Twenty-one-year-old Katja, who hails from Jersey City, NJ, is an emerging singer-songwriter you should be keeping your eyes on. She has been performing locally around Hudson County, New Jersey as well as New York City for just over a decade, with notable performances including TEDx, Positively 8th Street Festival and a Jersey City mayoral inauguration.
She released her debut single, Fly, back in May 2020 and her newest single, Nighttime was just released on May 13th. It’s one you should absolutely add to your playlist! You can find it on any major music platform.
Interview by Carly Kutsup. Photos by Ned and Aya courtesy of Katja. Click here to listen to her singles.
Katja: Growing up there was always music playing in our apartment and I loved music (even before I thought I could pursue it). My dad would tell me that when I was about 2 years old, I loved listening to Seven Nation Army by The White Stripes. I remember listening to The Beatles album Yellow Submarine on repeat. We watched American Idol and I would sing along with the contestants holding my hairbrush like a microphone. I just always had a passion for it.
Then, when I was about 6, my dad and I started playing guitar together because he plays it. He was away so much as he is a pilot, so my mom thought that would be a nice bonding experience for us. Additionally, I started guitar lessons at a local music store and my mother found out there was a vocal coach. She knew that I enjoyed singing and she thought, “Let’s just see. Maybe this could be something fun.” The vocal coach made it very clear that he didn’t usually work with younger students, but that he would test the waters with me and see how it went since I was only 8 at the time. He said that I had some work to do, but that I had a great inclination with my voice and that I had perfect pitch. That pretty much started up my confidence with pursuing music.
When I did my first recital the following year singing Let It Be, one of my vocal teacher’s students really loved my performance and recommended me to a local talent booker. Through that I started performing at some cafes and events. That booker introduced me to another booker, and I started getting many gigs for festivals and street fairs in Jersey City. It was fun for me. That’s when I thought I could really pursue this.
It was weird how it kind of just fell into my lap because before all that happened, I wouldn’t have thought of music as a career option. I knew that I loved it, and even though I had such a passion for it, I thought I wanted to be a meteorologist or something like that. It’s a little bit random and funny how life works out, but I’m glad it worked out this way.
CK: I see that you did a lot of covers, but now you are writing more of your own material. How did that transition happen?
K: Well, technically, I have always been writing, but when I was younger, I wasn’t that confident with showing my music to others. I first started singing my own material around the age of 12 or 13. I opened a TEDx conference when I was 13. At the conference I sang an original song, but these originals I performed then, I didn’t end up releasing. Now as my writing has progressed, I’m enjoying releasing my music.
CK: How did the TEDx conference come about?
K: It was in Jersey City, so it was kind of a similar thing since these bookers knew of me and introduced me to other bookers. It’s another one of those things where it kind of just fell into my lap. I didn’t go out looking for it. It was more like “Oh hey, we are having a TEDx conference in Jersey City and we want you to open it. Would you like to do that?” Originally, they wanted me to sing someone else’s song, but it didn’t work out, so I mentioned mine, which fit perfectly with the theme Brave New World. That was really big at the time, and it still is really big; a great achievement for me.
CK: I read that you also opened a Jersey City Mayoral Inauguration at the age of 12. Was that also through the bookers that you got that gig?
K: It might have just been that I was already performing a bit, so I had some cred so to speak in that regard, but I do know that the mayor-elect knew my mother. I did have to audition for it though. It worked out great and there was a huge crowd. I sang “America the Beautiful.” When I look back at pictures, I see that I sang in front of dignitaries like Senators Corey Booker and Robert Menendez, and Governor Chris Christie as well as many other New Jersey politicians.
CK: I see you have been working with Don Lawrence, who is also Lady Gaga’s vocal coach. How did you get connected with him?
K: A family member knew someone who was working with Don and made the introduction. He doesn’t work with kids before age 13 and I think I was about 10 or 11 at the time. I started working with him when I was 17. That’s when I decided that I was really ready, that I wanted to take this seriously and that if I am going to be doing this, I want to make sure I am taking care of my voice.
