In charge of her image and sound, pop singer Yuna refuses to be pigeonholed
After getting stuck in one of Los Angeles’s notorious traffic jams, pop singer-songwriter Yuna apologizes for being nearly a half-hour late for a phone interview. But barely 10 minutes into the conversation, another obstacle arises when the conference platform her publicist has used to connect the two-person call comically informs her that she needs to upgrade her subscription if the interview is to continue.
The Malaysian-born singer laughs and does something few of today’s pop artists would consider. She offers up her personal cell number without hesitation. It’s a gesture that reflects the graciousness and humility of Yuna, who speaks with the quiet confidence of someone who sees music as art and refuses to get lost in the brand-obsessed pop industry that chews up and spits out young stars like sunflower seeds.
With the release of her fine new album “Rouge,” Yuna, who plays the Sinclair on Thursday, once again shows her independent streak. Rather than team up with usual-suspect producers or hot rappers, the lithe soprano collaborated with executive producer Robin Hannibal and a collection of international musicians and MCs, including Korean pop star Jay Park, Japanese guitarist Miyavi, young British MC Little Simz, Masego, and Tyler, the Creator.
Refusing to follow conventional wisdom or chase trends are all in keeping with Yuna’s desire to stay true to her music and personal identity as a devout Muslim. “I’ve always been comfortable in my own skin,” Yuna (born Yunalis binti Mat Zara’ai) says. “I was already doing music back home in Malaysia. A lot of women sing there, but I was one of the first to break out, and I’ve always done my own thing, whether it’s my music or the kind of scarves I use to cover my head. I see a reward to sticking to who you are rather than lose yourself. If you give in once, then you will give in again and again, and you’ll find yourself as someone else. I don’t want to be lost in the sauce.”
The stylish musician, who wears beautifully designed hijabs and clothing, takes full ownership over her image and sound.
“I refuse to lose my identity, and I get respect. People see I don’t drink. I don’t smoke, and I don’t reveal my body, but they know I sing and write good songs and that’s what gets you respect. Let’s face it, the industry is a monster that will just eat you alive, so you have to figure out how you want to deal with it. I may get eaten, but I will have no ill will because I’m giving my best work and being sincere at all times.”
She considers how others in the industry have wanted to manipulate her image. “I’ve had companies say, ‘We want you in our campaign, but you have to wear this,’ and I’m like, ‘No, thanks, just get a model.’ They say, ‘But you have a following,’ and I tell them I have a following because of who I am. They’ll insist I’ll make a lot of money, but I guess I have a gift of not liking money,” she says with a laugh.
“Rouge,” her fourth official album, is a return to the more upbeat, musically diverse sound of her best work — 2013’s delightfully melodic “Nocturnal” remains a high-water mark — after 2016’s moody “Chapters” delved into introspective songs about forlorn love. It reflects a new chapter in Yuna’s life, marked by happiness after her marriage in 2018.
“With ‘Chapters,’ I was going through a self-discovery phase and heartbreak,” says the 32-year-old, now a Los Angeles resident. “When I was growing up, I was never the kind of person who could express her feelings in that way. I was raised not to talk about things and ignore how I felt inside, but with that album, I thought, ‘You know what? I’m going to talk about these things I’m dealing with.’
“I needed to talk about my breakup. It was my truth — so that was an important album because I was finally honest with myself and didn’t try to narrate a story. It became an emotional album, but with ‘Rouge,’ the heartbreak had long passed, and I’m in a place in my life where I’m happy and content. I met the love of my life, so that’s going to dictate how the songs sound.”
While she is a proud Muslim, Yuna wants to be identified simply for her music.
“I don’t want to be stuck in a small category as a Muslim artist. I’m tired of reading that,” she says, her voice rising slightly. “I think my music is on par with everyone out in pop music, and I just want to be taken on those terms. Judge me for my music. I don’t want to have people say, ‘Oh, she’s Muslim, she’s probably oppressed because she wears a hijab,’ as people say sometimes. It’s a bit ridiculous.
“You can’t believe some of the things that are written about me in comments on different platforms of media, and none of it is about my music. My response is, ‘Let’s just talk about my music.’ ”
At the Sinclair, Cambridge, July 18 at 9 p.m. Tickets $20-$25 , 617-547-5200, www.sinclaircambridge.com