something we love, you know what I mean? A project that we love. It’s not for a brand. It’s not for anyone else. It’s kind of for us. He gets to do his ideas, and it’s for my music. And also with how the world is. I feel like the world is more accepting of diversity. Like with me, this is the perfect time. I’m so happy finally Crazy Rich Asians is out. It pretty much has given us a platform. For me, I’m Southeast Asian. No one will pay attention to me. It’s like, “Oh, what are you, Malaysian? Southeast Asian? I don’t know where that is.” I’m really happy [Crazy Rich Asians] happened and I think that kind of inspired us as well to shoot it in Malaysia because everything that you see on “Forevermore” you’ve never seen it in any music videos out here, right? It’s so different and to me, it’s authentic. And you would have never gotten that treatment if you shot it here. It’s more raw, the stuff that we shot. I’m really happy about that.
“Forevermore” preceded the release of Rouge, so can you tell me a bit about the album? What inspired its name?
I’ve always felt like red is such a bold color and I felt like, “Oh, maybe it’s not for me.” Even the color, the lipstick color is maybe not for me. That’s always been the person that I am. And now I feel like, you know what? I’m a little older, a little wiser now. I’m entitled to feel angry or passionate, sexy. I don’t want to hold anything back anymore. I can just be myself. I’m proud of my identity. Let’s give them all this honest, real Yuna and I talk about that in one of my songs “Likes.”
My personal favorite. The entire time I was listening and just like, “Yes!!!”
Really? What’s funny is that it’s such a feel good song but you listen to the lyrics and you’re like, “Oh, wow. She’s mad.” And I feel like there’s a lot of songs on there that’s kind of like, “Oh, this is so true but oh, she’s mad.” I’m not mad or angry or hating on stuff. It’s just real life situations I want to talk about. Maybe before, I didn’t get to talk about it because I was shy, I wasn’t confident enough. But now I’m happy. I’m very content with life. Like I dance in one the music video for “Forevermore.” I’ve always wanted to do that, but I was afraid to. I’ve been dancing for years. Why wouldn’t I want to show that to people? It’s kind of nice that I get to be this open on Rouge.
It’s also a freedom to tell the story that you want. Not letting other people tell your story, which for me is very important because I’m this person. I’m a Muslim Asian woman, making music in the American music industry. It’s kind of unheard of. Being a Muslim Asian woman who’s pretty vocal about her identity, I don’t try to hide myself and given the political [environment]… When you’re a songwriter, you get to write your story and share it with the world.
Did you feel like you didn’t get to do that as much with your past releases?
I feel like I got to do that, but it’s more like I think I psyched myself out. Like I was thinking too much about how do I make an album that will kind of appeal to my Western audience. I think fitting in was a struggle for me. Sometimes I feel like I’m not Eastern enough, I’m not Asian enough sometimes. Then I’m not Western enough. Then what am I? In my life now, it’s like, “You know what? I’m just going to be me.” I’m just going to do this and see what happens. It’s hard but at least it’s mine.
This album is quite a bit more pop-ish than your prior America-oriente releases. Was that intentional?
It is but I’ve always been a pop writer too. Thinking about all my past releases, I think the nearest to pop-R&B was the stuff that I did with Pharrell. And then for Chapters, I tried to focus on making an R&B album. But even that wasn’t fully R&B. That was still me.That was still Yuna, the poppy Yuna but with my R&B beats. And this time it’s just like, “Let’s just have some fun. Let’s see where this takes us. Let’s see where these disco beats take us.” And I like it. It has a Daft Punk kind of vibe to it on some of the songs. And then you hry into the darker side like “Forget About You.” It’s very ghostly, and kind of angry. I think Rouge is very me but an upgraded version.
You grew up a little and this is the you of now. You get to wear some red lipstick and embrace it, which you did with a lot of collaborators. You were just talking about how you wanted people to hear you. How is it to bring out your own voice in association with so many collaborators?
