Imagine being so close to achieving a lifelong dream, and having it dashed—twice. Anja Kotar, a 20-year-old Slovenian pop artist, experienced this trauma: Once, when she auditioned for her native country’s X Factor, but was too young to compete, and again when America’s immigration laws prevented her from competing on The Voice. But Kotar didn’t give up on her dream of being a pop star. Now, with the release of her debut album, Nomad, which she raised the money to produce, Kotar is closer to her goals than ever before.
Here, the emerging singer discusses the coolness of her first single, what she learned from being rejected, and uprooting her life to move to the United States.
I really love “How to Be Cool.” It’s such a fun summer record, and “how to be cool without being cruel to yourself” chorus is really catchy, compelling, and empowering. What message are you aiming to send with the song?
I’ve never been someone who loved to party or found a certain escapism in that. So when I was growing up and focusing on my music, I also watched how society glamorizes and really plays up this romanticism of going to parties and drinking your problems away instead of facing them head on, and I’ve always tried to rebel against that. It never really caught on for me. So, I felt compelled to write about that because it’s a very deep experience for me, and I wanted to encourage people and show that there is more to being “cool” than just what the media portrays. Ultimately, to me, what’s cool is being true to yourself and not being afraid to be who you are, no matter what that might be. “How to Be Cool” really sets up the rest of the album.
Absolutely. In that same vein, how do you remain true to yourself as an artist?
That’s definitely increasingly hard in today’s world because information travels so fast and we’re bombarded with news and information from all across the world. For me, the key is really filtering it out, and really seeing what can benefit me and what goes against what I’m thinking. I’m very grateful that I’ve always been fairly confident in what I do. It hasn’t been hard for me to go on my own path, and maybe it’s because my parents have always supported individuality with me and my brother. I never had the feeling that I need to change what I’m doing to fit in with the rest of society, so I’ve always been motivated to stay true to myself. I think that ultimately with music and my personal life, it’s really just a matter of choosing not my sources, but where you will be influenced, and filtering out the unnecessary information that tears you down.
I love that you talked about your parents because I want to know more about your upbringing. You’re a classic pianist and have been performing at festivals almost your entire life. Did you always know you wanted to be a musician? Were your parents supportive of that dream from the beginning?
So, I was actually born in a very small country in Europe called Slovenia. I only moved to the United States five years ago, and I’ve always had this inexplicable urge to sing and express myself through music. I’m extremely grateful that my parents found out very early on, and they’re actually the reason I went to music school when I was just 5-years-old. I started playing classical piano, and that’s how I started really diving into the world of music. I’ve always wanted to be a performer, but my parents put me in the right classes with the right teachers, and have really stood behind my music and helping me in any avenue they can. I think without them, none of this would’ve been possible, especially because they supported me doing what I believe in.
I’ve read that you were 14-years-old when you auditioned for Slovenia’s X Factor. Is that true?
Yes, I actually got on the TV audition, but I was too young so I couldn’t move on. I was 14 or 15 at the time.
What did that experience teach you, if anything? Did it deter you from what wanting to pursue music professionally?
That was definitely the first experience I had with the music industry on a more professional level. That was the first time I got to show my skills to people I didn’t know on a fairly big platform on national TV. I was definitely devastated at the time. It was the first serious rejection I’d gotten, but had that not happened, I would not have been able to deal with other things that came forward. At the end of the day, it is very important that you get that experience early on because it really tests your endurance and perseverance, and I think these are the qualities that are crucial in the show business, both music and film. Rejection is something that we are faced with as artists every single day, whether it’s someone disliking our music or performance, so I think it’s very important to develop this mentality that you do believe in what you’re doing. You have to believe it’s your purpose.
This is what I’m meant to do, so it’s important to keep pushing, working hard, and improving yourself. X Factor was the first experience for that.
How did you end up going to the Berklee College of Music? Was that something you planned on doing or did you think it was a necessary step for your career?
In this day and age, when the artist’s role is expanded in more fields and we’re expected to be knowledgeable in many more things, I think I needed to get a college degree to really delve into this world of music. But because I wanted to get the experience of recording as well as being in college, I knew that if I went physically to a campus, I would not be able to really go out and perform and record an album the way I did. That’s why I accepted the Berklee College of Music’s offer to study with them online. So now, I will be able to finish my degree in December, which is two years early and I’m really excited about that, and I’m able to finish recording my EP and my full album. It’s been very good for me because I can immediately utilize the knowledge I gained in one class as I’m learning it. For me, it really worked out as a combination, and I’m glad I got to do it.
