Fashion can catch on incredibly fast. When Yunalis Mat Zarai moved to Los Angeles from her native Malaysia three years ago to launch her stateside singing career as Yuna, she went on a little introductory tour of America.
“I did not expect to see a lot of fans then,” says the Cranberries- and Cardigans-inspired singer, whose signature look included Malay bracelets, dresses and exotic headscarves.
When she scanned the packed clubs, she was stunned: “Everybody was adorned with turbans like I wear, and it was just so cool!”
That’s the secret to Yuna’s global success. She effortlessly combines the traditional and modern, in the clothes she sells (originally from a shop called I Am Jet Fuel, now rebranded as the 14NOV line, for her birthday) and on record, as in her ethereal new fourth album, “Nocturnal,” for Verve, which she backs in The City this week.
Over gamelan-chiming keyboard-string melodies, she gently trills outsider observations on: the American landscape (“Mountains”), the joy of travel (“Escape”) and Hollywood showbiz machinery (“Lights and Camera”).
Top-flight producers such as Rhye’s Robin Hannibal and The Neptunes’ Chad Hugo embellish her dreamy vision.
In Western pop, Yuna hears a lot of braggadocio: “With people always writing about how ‘Fame is awesome! Check out all my money!’” she says. “But with ‘Lights and Camera,’ I wanted to write about the other side of things, and how not everybody enjoys it so much, how we have to sacrifice things that we love, like being anonymous.”
She used to ride public transportation throughout her homeland. But once she was honored by Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak with a National Youth Icon Award in 2012, she says, “I can’t even walk down the street in Kuala Lumpur anymore. And I loved taking the train!”
But the singer, 27, does have a distinct look.
“I started wearing the scarves when I was 19,” she says. “And slowly, it became a part of me. So once I started playing music and getting a lot of gigs, I just started wearing the scarves and playing music at the same time. I was one of the first to do that in Malaysia, when there was a lot of pressure to dress like any other pop star.”
That was how Jet Fuel began. “My fans kept asking ‘I love your scarf! How do I get them?’” she says.
Now, the designer can comb the world for 14NOV fashion ideas while on tour.
“They have all this amazing fabric from Malaysia, for example, lots of golds and batiks,” she says. “There’s interesting stuff like that all over, and you can’t really find it here in California.”
IF YOU GO
Where: Yoshi’s, 1330 Fillmore St., S.F.
When: 9:30 p.m. Wednesday
Tickets: $17 to $21
Contact: (415) 655-5600; www.yoshis.com