CK: What is the best advice he’s given to you as a singer?
K: Do your warm-ups.
You can’t really teach someone how to sing or how to have a good voice; they either can or can’t or they do or don’t. However, singing well has a lot to do with mentality. He really helps me with breaking me out of my shell. Before I went to him, I was singing a lot of falsetto. I was scared to belt out a song because I was afraid of cracking. It’s kind of a problem if you’re scared of cracking since that’s all you’re going to be thinking about. He just really taught me how to utilize my mentality, how to just go into it being confident and that practice really can make perfect. If I can do it once, I can do it again and that it’s just a mental thing. For example, sometimes I will be on a session with him, and I’ll hit a really high note that I hadn’t hit before. He’ll say something like, “See. You did this with no problem when you weren’t thinking about it.”
CK: Other than Don, is there anybody else you’re working with, or have you made a team of people that will be getting you more exposure with your music? Did you have any prior knowledge about how the music industry works, especially regarding exposure and publicity?
K: I started working with an artist representative, Lisa who coincidentally works with Lady Gaga, but even before that, I went to a magnet high school where I majored in Music and Audio Tech in the Performing Arts department. There I learned a lot about how the music industry works.
CK: With having an educational background that includes audio technology, do you think that having that background helps you as an artist when you go into a booth for a recording session because you have a better perspective of what’s going on outside of the booth?
K: It does help. As of now, I only write my lyrics and songs, either a cappella or with my guitar. I don’t do the producing. I’m hoping sometime in the future I will, but it’s just not my area of expertise at the moment. However, it definitely does help with working with producers because I do have an idea of what’s going on. For example, if we are doing an acoustic song, I know what acoustic elements work and what don’t. I can articulate what I want the music to sound like or what I’m going for. It’s helped me with communication and even just with collaboration in general; however, I am learning when it’s best not to collaborate. I am very independent, but at the same time I’m learning how to lean on people because it really does take a village.
CK: Between your first debut single Fly, which was released in May of 2020 and your current single Nighttime, what differences have you noticed between the two?
K: I think with the pandemic, it gave me a lot of time for introspection and how I want to live my life; how I can do this in a way that’s letting me be me where I am happy and confident. That’s the main thing because I used to belittle my writing to pieces thinking of perfection. Then, I started listening to a lot of my favorite songs and realized that simple is sometimes better. It can be a hard-hitting message and speak to your soul without being the most complex thing; if anything, that’s almost better. I have become a lot more confident and I’m so proud of the songs I’ll be releasing in the near future. I’m really happy I got to the point where I’m excited. Of course, I have some nerves as I just started with releasing my own music, but I think I know what my sound is now. I think that’s the big thing.
CK: I think that it’s kind of normal for any artist to be their own worst enemy regarding their art because artists tend to want it to be perfect.
K: I agree with that. Even when I’m showing demos to get other opinions, like I’ll play something for my artist rep, she’ll tell me that it’s great and that I could release it now, but I want to work on it more. I like that I can be a little bit of a perfectionist, but I have to have boundaries with it. I have to know when it’s too much and when I’m nitpicking. I think I’m developing those boundaries, so I know when enough is enough and when it’s just a good stand-alone song. I’m learning how to disassociate from realizing that I’m listening to myself and instead remind myself what would I think if someone else put this out. Just getting to that point is key for me.
CK: Earlier you mentioned you played the guitar with your father. Do you still play it? Are there any other instruments you’ve learned along the way?
K: I still do play the guitar, but I don’t play it as much anymore. I do wish I played more often, but it has always stuck with me. I sometimes utilize it to write my songs. I started learning a little bit of piano and I would love to learn more. Though when it comes down to it, the big focus for me though has always been the lyrics. I have always been really passionate about what story is being told through music.
