Sam, in the days when were still on speaking terms, introduced me to Yuna.
“Have you heard this kid? She’s amazing!” He passed me a couple of Youtube links. In those days, if you Googled ‘Yuna’, you were three times more likely to be returned with links to fan fiction related to the Final Fantasy character, or the Korean skater Yuna Kim. In 2007, Yunalis Zarai had not yet entered the consciousness of the Malaysian listener, much less that of the rest of the world.
Fast forward to 2014 and I walked into a café on the intersection of Carrer del Parlament and Carrer del Comter Borrell in Barcelona and was greeted by ‘Lullabies’ from the speakers. Only a week or so earlier, Yuna’s voice cracked whilst performing the very same song on stage at the Paradiso in Amsterdam. Only about an hour before she took to the stage, she tweeted about the death of a dear friend who lost a battle with leukimia. Ever the professional, she tried to carry on singing, and the crowd cheered her on in support. She regained her composure almost immediately, carried on to finish the song and explained to everyone the aberration in her performance, before asking for a minute’s silence in her friend’s memory. Then the show went on.
I am partial to memories of death of friends, and leukimia struck a strong chord. When I lost my late friend in 2010, I was still bursting into tears at indeterminate moments of the day three days after I received the news. To be able to go on stage after receiving such devastating information and perform; that is why this girl will go far. Professional to the core.
Of course, it helps that such professionalism is coupled with bags and bags of talent. Prior to that show in Amsterdam, I had caught an earlier performance in London. Lest it be thought that I am a stalker of sorts, I have a valid explanation, although the presence of such an explanation and this perceived need to explain myself Is now a tad worrying.
Favourite Thing – Ace Hotel Shoreditch 19 March 2014
The London show – at the Ace Hotel in Shoreditch – was initially for one night but an extra night was put as tickets were sold out. The crowd was perhaps 60% Malaysians and 40% non-Malaysians; with the Malaysians consisting largely of what seemed to be the student diaspora and the odd resident or three like myself. Some had come down from Coventry, Manchester, Bath, Brighton.. [I eavesdropped in the ladies] so this was, I suspected, largely from the same fanbase she had in Malaysia. It was nice, though, to see locals bopping along to her songs, enjoying themselves and not actually merely politely clapping as one would had this been a showcase of music from a remote country. In fact, Yuna never addressed her fans specifically as Malaysians – the old ‘anyone from [insert random town/state/country] ‘ holler from the stage did not happen. She did mention she was originally from Malaysia – to which the Malaysian crowd cheered – but for the most part, she was a singer and that was foremost.
The Amsterdam crowd was definitely heavier weighed towards locals. There was a handful of Malaysians and the odd Indonesian or three – there is a small but emerging Malaysian student community in the Netherlands – but for the most part these people discovered Yuna by their own accord: airplay on their local radio stations. This was very encouraging for me to see – if for nothing else then to add another notch to prove that Malaysians, when given the chance and the space to be creative, can create for the masses to enjoy. As an avid follower of the Malaysian entertainment scene, it is admittedly painful to see that wit, creativity and exposure is stifled by constraints. So many clipped wings, only a few brave enough to loosen the shackles.
I found the Amsterdam show more enjoyable – there was more banter from the singer; nerves may have played a part in London as it was her first show, not that the crowd noticed even for a minute. Despite the tears that stopped her performance, Yuna seemed a lot more relaxed than in London, much to my delight.
Perhaps one of the saddest break-up songs, lyrically
Yuna is one of those singers for whom the recording studio represses the true nature of her voice. Sure, the recordings do a more than decent job of capturing it, but in order to appreciate her for all her talent, you have to listen to her live. I have had the opportunity to do so one other time prior to the two Nocturnal tour dates recently: at the launch of her EP. During the performance, still in her jeans, checked-shirt and sneakers with a guitar astride her thighs, even the presence of a string quartet accompanying her during one of the songs could not drown the rich tones she carriers her tunes in.
Coincidentally, said EP contains a less polished and gutturally raw version of Deeper Conversation, as well as my personal favourite Blue Sands which I don’t think she plays anymore. The former made it onto some of the later albums she released; the latter remains an EP track. Lyrically she is perhaps more pop than indie, she talks a lot about love and life in her songs, but not much else. Should there be anything else, even? Songs are after all stories and you can only tell stories of things you know. And as she matures as a person and as an artist, I strongly believe her music will mature too: in fact her latest album has already begun to show the beginnings of this, and in no way is any of it any less enjoyable.
Watch this girl. She’s only started, and she’s been given a good set of wings. Watch her soar.