"This is about a girl's heart getting broken a few years ago," explains Malaysian-born singer-songwriter and burgeoning fashion icon Yuna Zarai. Her mouth curls into a vibrant smile behind the microphone on stage at her sold-out first headlining show at the El Rey Theatre in Los Angeles. An oatmeal-colored overcoat covers her thin frame, from which a black turtleneck peeks out, and a tightly twisted hijab covers her hair. The 29-year-old attributes the lyrics on her new album Chapters - a moody and soulful release that includes hit song "Crush" featuring Usher - to her interpersonal struggles.
"I didn't want to hold back," she says, at a table at L.A. restaurant Sycamore Kitchen a week after her performance. "A lot of the songs are based on my previous relationship. It didn't work out. I lost him, and it ruined me. I had to learn to get back on my feet. I used that heartbreak to create something really beautiful."
As she takes off her black Helmut Lang jacket, she reveals another turtleneck. This time, she wears a dark Muji scarf as her head cover. "Sorry I'm late. The water was out in my apartment," she says, re-spooling the hijab. She crosses her Levi's-clad legs and reveals black Nike running shoes with white swooshes down the sides. "I was not going to do a style interview and not have showered!"
Yuna's been singing since she was 7 years old. She went on to learn guitar and begin recording music in her teenage years, eventually releasing tunes on Myspace. She enrolled in law school in Malaysia and graduated in 2009, but never practiced because she wanted to concentrate on her art. She would wear crop tops, short skirts, and Reebok sneakers, and she noticed that all the other girls would copy her style. However, she also found herself garnering unwanted attention from older men and she decided to cover up. Nowadays, she dresses modestly because of the teachings of her Islamic faith. She maintains that you don't have to sell sexuality to get ahead in the music and fashion industries.
As an only child, Yuna often looked to her older cousin as a big sister figure. When Yuna was 14, her cousin died of acute leukemia. "I knew she was going to die, and it crushed me inside. I don't think I was ever the same," she remembers. She even wrote a heartfelt song about the ordeal called "Time," which appears on her new album. Last year, her uncle and grandfather also passed away; then her boyfriend of two years ended their relationship. "I've been going through a lot of pain and hardship lately, but I want to turn that into positivity," she declares. "I'm happy living life that way."
Perhaps in reaction to the darkness, Yuna uses her personal style (bright colors, flashy accessories) as a way to evoke positive emotion. She also tries to inspire younger girls to feel comfortable both in their skin and their beliefs.
Although she has been criticized and made fun of for wearing the hijab, she says she doesn't mind since it's her choice. Yuna runs a clothing store called November Culture in Malaysia and also sells online. She buys some of the attire, but also designs pieces, including a signature line of headscarves. This month, she will launch a new line with Malaysian fashion designer Hatta Dolmat called Hatta x Yuna, which she describes as chic, modest and fun with lots of prints, colors and flowers.
As the ice melts in her coffee, she leans closer. "I want girls to know that equality exists in this world," she says. "You can do anything you want. My style is all I have. When I go on stage, that's me in my comfort zone. It's not a costume. It's just me. And I want every woman to feel that way."