It was 2009 when 23-year-old law student Yunalis Mat Zara’ai—who is more famously known as Yuna today—knew that she had to face the music eventually: she needed to come clean to her parents that not only was she, in the singer-songwriter’s own words, “jamming with the boys”, but she also had a substantial following on her MySpace at the time with her own music, and was performing her songs live over the past six months.
She grins when she recalls the moment she spilled the beans. After telling her parents that she was doing gigs in the local indie scene, the first thing her father had asked her was: “What’s a gig?”
Deciding there and then that she’d show them, Yuna invited her parents to watch her perform at the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre (KLPac). “They were so surprised,” says Yuna. “I remember my dad asking me things like, ‘You wrote these songs? Without help? With the guitar that you just bought over a year ago?’ And I had to keep telling him that, yes, those were actually songs I wrote myself, and no, they weren’t cover songs!”
Contrary to what some may think, however, being a musician was never in the cards for Yuna, who had fully intended to follow in her father’s footsteps after graduating, as the man himself was once a former legal advisor and a judicial commissioner in high court—but after that one night at KLPac, it only seemed to set ablaze what initially began as a quiet passion for music.
“I was a fish out of water when I first started out in the local indie scene. I didn’t know what to do, who to talk to or where to go, but I lucked out when I found people who believed in me and my music. Early on, my mom and I would drive all over KL to go to all these auditions, like any talent competitions we could find in malls. My dad, who’s a fan of rock ‘n’ roll and plays the guitar—which, by the way,” gesturing suddenly towards the four guitars that were proudly displayed behind her, “that black one you see? The one without strings? That’s my dad’s. He’s had it ever since I was a baby.
“Then, when I started my own band, I asked my bandmates if they were cool with performing with a tudung girl, because at the time there wasn’t anyone in the scene that looked like me. So it was a weird thing people fixated on. But all they said was, ‘Look, you make amazing music and we’re happy to be here. These songs are awesome!’”