Albert Stanaj hasn't released a single ounce of solo music during his short career, yet just in the past few months he's linked with Jay Z, played the piano at Drake's mansion, and seen Kim Kardashian share his "Only One" cover. So, while nobody outside of a few circles in the music industry knows who Stanaj is at the moment, it's clear that he's positioned himself in the right lane for future success.
Admittedly, we also had no idea who Stanaj was before we ran an introductory piece in January, but it was readily apparent that he was doing something right at that point in his career. To learn more about the intriguing singer/songwriter, we talked to Stanaj about his musical influences, how he first broke into the industry, meeting Hov, working on his debut project, his current label situation, and much more. Read the full interview below, and stay tuned for much from Stanaj in the near future.
Zach Frydenlund is a writer living in New York City and an elite blogger for Complex Music. Follow him @ThaRealPchopz.
How old were you when you started taking music seriously?
I was about 16 or 17 when I started taking music seriously. Growing up, I always did music stuff for my school, but it was around 16 when I knew that this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
Do you play any instruments other than piano?
Piano and guitar. I’m getting a lot better at the guitar, but the piano’s my baby.
In school you were big into theater, right?
Yeah. My high school was known for its theater program, and I just had to do it. The shows were incredible. The budget was like a six-figure budget so it was dope. There’s this thing called the Metro Awards in New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey. It’s out of thousands of kids and a whole bunch of schools, and we were honored with “Best Show” and “Best Leading Actor,” which was yours truly.
What made you choose to do music over a career in acting?
Even before high school, music was my thing. I see acting more as a hobby than as a real passion. Singing and performing are just what I have to do.
How did you first step into the industry?
About two years ago, when I was 18, I told my family that I wanted to start taking music seriously and they were super supportive. At first, I started off going to karaoke places and open mics. Then I came out to L.A. and sang at an open mic in North Hollywood. I just kept sticking my nose into places, singing at as many places as I could. I would go from one open mic straight to another, back-to-back. I just kept hoping that I would meet someone or that someone important would be there. It kind of just happened like that
And you did?
When I first started meeting people, it was more like NBA players. Brandon Jennings, who plays for the Pistons, was like one of my first supporters. He helped me out a lot in the beginning, and he still helps me out. He’s a good friend of mine. Taj Stansberry, who’s a super talented music video director and photographer, was another one of my first followers. He followed me when I had like 20 followers on Instagram. It kind of happened like that. Then I would go and meet some big-name writers that would be at open mics. Then the writers would talk about me to these industry people. When I try to sit down and talk about it, it’s kind of an anomaly because I’m still like, “How the fuck did this all happen? I was singing at a bullshit karaoke place five months ago.” I’ve been singing at open mics and stuff for the past three years and then all of a sudden everybody’s hopping on board.
Did you start doing open mics in New York City before you moved out to L.A.?
Yeah. I was mainly in Manhattan. I was going to whatever I could sneak into because I was underage. All of the best open mics were 21+ so I used to sneak in. I would lie about my age just to get a chance to perform.
As of now, on your YouTube you’ve only released cover songs. Was that intentional?
No, that was an intentional thing from the beginning. I think I only have like three or four covers up in the last few years. I haven’t posted a lot, which is funny because, for how many posts I have, I still have this massive following. It’s all sort of been word of mouth. I haven’t been shoving content down people’s throats. Whoever heard of me, heard of me and followed me and has been sticking with me. It’s awesome.
How did you make it on to Dancing With the Stars?
Yeah, “Let Her Go.” Two seasons ago, they called someone on my team and said that they heard my cover on YouTube and they’d love for me to perform it on the show. That was an awesome experience. That’s when I first started taking this music stuff super seriously. That’s when I first came out to Cali. I got that gig and then Access Hollywood did this thing the next morning like, “Who’s the guy in the gray suit? He was amazing.” So after that the ball started rolling. Then that brought us into the fall of 2014, and since the fall, shit has just gotten so real.
The YouTube thing was all organic. It’s been pretty amazing because I haven’t really posted too hard, aside from posting on my Facebook. The attention really came from other people reposting it. At the time, I really didn’t have too many followers. I didn’t even have an Instagram when I first started posting on YouTube. It just took off by itself. The first cover I put out, “Marvin’s Room,” had, like, 50,000 views. Then I posted “Let Her Go” and that one got a quarter of a million. I still haven’t even posted it on my social media, even now that I have a following. It’s all just been word of mouth and super organic.
The "Marvin's Room" cover seems to be the one that really blew up.
I had actually posted my “Marvin’s Room” video on a different YouTube account and it had gotten probably 80,000 views, but I accidentally deleted that account so the video went to dust. I reposted it on my new YouTube account about two years ago. In the first week, it had over 10,000 views, and I still don’t know how the fuck that happened. I literally just posted it on my Facebook and then it went off. The “Let Her Go” video, which has a quarter million, that just took off, and I don’t know how that happened either. I posted that twice on my Facebook, then it got into the hands of some NBA players and some social media influencers and they reposted it. That’s why Dancing With the Stars called me.
Tell me about meeting Jay Z.
He’s the man. Jay Z’s from New York, and I rep New York so hard, so to meet one of the kings of New York was just awesome. He’s a real cool guy. He’s really down to earth and straightforward.
How did it come together?
A mutual friend. I can’t say much about that though. They called me down to Roc Nation and had me there for a couple of hours showing me around the building and stuff like that. That was a meeting about Roc Nation and that whole company and what I want to do.
Are you signed to Roc Nation?