You know what’s funny? All of the artists that I worked with, they all have their own worlds, right? And sometimes they don’t match with mine. Like Tyler [the Creator]’s world does not match with mine. But somehow, some way, for some of the songs I think when I wrote them, I already knew. “This is so Tyler, even though maybe Tyler hasn’t done anything like this. This is so him.” I just know it and I follow my gut. It’s the same thing with “Teenage Heartbreak” where I have Miyavi on it and he’s an amazing guitar player. His music is so different from what I am doing, that he even told me that this is so different from what he’s used to. He was kind of like, “Just guide me. Is this ok?” And he managed to come up with something that I never would have come up with. G-Eazy, I worked with him before on my last record and sometimes people tell me, ‘Oh what, him again? Why do you want him again?” Why not? He’s amazing, he’s talented. Plus we didn’t get to do a music video before, so I wanted to do a music video [for “Blank Marquee”].
Being a musician, not everybody wants to work with you. It’s hard to get a “yes” from people that you want to work with and I’ve gotten rejected so many times. But it’s cool. I’m used to it. I have no ill feelings if this person or that person doesn’t want to work with me. But when you do get a “yes,” that’s like magic. It’s like a miracle. And it also shows that they’re not saying “yes” because of money or anything like that. I’m not Rihanna. I’m not Beyoncé. I still feel like I’m new, and if people want to work with me it’s solely because they see something in me they like, that they love and they want to be a part of. Each and every one of them, I’ve met personally, I’ve gotten to know them, and it’s important for me to have real collaborations and not just, “Okay, you’re over there, I’m over here, we don’t talk in real life, we don’t ever have to communicate, but here’s a song.” It’s not going to go anywhere if you don’t believe in the product, if you don’t believe in the music.
I met Tyler and I know what he feels strongly about because I remember a conversation that I had with him. We were talking at a festival and it was really important for him, for when he performs, that his fans don’t put phones up to record. It’s so important for him to have a show where people don’t record, living through their phone. I know that Little Simz [featured on “Pink Youth”] loves her mom. I love that about her, you know? And Miyavi has a beautiful family which I feel like, “Wow, this is the kind of family that I want to raise if I ever were to like settle down in LA.” Like yeah, I’m going to follow his steps. He’s like, “Yeah, move to this area. The school is great for the kids.”
What makes someone a great collaborator for you?
The fact that they really believe in the song and they see the value in it, I think that is just so valuable to me. I’ll be honest, for this album I reached out to some singers but I don’t know why I reached out to them. They said “no” to me like I’m nothing. At least have a conversation or something about it. Sometimes I’m in this position like, “Am I not cool anymore? Am I not relevant anymore?” Once in awhile as an artist you go on that likeemotional rollercoaster. It’s just like, “I’m great.” And then, “No, I suck.” I was dealing with a rejection when Masego [featured on “Amy”] hit me up on Instagram. He was like, “Hey, Yuna. I know you’re recording a new album. Let me know if you need any help.” I was like, “How does he know? Is he listening to me or spying on me?” We met this one time for a Quincy Jones thing, a launch of his headphones with JBL and I remember everyone who was working with Quincy was taking a picture, and I was kind of feeling like the shy outcast a little bit. I’m never going to be in the middle of everything. I’m not that person. So I’m always going to be that person. Just like alright, I’m just going to stand at the side or on the back of photos, also because I’m tall. I’m going to let one of the tiny ones up front and behind me was Masego, and that’s where we met.
You have to be positive about everything, but sometimes you do go through those moments where it’s just like, “I suck.” And then you’re like, “You know what? No. I’m great. I can do this. I’ll just keep on asking.” Even with Tyler too- I’m just going to talk about everyone [Laughs]. He’s probably going to be so mad at me, but he’s super sweet. I don’t know if he wants people to know that he’s sweet but he is. Just an amazing human being. I met him for the first time at Camp Flog Gnaw in 2016. I remember sitting in a dark corner of the stage and he came over. We had a conversation and it was great. Then for this album, I had this one song “Castaway” and I was like, “Oh my God, this is it. I’ve always wanted to find a reason to work with Tyler and now this is it.” My manager knows his manager. We met a couple of times. So I hit up the manager and but it wasn’t happening, and seemed impossible. I felt so bad asking again and again. Like, “Can we get Tyler on this song?” And they were like, “We kind of don’t know where Tyler is.” Maybe they were being secretive because IGOR was coming out. I totally get it. It went on for months. I was DMing him, and I know he doesn’t even check his DMs. Like, “Hey, I don’t know how to reach out to you but I have a song.” And then nothing. And 4 months later, I was preparing to fly back to Kuala Lumpur that night. Around 4 o’clock, I was like, “You know what? I finished packing. It’s a nice day out. Let’s just go out and have coffee.” So I drove to my favorite coffee shop, I parked my car, I got out, and he’s just walking down the street. I’m not even kidding. This is the universe, God. I wanted it so bad and he was just there, walking. I was like, “Tyler?” And he was like, “Oh, hey, what’s up Yuna?” He gave me his number and I sent the song. So that’s how it happened. I have a feeling he’s very picky with his projects, so for him to be on this is just a blessing to me. This is just amazing.
