Independent Malaysian singer-songwriter Yuna Zarai began writing her own songs at 14 years old, and has been performing them since 2006. After being discovered, she signed with The FADER‘s record label and released her first EP, Decorate, back in 2011. Since then, Yuna has been in good company when it comes to working with talented producers: her first single, “Live Your Life,” was produced by Pharrell.
Yuna’s sophomore album Nocturnal comes out tomorrow, and it showcases her talent for balancing sweet vocals, catchy melodies, and a hint of mystery. She still sings of love, heartbreak, and self-discovery in tracks like “Mountains,” “Someone Who Can,” and “Lovely Intermission,” but has embraced a more mature, worldly sound.
Being a musician is only one part of Yuna’s creative abilities: she is also the owner of IAMJETFUEL, a Malaysian boutique/international online retailer. She’s also in the process of launching her very first line as a designer for it. We spoke with Zarai about collaborating with Pharrell, mixing religion and music and where she gets her great sense of style.
ILANA KAPLAN: Are you in California right now?
YUNA ZARAI: Yeah! I am in California right now, in L.A.
KAPLAN: How is your sophomore record different from your debut?
ZARAI: Let’s see. Well, personally, I feel like I gave 110% of myself into this album. In the first album, I am truly happy with what I created and I worked with a lot of talented people like Pharrell, but I feel like I was a little bit afraid to showcase what I can do. Not to say better, but I wanted to show more of myself. This record enabled me to do that, working with Chad Hugo [The Neptunes] and Robin Hannibal [Rhye]. They’re super supportive and helped me in creating a really cohesive album. I’m really excited about this album. I finally get to show a little more of myself.
KAPLAN: Cool. What was it like working with Pharrell?
ZARAI: It was cool, but I didn’t work with him on the second album. It was amazing. He taught me a lot of things, and he’s a really cool, sweet guy. He’s a very talented producer and he works really hard. It’s amazing to have someone so talented endorsing your talent. It was really cool to work with him.
KAPLAN: Obviously, not only are you involved in music, but you’re involved in fashion. I’m really digging the collections from your company, IAMJETFUEL. Which do you feel more inspired by: fashion or music?
ZARAI: I feel like fashion and music relate to each other in a lot of ways. I always had to be creative: I’m a very creative person. I always liked making stuff. Apart from music, I always liked making clothes. You’re able to express yourself. I’m really happy to have IAMJETFUEL, which will be re-branding next month. It will be called November Culture. We’ll be re-launching in New Jersey. I just started designing, and it’s my first time designing anything for my clothing store. It’s pretty exciting to finally have my own clothing line coming out. I’m still working on that, and it’s going to be really exciting to see that.
KAPLAN: I’m so excited for that! I know you’re a practicing Muslim; how does your religion play into your music?
ZARAI: Religion is a huge part of me; I’m a practicing Muslim. I’m pretty much open about it if people were to answer questions. At the end of the day, I’m just a normal girl. I have my own beliefs just like everyone else. I have a strong belief in something, but I also love music. It’s important to be true to yourself, especially in this industry. People appreciate that. Being a musician, it’s my job to be real and be true to whoever I am. Hopefully that will inspire other people. I hope it inspires people to be themselves and be comfortable in your own skin. Having a strong belief in something disciplines you as well and makes you a very balanced person. I’m very happy with where I am at this point in my life.
KAPLAN: That’s great to hear. You’re obviously very stylish. Who are some of your personal style icons?
ZARAI: Whenever I Google for clothes, I always look at what Angelina Jolie is wearing. I love Sienna Miller, and I really like Rihanna’s style, too. There’s the edgy girl, classy girl, and the Bohemian chic girl. I guess I’m all of that combined into one.
KAPLAN: You debuted “Colors” today; what was the process for making that song?
ZARAI: “Colors” was one of the songs that me and my producer wrote. We wanted to do a continuance of the first song we did on the first album that was called “Lullabies.” Everyone loved it, and we loved it. It was our first successful collaboration together. I did this track with Chris Braide. He wanted to do a sequel to that. We came up with a really sweet melody for “Colors,” and I just wanted to sign about fighting for a relationship. When you’re in a relationship with someone and they’re giving up, you always have to be the strong one, and hopefully both of you will pull through. That’s basically what the song is about.
KAPLAN: From what I have heard from your debut album and your newest one, are a lot of the songs focused on one relationship?
ZARAI: A lot of the songs that I wrote are about relationships, but I feel like the second album is more mature because the first album I wrote most of the songs five years ago. It took me close to two years to produce that album. Most of the songs were from when I was 22 or 23. With this album, all of the songs are fresh and new. It’s recent. I wrote them in a smaller timeframe. We recorded this album in about six months. That’s why you can feel that there’s a strong theme to it. There’s a story there. I feel a lot of things, and I got inspired by a lot of things from my travels. There are a couple of songs that are about relationships, but they are more mature. There are a lot of songs about empowering women. Songs like “Lights And Camera” talks about fame and trying not to lose yourself. You’re trying to be strong—even when you feel like you’re alone, you’re not alone.