I can’t say much about that. I’m not signed right now, but things are looking promising. I can’t say where or who or when. I can say most likely that before the summer I’ll make up my mind. As of right now, I’m independent as can be.
There’s also a video of you playing the piano over at Drake’s house.
Yeah. I was playing basketball with a friend of mine and she got a FaceTime from Drake and he was like, “Why don’t you guys come over to the house and play ball here?” So we went there, we played basketball, and then he looks over at me and goes, “I heard that you sing.” I was like, “Yeah, I dabble.” So he took me into the living room and was like, “Why don’t you sing us a song?” So I sang him a song and he invited me back to his house a couple of weeks later. I got to listen to some of his music and jammed out on the piano again. He’s just a really cool dude. I haven’t done anything with him yet.
Who got you in touch with Jay Z and Drake?
I don’t want to say names, but it was someone on social media. They saw me on social media and introduced me to Drake. Then Kim’s makeup artist showed my music to Kim and Kanye, and that’s why Kim posted my stuff. Really, it’s all been through mutual friends. For example, Russell Simmons posted me on his Instagram the other day. He saw my Instagram then reached out to my brother who manages me and invited me out to dinner. When we got to dinner there was this huge piano and he stopped the whole restaurant and said, “This is Stanaj and he’s going to perform for you guys.” I was like, “What the hell.” I went to the piano and I sang and he posted it to his Instagram and was like, “This is one of the best things I’ve come across in years. I’d bet the whole stack on him.” I don’t even know how some of these artists found me, to be honest with you. It really is weird. I’m not someone who acts Hollywood. Like, I know that this shit is fucking crazy. Sometimes I step back and I’m like, “What the fuck is happening.” I haven’t released any original music yet. There’s been so much hype over nothing, really.
What song did you perform for Russell at the restaurant?
I performed “I Can’t Make You Love Me” for Russell. In meetings, I’ve actually been performing some original tracks that I haven’t put out yet. I put a quick little snippet on Instagram of a new song called “I Wanna Make Love.” That song I performed for Chris Brown and Drake and most of the people I’ve met. The original content is super cool. I just haven’t decided what I want to do with it yet, whether it’s with a major or independent. That’s where I’m at right now.
Well, you sound very popular...
—I’m just lucky and blessed at the same time. It’s awesome. But she [Kim] heard about me through another mutual friend. She asked him for the whole of my “Only One” cover because I put part of it on my Instagram. She called our friend Mario and was like, “Can you ask him to post the whole thing on YouTube?” So he called and goes, “Kim needs you to post the whole thing on YouTube.” I was like, “Um, yeah. Sure. Whatever she needs.” [Laughs.] So I posted it on YouTube and, 10 minutes later, my social media is blowing up. Things are definitely moving from 0 to 60 quick, which is a good thing. I don’t have any big takeaways yet. I’m just trying to stay focused because a whole bunch of stuff is happening right now. It’s a good problem to have. I’m just trying to keep my eyes on the prize.
Are you in the studio every day?
Yeah, as of right now, I only have, like, eight original tracks recorded, which is nothing. I should be somewhere around 60 and then picking the best eight tracks out of those 60. So, since all of this started popping off, I’ve been in beast mode. I’m just trying to put together the best content possible as soon as possible. I’ve got all of these people hitting me up, asking to work with me and putting me on their Instagrams so I have to make sure I sound right. That’s where I’m at now because it really just started popping off in November. In June of last year, I only had, like, 9,000 followers. That was still with no original music. I haven’t posted a cover since then, except “Only One,” which I did a couple of weeks ago. Not doing anything, literally. I didn’t do any shows. It was all word of mouth. With that, right now I’m at about 172,000 on Instagram. This is all happening without me releasing anything. Now I have to really get going while the iron is hot.
This is all happening without me releasing anything. Now I have to really get going while the iron is hot.
Do you write all of your own original music?
Yeah, I like to write on everything that I do. I’ll go into sessions and help write [for other artists] and come up with different melody lines. Maybe vocal produce a little bit. Right now, I’m just trying to wait and see how all of the pieces fall into place. Then I’ll decide where I should go, what I should do, and how I should do it.
Who are some artists you'd like to work with going forward?
One of my favorite artists is Justin Timberlake. I haven’t had the chance to meet him or sing with him yet. I’m sure the opportunity will present itself sooner than later. He’s one of my favorites out. I grew up listening to him. He’s one of my role models. There’s a bunch more. I’d love to do a song with Ariana Grande. I love collaboration. I love two talented people making magic together.
That’s what you and Chris Brown were doing on your Instagram.
We were just vibing out for a couple of hours. We were in the studio and he said the same thing. He was like, “I heard you sing.” So I went downstairs and sang a song and he was just like, “Dope shit.” So I started playing different songs. I sang some of his songs. I sang “Don’t Judge Me” with him. We did, like, a piano rendition of it. At the end of the night, he was like, “You’re fucking great, man.” So that was awesome. Then, a couple days ago, he posted me on his Instagram and that was crazy. He’s a cool dude. I definitely think we’ll get together and work something out after his tour’s done.
Have you written for anyone else on any official releases?
For the last two months in L.A., I’ve been working on some records with Nic Nac that he’s going to be pitching to some people. I worked on some stuff with Pia Mia. There’s nothing that I’ve been officially credited on yet because a lot of those projects are just getting started.
And finally, are you still modeling?
I don’t model, dude. I take a couple pictures here and there. Some companies ask me to take pictures for them. I don’t even know how to do that shit. I just stand in front of the camera and they take the picture.