You mentioned how you’re the person that kind of goes to the back of the party or you’re kind of off to the side. How is it for you being in the center of the spotlight in your music videos and when you’re performing. How is that for you as a person?
I don’t know, I just blank out. Just don’t think about it. As an artist, if you don’t love being the center of attention you have to at least be comfortable with it and know the intention and purpose of why you’re there. For me, it’s not like, “Everybody look at me, look at me.” It’s like, “Ok, well, I have to do this. If not, people are not going to listen to my music.” It’s always been the music for me. I feel like if it’s not about that and it were all about fame and the glitz and glamor, I wouldn’t be out here still observing my faith, practicing my faith, or observing modesty. Pretty much I would probably abandon it because it’s not easy to hang on to a certain belief and then get into an industry that can be so superficial. It can be like the narrative has been written for you already. “You’re an artist. This is how you have to look, this is how you have to dress up. This is the standard of beauty that you need to get on to.” I pretty much don’t care about the rules. Can’t I just be me?
Sometimes people don’t get it. Last night, for example- everybody was drinking and I didn’t. I was just like “Okay, I think I’m going to go back to the hotel and get some rest.” That has happened to me throughout my life. I’m not struggling. It’s not like I really want it and I can’t. It’s just who I am. It’s the same with wearing the headscarf. It’s not like someone is oppressing me. When people say, “Why don’t you take it off? No one cares. Why are you wearing the scarf? Why are you wearing long sleeves? it’s hot. It’s the summer, it’s like 900 degrees.” I care. It’s just me. Let me dress how I want. So yeah, I guess with “Likes,” these are all the comments that I’ve gotten from different groups of people who are just like… They can be liberal and they can be conservative, but they just have to kind of accept that I’m just going to be me no matter what. Yeah, I have no struggle at all to be myself. I feel like that’s how people should feel about themselves. They shouldn’t feel embarrassed. They shouldn’t feel uncomfortable wearing what they like.
Do you think now versus when Chapters came out in 2016, the state of things are very different? Do you feel like now more than ever it’s important for girls, Muslims, to see someone like you in the media?
Oh, definitely. Representation is everything. And it empowers kids especially to kind of, you know, to feel like they can still practice whatever they love. Like if they love their faith, they shouldn’t feel threatened to do that. They shouldn’t have to feel it growing up. Like, “If I’m going to work in the music industry maybe I have to drink, maybe I have to fit in, and maybe I have to take off the hijab.” And it’s fine if they want to. But if they want to keep it too, that’s fine.
The final song on the album, “Tiada Akhir,” is sung in Malay. Was it important to close things out on Rouge by bringing this side of yourself to the album? Were you thinking something like, “I’m making this album for the American market I’m going to end things on my own terms?”
Exactly. Because I felt like maybe I was scared to ask before. “Hey, can I have one Malay song on the album?” I feel like the idea was not welcome kind of. “We prefer having English songs.” And I get it. More plays means more money, so probably adding a Malay song won’t really get American listeners to tune into that or repeat that song on streaming platforms. But I don’t care. This time around, nope. This song is going to be in there. “These are going to be the songs, that’s our last song,” I said. “Tiada Akhir” means “no ending,” and “no ending” means it’s forever. There’s a story about how I lost my heart like raindrops falling from the roof onto the leaves. It’s so poetic. Falling from the roof to the leaves and then you keep me like a bright light, like you were born like a bright light. You’re like the cure to my sickness. You’re the end of dark days kind of. So you’re like the cure, but you’re also the snake with the poison to stop my heart. When you stop my heart, you cause death. And that’s all that you left me with. I don’t know why I wrote that but these lyrics are beautiful, I needed to share.
This interview was shortened and edited for clarity.