When I first saw Stanaj he was on stage doing sound check, laughing and joking with swooning female fans, getting ready for the Less Stress More Love show with SoMo in San Diego. The 22-year-old R&B singer is fresh to the music scene but harbors the skills of a seasoned professional. Just releasing his EP, The Preview, this past August, he’s already on his first nation-wide tour and upcoming worldwide debut. He’s been endorsed through social media by stars such as Kim Kardashian West, Russell Simmons, Chris Brown, and NBA player Brandon Jennings just to name a few. He sang his way to Coachella prior to releasing any original music, sang “Let Her Go” on ABC’s Dancing with the Stars, and got signed a year ago with LAVA/REPUBLIC. How has this kid done this? When I heard him sing, that question was answered.
I met with him backstage about an hour before he was to perform. Between the exclamatory “Baby girl’s!” and his signature serenades, Stanaj was a hoot to interview. He wants to be an all-around artist, like Justin Timberlake, dipping his talents into movies, TV, and music. He’s got the personality to do it—his charisma filled the room. He was gracious and thankful to be there, and told me the fantastic story of his journey.
“It’s been pretty freakin’ crazy, you know, starting about a year and a half ago. I mean, I was doing music in New York right out of high school, but I had no luck and it was kind of just go, sing at a karaoke bar, kind of thing. What happened when I came out to California, I was basically doing the same thing in L.A., I was just singing at a random place—karaoke bar—and just from social media, there was a basketball player there, he put me on his Instagram, his girlfriend put me on her Instagram, and then this person found me, and this person found me, and next thing I know I’m signing in Drake’s house.”
Stanaj’s life is a modern-day male version Cinderella story, or, as his family nicknames him, Forrest Gump, and goes to show what can manifest when hard work, pure jaw-dropping talent, and a little luck come together.
Stanaj got his start in singing at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in a children’s choir. He says that experience definitely shows up in some of his songs, especially his upcoming releases.
“I always loved it, and there are some songs that I actually haven’t released yet that have kind of like a super choir-driven base to it, it’s pretty cool.”
Hailing from Albania, he also sang Albanian music and, being the youngest in a big family, was exposed to multiple genres and decades of music growing up. From all the different types of music he grew up loving, it was ‘90s R&B that stuck with him.
“I just always had a thing for it. I love the soul that they were, you know, projecting. I love the emotions in the songs. It just, I don’t know, struck a cord with me.”
We talked about his almost-magical transition from making music on social media to making music with the likes of writers who work with Rihanna and Chris Brown.
“I was writing songs in my bedroom, to writing songs with Grammy Award winners.”
Through his crazy journey, he’s learned a lot.
“It’s an art to write a song. In itself, just the structure of a song and how many measures and when to go to the pre-, how long the chorus should be, like I had no idea what the hell any of that meant. So going from writing in my room to writing with Justin Tranter, who wrote “Sorry” for Bieber, to Haze Banga who’s done songs with Beyoncé, you know, these people who are just like mind-blowing musicians and songwriters, you learn a lot. Like a year ago, I think I’d written like 200 songs, and it’s funny—you can see the progression from the beginning to where I am now.”
Stanaj’s career is moving forward pretty fast. With all his celebrity endorsements and incredible raw talent, it’s a speeding train going in the right direction. Not long from now he’ll be hooking up with the best in the business—we talked about who he hopes to collaborate with in the future.
“I would love to collaborate with Justin Timberlake, if I could make a song with him that’d be pretty amazing. I love Ariana [Grande], she’s great—super good vocalist. And Drizzy Drake.”
Drizzy Drake—the mysterious Instagram picture that made Stanaj famous over night. He told me how a random friendship turned into him playing piano at the YOLO mansion.
“So, recently I was seen at the karaoke bar, basketball player put me on his Instagram, and this guy, Jas Prince, hits me up and we ended up becoming friends. I never like Googled this guy or anything, but he’s the guy who found Drake. So one day, I’m playing basketball at his house and Drake FaceTimes him and we ended up going there and that’s how I met him.”
“We didn’t end up working on any music, not yet—hopefully—but they would keep inviting me over. It was just a super, super cool experience to see. You know, I got to go into his home studio and listen to some songs, I got to play the piano in his living room, it was super cool. Awesome guy, and hopefully one day I’ll get to work with him.”
As for who inspires him, Stanaj has got a long list. He hopes to grow into a career like Justin Timberlake’s, and after his enthusiastic chat with me, I don’t doubt he’ll one day be on movie screens. As for musicians, he loves Boys II Men, Brian McKnight, and other stars who ruled the ‘90s R&B scene. He calls his style a new twist of R&B and pop, and said his recently dropped EP The Preview embodies that type of “cinematic soul” he wants to be known for.
The Preview was Stanaj’s chance to showcase his original sound, and, thankfully, there’s so much more of it to come.
“I’m releasing another project soon, I don’t have a date yet, but I’m releasing another project soon and then I go straight to Europe. I’m going to London to work on an album, London and then Sweden, and then I have another tour come spring.”
His Albanian family doesn’t know what to make of him.
“I don’t think they really understand what’s happening. Like they do, but then at the same time they’re like, ‘Oh, how’s it going?’ Like I was just on Jimmy Fallon and they’re like, ‘Oh that’s nice.’ Meanwhile everybody here is like flipping out.”
Right, and there’s a funny story about Stanaj singing “Ain’t Love Strange” on The Tonight Show.
“It’s funny, I met Jimmy in 2013. I walked up to him on the sidewalk and I sang like a quick snippet of something, and I was like, ‘I’m gonna be on your show one day.’ And then, literally three years later, I’m on his show.”
Stanaj and Jimmy Fallon ended up re-creating the same video Stanaj had taken of that experience backstage.
Before wrapping things up, Stanaj had a message for all his fans that have supported him from the beginning: deep down, he’s still that kid singing karaoke and is super grateful to be where he is.
“I’m beyond grateful to do this every single day. I know it’s been said, ‘It’s because of you,’ but it really is. It really is true, that it’s like the most grateful feeling having people appreciate what you love most in life. Just thank you, on a different level of thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
Stanaj thanked his fans at the show by singing his heart out on stage. He opened with “Goddess,” followed by “Ain’t Love Strange,” “Sleep Alone,” “Romantic,” and even sang his famous rendition of “I Can’t Make You Love Me” by Bonnie Raitt. Fans went crazy, screaming every word of his album. His stage presence was so energetic and genuine, it was hard to believe this was his first tour.
I look forward to seeing more of Stanaj in the future, as I’m positive he’s going far. He has almost an unbelievable story; karaoke-bar singer pulls himself up to the level of A-list celebrities all because of sheer talent. But hey, stranger things have happened.
Photos by Brittany Harper
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