CK: With your single Nighttime, you stated that you were going through the beginning of the end of a relationship and that sometimes feelings get blurred as time moves on. Can you walk me through the writing process specifically for that song and how it was formulated into the final product for release?
K: I write down my ideas in a journal. Sometimes I know what to do with the idea and sometimes I don’t. For the verses, I kind of just wrote them all out in about 30 minutes, and I let it sit there. I didn’t really know what to do with it then. I had a chorus in there, as well, that I ended up changing the lyrics to during the pandemic because I felt that I had more to add to the story. When I wanted to add a bridge, I wanted to make it something that would make that song be the best that it can be. I went back into my journal, and I found something that I originally meant to be a verse for another song I was writing. It worked perfectly with the rhythm. I put it in, and it just sounded like I wrote it together all at the same time. It was like putting pieces of a puzzle together.
CK: Do you have any plans for shooting a music video for Nighttime? If you do, do you have a concept yet or is that in development?
K: Yes, I actually do. We have not shot it yet, but I do have plans to have it out within the next few months. The concept is still in development, but we do have something in mind. My mother is a fashion stylist, so she will be doing the creative direction and styling. She’s been styling me for my single covers as well as helping with what I wear for gigs.
CK: Who are your musical influences?
K: I would say I’m really inspired by artists like Joni Mitchell, Norah Jones, Nina Simone, Lana Del Rey, Regina Spector. Artists who really inspired me to get into music in the first place include Adele, Amy Winehouse, The Beatles. I do listen to a wide range of music, and I’m inspired by new songs every day, but those are just some of the artists I love along with what they stand for and what they’ve done with their artistry.
CK: Where do you see yourself in 5 to 10 years from now?
K: Wow! That’s a really hard question. Well, for where I see myself, when I think of some of my favorite songs, they help me feel connected to the world. I just hope that I can do the same for people who are listening to my music. That’s my big hope, but I think other than that, I do have big aspirations for myself. I really do believe in this project I’m putting together because I’m releasing it single-by-single right now, which eventually will be part of an album. In general, though, I would love to be helping to make the world feel like a lighter place with my music or even just for the people who listen to my music because I know that when I’m going through a really hard time or when the world feels evil, there are just some songs that I can play that help remind me that there is also some good. It kind of gives me that meditative space to reflect on that.
I also am looking forward to looking back on what I’ve done to see how I have progressed.
CK: I also think that some songs can transport you back to a time and space that help anyone remember the good times.
K: I definitely agree with that. There are some songs that I turn on and it makes me feel like I’m a kid again or reminds me what it’s like to look at the world in a kid’s eyes. There are some songs that I really loved in high school that if I listen to them, they bring me back to that time.
At the same time, I’ve also learned to enjoy songs in different settings because there are some songs I loved during really sad periods of my life, but I can still appreciate them now without making myself experience what I was feeling at those times.
CK: Speaking of looking back, now that you have just turned 21, what would you tell that 12-year-old girl?
K: I would tell her that she’s doing a lot better than she thinks she is, and she needs to be a lot more confident in herself. I think people were telling me that, but I think it’s hard to believe that as a fact when you’re in your adolescence, especially when it’s coming from adults because you think “Oh, they’re just lying. They’re just saying that to be nice.” Now that I’m looking back, I think a lot it was really sincere.
CK: Last question. Since you grew up in a musical household with your father playing guitar and your mother really supporting you, if there is a young child that doesn’t really have that musical background or doesn’t have the kind of support, but still wants to pursue music, whether it’s singing or playing an instrument, what advice would you give them?
K: If they love it enough, they can do whatever they set their mind to. We now have the internet where you can learn an instrument or music theory. There’s a very wide variety of sources and a lot to be learned from them. I think the main thing is just to believe in your hard work, because even if everyone around you doesn’t believe in you, believing in yourself will pay off. Just make sure you’re putting in the work.
For more information and updates on Katja, follow her on her social media.