"Two days of boundary-burning music and art performance, Neon Lights brings to mind the muddy banks of Glastonbury" - Timeout Singapore
As the only Malaysian to crossover into global pop stardom (and an observant Muslim to boot), Yuna is used to transcending expectations - and she does so again with her highly anticipated new album, Chapters, to be released on Verve Music on May 20th. While often compared to the likes of Norah Jones, Feist, Ellie Goulding, and Adele, the young singer-songwriter’s music exists in a lane of its own. That was clear from “Live Your Life” - the uplifting yet haunting Pharrell-produced hit from Yuna’s 2012 self-titled album. Introducing the world outside Malaysia to Yuna’s poignant songwriting and otherworldly voice, “Live Your Life” proved her international breakthrough, which she followed up a year later with another soulful, stirring smash, “Falling” - a collaboration with innovative producer/songwriter Robin Hannibal (Rhye, Kendrick Lamar, Cee Lo Green, Chairlift) from Yuna’s 2013 album Nocturnal. Chapters, however, reveals Yuna’s most personal and distinctive set yet. While Yuna’s previous efforts drew from her folk, jazz and pop influences, Chapters boasts her most confessional songwriting yet - combined with a surprising group of legendary creative collaborators, and a retro-futuristic urban groove that’s all new, and all her. “It’s not just a collection of songs, but a body of work,” Yuna explains. “It’s unlike anything I’ve ever done before.”
True to its title, Chapters proves more autobiographical in sound and vision than anything Yuna has released up to now. “It’s been 10 years since I first started releasing music at the age of 19, and these new songs represent life lessons I’ve learned during this time,” she notes. “It’s more bittersweet, maybe a little darker than anything I’ve ever done. Still, it’s important that I have positive messages, too - that’s a big part of me.” Reflecting on her life and memories caused Yuna to explore her musical roots as well like never before. As she looked deep inside herself during the songwriting process, Yuna began rediscovering her love of the ‘90s hip-hop and R&B that inspired her to make music. Finding inspiration in the cutting-edge grooves and soulful confessionals from greats like Brandy, Monica, and Aaliyah, Yuna went to the originators and current innovators of that sound for maximum authenticity. Hip-hop legend DJ Premier provided the funky, sample-driven boom bap driving buzz track “Places to Go,” evoking the swagger and emotion of early Mary J. Blige. “When I tell people I did a track with DJ Premier, they don’t believe it!” Yuna notes. Chapters’ first official single, the heartbreaking coming-of-age ballad “Crush,” meanwhile, pairs Yuna in a surprising duet with none other than R&B icon Usher, who delivers a dazzling, heartfelt performance; likewise, “Used to Love You” features Yuna collaborating with urban music’s most deep, mystical siren, Jhené Aiko.
“I grew up listening to Usher - ‘Confessions’ is one of my favorite songs,” Yuna says. “Having my musical hero on this song was amazing enough, but he really gave his all.” As for Aiko’s contribution to “Used to Love You,” that collaboration came about via Fisticuffs - the Grammy-nominated production duo known for their work with groundbreaking, genre-defying artists like Aiko and Miguel. “Jhené had already worked with Fisticuffs, who introduced the idea of us working together,” Yuna says. “She came to the studio and right away came up with this amazing chorus, which I built the verses around. It was a blessing: having Jhené on my album was so important to me. I love her voice, and listen to her constantly; she’s been the soundtrack for all that I’ve gone through that led me to make Chapters.” From the success of their “Used to Love You” collaboration, Fisticuffs ultimately came to serve as Yuna’s primary creative partner, helping to shape Chapters’ forward urban vibe.
