Yuna Credit: Steve Taylor

Malaysian singer-songwriter Yuna (Yunalis Zara’ai) has a striking stage presence: a fashion icon as well as a pop and R&B sensation, she has a personal style she describes as inspired by Audrey Hepburn and 90s Gwen Stefani. Aspects of her music bring both those icons to mind, and she also sounds a bit like Sade in the way her delightful, breathy voice and casually elegant phrasing glide over sultry grooves. Born in Kedah in 1986 and raised in Kuala Lumpur, Yuna currently divides her time between her homeland and Los Angeles. She began singing at age seven and taught herself to play guitar at 19, while she was in law school—the same year that she auditioned and competed on One in a Million, a Malaysian show akin to American Idol. She was eliminated in the top 40 round, but rather than get discouraged, Yuna began sharing her songs via MySpace. Her 2008 self-titled EP debut became a breakout hit and earned her four Malaysian Music Awards, and though she finished her law degree in 2009, she decided to forgo that career path to pursue music in the States. Yuna’s 2011 EP Decorate and her 2012 self-titled U.S. debut both feature tracks produced by Pharrell Williams. She began by playing laid-back, breezy folk-pop grooves backed by her guitar and ukulele, but with each new album she moves further away from that style to forge her own brand of global pop—though it’s rooted in contemporary R&B, it also carries nuances from her homeland. Her 2019 album, Rouge, continues this evolution, and explicitly references the lovely classical sung poetry called syair. She starts “Forevermore” with melodic humming backed by a traditional Malay kompang hand drum, and on album closer “Tiada Akhir” (a heartbreak story in syair form) she sings in Malay for the first time on an international release. She also expands the musical palette of the smoky, simmering R&B sounds she introduced on 2016’s Chapters: “Blank Marquee” is a determinedly funky bop with touches of Prince, and “Pink Youth” is a feminist empowerment song rife with disco beats. As she declares in the retro-soul choruses of “Likes,” she’s reclaiming her time—she’s done with haters of all kinds, whether they bemoan her stepping out of traditional Malaysian Muslim culture (“Oh, she Muslim / Why she singin’ onstage? She’s showing her neck in public?”) or show their ignorance and bigotry with spiteful complaints (“Who does she think she is? / What is that on her head?”). Yuna chose the title Rouge, a color she previously considered too bold for her to wear, to symbolize her current outlook. In “Likes” she sings, “I got the music and faith in me . . . and I ain’t livin’ by nobody’s rules.” This performance at City Winery kicks off Yuna’s U.S. acoustic tour; it will be fascinating to see how her new sounds and perspective come across in an intimate space.   v