Yuna Casts a Spell in Intimate New York Show

Malaysian singer-songwriter flirts with audience, discusses working with Pharrell

April 27, 2012 12:00 PM ET
Yuna performs at SOB's in New York.
Jessica Lehrman

Yuna can't stop smiling. It's a crisp Thursday night in New York City, and S.O.B.'s nightclub is filled with teammates, early adopters and curious inquirers. All are smiling back. "Wow, there are a lot of you here," the Malaysian singer-songwriter beams from behind a ukulele. Her wispy frame is draped in pastels, and a bottom-up scan reveals hot pink wedges and a tightly knotted hijab headwrap – a sartorial paradox that somehow, on her, works.

Then again, Yuna has a knack for intersection. The 25-year-old blends heartland acoustic folk, quiet storm R&B and bouncy trip-hop to create songs to fall in love to and fall asleep to. In fact, she opens her set with "Lullabies," off her self-titled debut: "Like lullabies you are forever in my mind," she coos, her voice somewhere between Sade and Norah Jones. "You're my first love."

Her look is racially ambiguous and arresting, and her disarming tone reads constantly as flirting. The crowd hangs off her every word. "There's a cute guy in the back selling the album," she says. "If you go check them out, you can meet him, too."

Yuna bailed on a law career in 2009 after her Malay folk tune "Dan Sebenarnya" went viral in her homeland, earning her a large web following and several local accolades. "Malaysia was actually a really good practice," she tells Rolling Stone backstage after the show. "For five years there, I was doing little media and album stuff. I was independent. Coming out here is very refreshing. It's like a whole new world that I love."

She inked a deal with Fader's label soon after arriving in the United States, and her star brightened further when the label paired her with super-producer and purveyor of cool Pharrell Williams to write and record cuts for her debut album. The results, including the buzzing single "Live Your Life," have been stellar. "When [Fader] wanted me to work with Pharrell, I was kind of nervous, like, 'That doesn't make any sense,'" she recalls. "My background is super acoustic, jazz, folky feel. How were we going to write songs together? But he made me very comfortable. We hit it off."

Onstage, Yuna is still more folky than funky, switching between an acoustic six-string and a hybrid and floating through tracks with the bashfulness of a college sophomore. Her set is short and sweet, and each number opens with a "This song is called..." and ends with an ear-to-ear grin. Her ode to an ex, "Decorate," wins over the crowd, showcasing the weight of her relatively young perspective: "You left your things at my place/As if I have all this space," she snaps, before the painful turn: "'Cause you know I don't mind/Just come back when you think it's time."

With an international background, certified indie cred and massive pop potential, Yuna is earning plenty of comparisons to the pained female voice of the moment. She doesn't avoid them. "To be honest with you, Adele gives me hope," Yuna says. "She's a different thing. When I came out here two years ago, Adele was really new to the States. I was super relieved because she kind of paved the way for those who are like, 'I'm not Lady Gaga, I'm not Ke$ha, I'm not all these pop artists.' They're great for what they're doing, but I guess with Adele coming into the picture, it's like, yes, there's still hope for the rest of us. I'm from Malaysia, I'm not from here, so there's this hope of Americans accepting my music and getting it."

As her set ends, Yuna spends over 20 minutes with newly minted fans, shaking hands, giving hugs and taking photos. They seem to 'get it' just fine.

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