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There was a time early in her songwriting career when indie-pop butterfly Yuna simply saw herself as an acoustic singer-songwriter with mellifluous jazz and pop influences, and her recordings reflected that. Decorate, released in her native Malaysia in 2010, hinted at the lighter side of Regina Spektor’s Begin to Hope or the more restrained parts of Sara Bareilles’ Little Voice. A year later, she released it in the United States, and her smoky, buttery voice caught the attention of the Neptunes’ Pharrell Williams, who produced three songs on her self-titled follow-up a year later. Williams widened Yuna’s sonic palette bringing in bouncy drum loops, subduing the strings that Decorate often hinted at and just lending Stateside cachet to a singer who was already hugely popular in her home country.
Last year, Yuna released her third international album, Nocturnal, to practically universal acclaim. It was her most adventurous to date, containing her first tracks that toyed with dance music sonics “” the rumbling ballad “Someone Who Can” brought her to the other side of the Neptunes through Chad Hugo’s production. It was a big record, partially a product of her new Los Angeles connections, but lyrically closer to the sensibilities that have remained with her as she’s moved around the world.
Y!W: Your self-titled album was not a trivial departure from the music that was popular in Malaysia, but the difference on Nocturnal was even more significant. Did working with Pharrell embolden you to embrace more sounds?
Yuna: Pharrell just really helped me be open to new styles of music. You know, before then I really just saw myself as a singer-songwriter who wanted to play some jazz and folk, but meeting him made me want to kind of match that with elements of hip-hop or R&B beats. Now there’s a lot of color in my music that I’m really excited about.
Y!W: An aspect of Pharrell’s contributions on “See You Go,” the bouncy drum beat at the intro, would also show up a year later on Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines.” That song at its core was loung-y, almost bossa nova. Was that a turning point for your style as he was also obviously experimenting with new sounds he liked?
Yuna: I noticed that, too, but that’s the way he works. Pharrell has drum rolls that he really likes, and it’s really cool to see how he applied those to my song and to “Blurred Lines.” He has a vision for everyone he works with, and part of it is trusting that he knows best. Up until then, I spent years and years trying to find a style of singing that I was comfortable with. Growing up, I was singing a lot of Cranberries and the Cardigans, but at the same time I love Norah Jones and Billie Holliday and Ella Fitzgerald. I tried to bring that to that song, but Pharrell’s input took it to other places.
Y!W: You find interesting places to hint at your own influences, like hearing “Favourite Things,” you hear Seal’s “Kiss From A Rose” almost instantly.
Yuna: I guess all of the pop artists I listened to as a kid have or will find their way into my music at some point. I like to acknowledge them in ways where it might take a minute to put your finger on it, but you can definitely pick up on it. When I was working with my producer (Chris Blade) on that he was really excited about me doing that.
Y!W: Since coming to the United States, there’s been this association with female empowerment; part of stemming from the way you embrace the hijab as a central element of fashion, but also because your songs are famously hopeful and inspiring. Was that just a product of a new environment?
Yuna: I never really used to write songs that were really about believing in yourself or positive songs like that until I started participating in charity. Then I wrote songs like “Rescue” or “Escape” because I feel like it’s important to express my feelings about certain things. Self-discovery for me has been key, so that could inspire other people as well. Traveling has been a big part of that, so now I try to write songs that can be liberating for anyone, guy or girl.
Y!W: Is there a thrill in singing in Malay to an English speaking audience?
Yuna: Oh, yeah. Definitely. I haven’t much recently, but it’s a challenge. Obviously, it presents barriers to understanding it fully, so you have to sing it in a certain way and with real feeling, but it’s a lot of fun when you start to see people picking up on it. Sometimes they just approach it in that a song is a song and just get into it.
Y!W: What are you working on now? Your output has been really consistent since you became an international artist. Do you have anything due out next year?
Yuna: I just got back into the studio recently, which I’m trying to balance with being on tour. I did get to spend about a week recording just recently, and what I’m trying to do for this album is to go back to the basics. I really like how my first EP sounds, and also songs like “Coffee” and “Deeper Conversation,” but I also want to try and keep some of the new elements that I’ve brought into my music “” a little bit of electronica and a little bit of folk, but very laid back. Lullabies, you know? I’m working on projecting my voice more rather than having a big production around me.
Yuna will perform Wednesday, Sept. 24 at the Downtown Greensboro Railyard for Show of Hands x Mosaic Festival. !