That’s wonderful! Was leaving Slovenia and coming to San Jose, California, difficult for you? Did it have any impact, at all, on your creative process?
I could not have imagined how it would go, but it’s something I just had to go out and do. It was very scary and difficult because we moved here two days before high school started. So, I went in as a sophomore, and we didn’t have a house, we didn’t have a car, and we didn’t have a place to house my parents’s business. So, the only thing we had, for sure, was the conservatory I went to. Now looking back, it’s good that it all happened so fast because it kind of forces you to jump in the water, swim, and look out for yourself.
I immediately auditioned for theater roles at my conservatory, which really influenced my music because I started getting involved with musical theater. I started playing with the conservatory’s jazz band and singing in the vocal jazz group, and we went to music festivals all across America. These were the genres I really hadn’t known much about or been exposed to back in Europe because they aren’t as developed there. So, these are some of the musical influences that can be heard on the album, especially with the structure of Nomad. It’s very much a concept album, and so I made sure to keep some of my theatrical background in there with songs like “Coltrane.” The American musical landscape has really left a big mark on my art.
What’s really impressive about you as an artist is that you’ve really taken control of your sound and your career. You crowdfunded $20,000 to produce Nomad. What made you want to raise money to create your album? Did it give you some sort of musical independence as opposed to signing to a record label?
So, this was something I definitely had not planned. When I moved here, I had this dream of either doing a singing competition show or or signing a record deal because I was so young, and that was my dream. But as I was auditioning for The Voice, I was actually told that the visa my brother and I were here on didn’t allow us to work in the United States. That was a big obstacle I faced because the dream I had for my career was shattered. I, legally, couldn’t do anything or perform on TV. I decided to take into my own hands, and make the best of a bad situation, which is why I decided to do the Kickstarter. Recording music was something I could do, and now, looking back, I’m so glad because I can see how much I profited from rejection. I could create a vision for myself instead of being pushed into a certain avenue or genre. When you’re so young, you don’t have the self-awareness you gain a few years later.
I got my green card a couple of months ago, which is why I started releasing all of the music. It has definitely taught me a lot: I’ve had time to really hone my sound, and really enter the industry on my own terms with the music and the visuals I really believe in 100 percent. I’m really excited I get to show who I am as an artist.
I had no idea you auditioned for The Voice. At what point in the process did they tell you that you couldn’t do the show?
I was at a private audition with the executive producers, and that’s when the issue came up with the visa. Up until that point, I thought there wouldn’t be an issue, but it turns out that only my parents were on business visas. My brother and I weren’t able to get social security cards or work. It was a really harsh reality to find out about that loophole.
Wow. So, after you did the Kickstarter, what was the process for creating the album?
I had released an EP before I went to perform back in Europe last January and February. I released the EP there and got some great feedback. When I got home, as I waiting for my green card and waiting for everything to work out, I realized I had all of this material based on my late high school years and inspired by the performing I was doing in Europe. So I decided to create a full album to conclude this chapter of my life, going from a teenager to a young adult. I was writing music with a very specific purpose. I created rough drafts and production drafts, and then I partnered with my producer, with whom I’d worked with already on the music I’d played at festivals back in Europe.
We get along really well, and I think he’s great because he listens to my ideas, but he also always challenges me. We really create some great stuff together, especially because we’ve known each other for quite some time now. I had studio sessions with him down in Los Angeles once a week to really put together the sound of the record. I’ve been working on it for a year and a half—it was a very intricate process. I believe that anything you make in life, whether that’s music or whatever kind of art, is all about the details. A lot of times, we’ll be looking at every beat, every sound, every chord, and really perfecting it, at least to what I envision. We wrapped everything up in February, we mastered it, and here we are.
How would you describe your sound, especially on Nomad, to listeners? What would you say the album’s overall theme is?
To me, the album’s overall theme is definitely growing up in America and finding your place in the journey of growing up. This record is very much inspired by music from the 80s, like Prince and Phil Collins, and kind of 80s-tainted darker pop.
You’re only 20, and have so much time to really build your dream career. Ultimately, what is your biggest goal that you’d like to accomplish?
For me, my dream career is—as crazy as it sounds—to be a globally known artist. I realize that’s something that’s extremely difficult to get to, but I believe everyone makes their own luck, and it’s about you putting yourself in the right time and place. I’m prepared to work hard. [Creating music] is something I truly believe in, and it brings me more joy than anything else in the world. I’m extremely grateful that I get to make music, and I hope I’ll get to make it for a long time.
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Listen to her music, including covers of popular songs, on Soundcloud.