The Malaysian indie singer-songwriter Yuna is on a charm offensive. She enchanted Malaysia with her soft, powerfully emotive vocals and warm acoustic guitar; won over audiences on her recent U.S. tour with Graffiti6; and has fans and critics everywhere raving about her music, including the Grammy award–winning Pharrell Williams, who produced her new single, “Live Your Life.” Hip-hop music mogul Russell Simmons has said that she’s “an amazing new singer… her music is incredible.”

Oh, and she also has over a million likes on Facebook.

A stylish, hijab-wearing law-school graduate, Yuna has also become an icon of modern Muslim chic and has turned her personal style into a business. Her I AM JET FUEL shop in Malaysia carries the clothes she loves, as well as her own line of traditional Malaysian head scarves.

She picked up a guitar at 19 while she was still in law school in Malaysia, and began writing songs and music that had people spellbound. Her first EP was released in Malaysia, and a single from it, “Deeper Conversation,” went on to win Best Local English Song at the 2009 AIM Awards, Malaysia’s national music awards. Yuna also snatched up Best Pop Song and Song of the Year for her track “Dan Sebenarnya.” She has graduated law school, but it is the world of music and not the courtroom that has become her arena.

The Fader label signed her in 2010, and U.S. music fans and critics took note immediately. Spin featured Yuna in its Buzzcatcher piece “Eight Bands You Need to Hear Now, and she performed before a packed audience at MTV Iggy’s Best New Band in the World concert in New York City.

Earlier this year, Yuna released her debut album, Yuna. SOMA caught up with the singer in the middle of her U.S. tour. Stops included Chicago, Cleveland, New York City, Boston, St. Louis, Milwaukee and Indianapolis.

How’s it going?

I’m having a great time. It’s my first U.S. tour, and I just love every minute of it.

What do you always take on tour?

A small kettle because I need my Nescafé in the morning, a tiny rice cooker because you never know when you need a bowl of rice, my makeup, and a ton of head scarves.

You wear your head scarf beautifully. It seems like it’s an intrinsic part of who you are.

I am never without my head scarf. It’s a part of me. As a Muslim woman, I embraced it on my own a few years ago, and I love wearing it. I wanted to give life to it, and I like having fun with it.

Do you think you are a role model for young Muslim women?

I don’t see it that way, but I appreciate that a lot of young Muslim women reach out to me. I really want all girls—regardless of race and religion—to be inspired, positive, happy and successful.

Is it fair to say you are probably the only hijab-wearing woman on a U.S. tour right now?

I guess. Many Muslim girls in Malaysia are into music. I’m not unique. But maybe I’m the first to make it into a career and cross over into the U.S. market. I’m only 25, and I’m still learning about how to make it work.

Where do you live?

I moved to Los Angeles two years ago.

What do you like about LA?

The weather. I love the warm weather. It reminds me of home.

What do you miss about Malaysia?

The food… and to be able to go to any restaurant at 2 a.m. And of course, family and friends.

How would you describe your music?

Laid-back, positive, lush pop.

What is the music that inspired when you were growing up in Malaysia?

I loved No Doubt, the Cranberries and Fiona Apple.

Are there any Malaysian influences?

Yes. OAG, Ella, Sheila Majid. I also grew up listening to a lot of Malay jazz bands from the ‘50s and ‘60s.

What made you pick up the guitar at 19?

I saw a video of Feist performing in Paris, and she was phenomenal. That really changed my world. I wanted to be just like her. She was my biggest inspiration.

What’s on your playlist right now?

I’ve been listening to Washed Out and the Naked and Famous. They have a great ‘80s vibe.

What’s next for Yuna?

I’m desperate to write music and create new material. It’s been great performing around the country, but it’s material I wrote two years ago. I’m ready for new things.

Text by Ellen Georgiou
Photography by Zel-Atif Ishak