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Welcome To The Yuna-Versity of California, Irvine

The lights have dimmed, casting vague, eerie shadows everywhere. The band is already on stage playing a familiar, indie-pop tune. The crowd of UCI students tenses with anticipation and after the fog begins rolling in, she materializes.

“UC Irvine,” Yuna greets the crowd in her haunting, soothing voice. She raises her arms––the folds and drapes of her metallic outfit only adding to ethereal appeal she’s become known for, first in her homeland of Malaysia and now in the U.S. And for the next hour, the audience willingly falls under a state of hypnosis.

International singer-songwriter, Yuna graced the hills of UCI on Sept. 30 at 7 p.m. as the guest performer for the annual “Aldrich Park After Dark” concert, orchestrated by ASUCI’s Office of Student Services for Welcome Week.

The eclectic artist, who outside of performing has earned a law degree and has opened her own fashion boutique back in Malaysia, was preceded by performances by some of UCI’s talent. The showcases included dance crews, Common Ground and MCIA, as well as musicians like second-year Imon Santos, who won the People’s Choice award at last year’s Soulstice talent show.

While past concerts have seen a more limited array of hip hop and rap artists like Shwayze––I still have the memory of him stumbling on stage back in 2011 and mumbling in the mic, “I’m so high right now, y’all” burned into my mind––the addition of Yuna to the list of UCI performers is a refreshing and welcome change.

Yuna’s style, as she puts it, “would probably be … I don’t know, lush pop?” She laughed. “It’s pop music, but it’s also something very emotional, very real, very laid-back.”

Russel Kwok | Photography Intern
Russel Kwok | Photography Intern

Yuna’s set list for the night included many songs from her second and most recent album, “Nocturnal,” released last October. Opening with “Falling,” a nonchalant tune about diving deep into sleep to escape past burdens, set the laid-back atmosphere that remained throughout the late summer night. She maintained a relaxed form and groove throughout, yet somehow still managed to command a stage presence that makes it difficult to keep your eyes off her.

Yuna’s listeners swayed to the chill beats and remained silent for the most part––anyone who has heard her music before knows it’s the lyrics that deserve the most attention.

“I grew up listening to Coldplay, Fiona Apple and Feist,” Yuna said of her influences in songwriting. “These are amazing songwriters to me because they write real stuff, emotional stuff. There’s something very human about their music that I really like, and I want to be categorized along with them.”

One song that clearly illustrates Yuna’s curiosity regarding human behavior and emotion is “Decorate,” from her EP with the same name and which she performed in memory of a friend who had recently passed away from cancer.

“My friends are very interesting to me because I’m like, ‘how does your mind work?’” she says. “For example,  ‘Decorate’ is a story about a friend of mine who waits for this person to come back; I could never do that––wait for a person for months to come back,” said the singer.

Everything Yuna does, from the words she chooses to string together in her songs, to the way she performs them, is deliberate. For “Decorate,” the rest of the band quietly stepped off-stage, giving her a private space to pluck at the strings of her guitar and remember her friend.

While a lot of her music is inspired by the people she loves and the strangers she meets along her travels, Yuna draws inspiration from everywhere, from “some dialogue you just pick up from a movie” to books, like Patti Smith’s “Just Kids.”

Russel Kwok | Photography Intern
Russel Kwok | Photography Intern

“It’s a story about young love. I just remember being so in love with the book that I wrote something out of it, and it ended up being ‘Young Again,’” she said.

Some songs, like “Someone Who Can,” a breakup song, detail the ups and downs of relationships with others.

Others focus on internal growth. One particular fan favorite she performed was “Escape,” which Yuna explained to the crowd “is about traveling the world and discovering yourself.”

Throwing her hands in the air with ease and shutting her eyes, you can see and feel Yuna also throwing meaning into her performance when she sings “I’m not gonna change, I’m still the girl I was before/But if I stay in one place I can grow.”

With such a majestic and free-spirited presence, are there any musicians who could match her energy on stage?

“This might sound crazy, but I would love to work with Bjork,” Yuna said, eyes growing wide. “I would probably be scared, like ‘okay, I’m going to sit by myself in this corner and just look at you.’”

Which is what hundreds of UCI students did when she took the stage.