Despite these boldface collaborations, Chapters above all represents Yuna’s vision. It’s the album where she truly takes you into her world, giving the songs an emotional power to match their hooks and cutting-edge production. While work on Chapters began in 2014, its genesis really started four years earlier, when Yuna left her Malaysian home to move to Los Angeles and take her musical ambitions all the way. In L.A., Yuna found herself in a beguiling new world, so different and far from home, full of new friends and experiences. “Chapters is about what I’ve gone through these past few years, showing what I’m going through as I grow into a woman,” she explains. “I went through rough times - a breakup, people in my family passing away. I had to learn about love and relationships, and I put that into the songs. It was ultimately therapeutic to make.” That powerful journey reveals itself in album opener “Mannequin” (one of four tracks produced by Robin Hannibal, including the soaring, Adele-esque ballad, “Too Close”). “Mannequin” proves a perfect intro to Chapters: its minor-chord synth line sucks you in even before Yuna’s heartbreaking vocal begins to describe being trapped in a failed romance. “It’s very direct,” Yuna notes. “It’s about feeling manipulated like a mannequin by your lover in a relationship.”
Elsewhere, “Unrequited Love” - the first song Yuna finished for Chapters - belies its intense emotional cry in Yuna’s smooth, sultry vocal evoking classic Sade. “Time,” meanwhile, addresses Yuna’s family matters with moving honesty: over a pulsating, hypnotic groove, Yuna details the pain she felt from her sister’s death from cancer, and how growing closer to her mother helped her heal. Indeed, there’s a message of resilience and redemption in Chapters’ uplifting anthem, “All I Do.” Co-written and recorded by Verve Music chief and legendary producer/songwriter David Foster (Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, Madonna, Beyoncé), “All I Do” provides a crucial, compelling bridge to Yuna’s earlier acoustic-oriented work and message of positivity.
Chapters often proves topical as well, like on “Best of Me” - Yuna’s personal stand against cyber-bullying trolls “hiding behind screens.” “The song came to me when I starting thinking about how kids today have to deal with these assaults on their identity,” Yuna says. “It’s something I deal with it everyday - ‘Yuna’s too Muslim,’ or ‘not Muslim enough.’ Eventually I was like, ‘You’re not going to get the best of me today.’” Yuna came to her religion via her family and homeland (60% of Malaysia practices a form of moderate Islam) and its influence subtly reveals itself in her music. Similar to how, say, how Drake artfully incorporates his Jewish heritage into his musical persona, Yuna’s beliefs organically shape her art. The slo-mo electro beat underpinning “Crush,” for example, references Prince’s erotic masterpiece “Darling Nikki,” but Yuna’s lyric instead explores innocent teen romance. “It’s tricky,” she admits. “With my background, I can’t write about sex, drugs, and alcohol, so I find other ways to express feelings people can relate to.”
While The New York Times has called Yuna the “Poster Girl for Young ‘Hijabsters’,” Chapters makes clear that Yuna is her own woman and her own artist. “I’m not a poster girl for anything,” she explains. “I’m a musician.” Born Yunalis Mat Zara’ai in 1986 to a legal-advisor father and high school chemistry teacher mom, Yuna has followed an unexpected trajectory since the age of 14. That’s when, inspired by everything from Fiona Apple to Garbage, Yuna started playing jazz cafés and coffeehouses in her hometown of Kuala Lumpur. Yuna was still in her teens when early buzz on social media turned her into a household-name, award-winning superstar in Malaysia. But Yuna has also studied law and founded a successful women’s fashion boutique in that time. Moving to the United States and pursuing her dream to bring her music to a worldwide audience only proved the next unexpected act in the Yuna story. In addition to the success of her first two international releases, Yuna has become a ubiquitous presence in popular culture - from her incredible cover of The Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun” included in the Oliver Stone film Savages to soundtracking commercials for H&M and appearing in a groundbreaking Barneys ad campaign shot by famed photographer Bruce Weber. In hindsight, those milestones paved the way for the artistic maturity represented by Chapters’ triumph. “I want people to recognize me for my work, not my turban - to get to know me from my music first,” Yuna says. “I wanted to be as real as possible, make something timeless, and really prove myself as a songwriter. With Chapters, that’s finally happening.”
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