It’s been a whirlwind couple of weeks for 18 year old Sydney chanteuse Anja Nissen. She’s walked away with the spoils in the 2014 season of ‘The Voice’, been the first talent show winner (that we can recall) to skip the obligatory winner’s single, recorded a debut album and toured the country.
Somewhere in the middle of it all, Anja found time to plonk down and chat with us about her experiences with various TV talent competitions, winning ‘The Voice’, the single that never was and her dreams for what will be her debut.
But she begins by telling us how her journey began, back in rural New South Wales.
“I was singing from the moment I could make a sound,” she begins. “I was always singing at my parents’ parties, or gatherings. Always going up to people and singing or out in the garden. Then when we moved to the property where we live now, there was a lot of space and I loved it. It was like a jungle… I could just go off and find a rock and make it my stage and belt at the top of my lungs. I had a really free childhood to roam around.
“My mum asked if I wanted to go to singing lessons and I said, ‘yes’. So we went one afternoon when I was six and mum asked the singing teacher, but the teacher refused to take me because I was too young. Mum then said, ‘you need to hear her first’, so she heard me sing and said ‘okay’. But she didn’t want to change my voice. She just wanted to let me sing.
“So from that age, I started going through lyrics and learning how to decode and feel them. I brainwashed myself with Celine Dion and Mariah Carey. My dad was a DJ and he had all these old vinyl records that he used to play, so I’d find the Celine Dion one and try to sing all the notes. There was one song called ‘Then You Looked At Me’ from ‘All The Way’. And one day, finally, I got all the notes. I kept setting goals for myself and then started doing lots of competitions.”
The competition experience would eventually see Anja gain the confidence to head to Melbourne to audition for the second season of ‘Australia’s Got Talent’.
“I remember it was freezing cold,” she tells us. “I got sick and a I had a cold for my semi final, but it was epic. They were stitching my dress on and my jaw was chattering and then I was on stage the next minute singing in front of the nation. That song was good, but the next one – ‘Climb Every Mountain’ – didn’t go well because I was sick. It was a big fiasco.”
But the ‘AGT’ experience taught her a lot, including that sometimes, you don’t win.
“It’s not because you’re not one of the best singers or because you’re not individual or you’re not special, it’s because it’s not necessarily your time. It can come down to a number of different factors. I was up against a karate crew and they beat me. So I had to come to terms with the fact that life is a win or lose situation and sometimes you just can’t get beaten down.”
But ‘Australia’s Got Talent’ wasn’t the only reality show Anja auditioned for before her starring performance on ‘The Voice’. She reached the semi finals of the rebooted ‘Young Talent Time’ in 2012 and, as she reveals, also tried out for that other big TV singing competition.
“I had auditioned for ‘X Factor’ when I was 14 or 15,” Anja reveals. “I got in, but I pulled out because of the contract. My mum is my manager and we always went over things with a fine tooth comb and we got solicitors involved to make sure it was fine. I think mum thought I wanted to sing, but I didn’t want to be signed up to a contract that could determine the outcome of my future… I knew I wanted it, but I didn’t want it to be in the hands of someone else at that age.
“The same thing with ‘The Voice’. I auditioned when I was 16; got in. Got through the first three phases to the TV rounds, didn’t go on and pulled out because I was 16.”
Two years later, however, and she was on ‘The Voice’ stage for real, choosing a place on Team Will after her captivating performance of Mariah Carey’s ‘Vanishing’ saw all judges’ chairs spin. She tells us that meeting and working with Will.I.Am was the highlight of her time on the show.
“When I came into the competition, it wasn’t about winning, it wasn’t about the prizemoney. It wasn’t about all the other good things that come with it. It was purely because I wanted to get experience, as I had done on other TV shows. I knew that’s how you grow as a performer. You look back and you’re able to reflect on your experiences. But in saying that, you also get Australia’s opinion of you, and that’s where I did have difficulties… I didn’t get the public vote every week.”
That there was no clear favourite in this year’s competition, Anja confirms, compelled her to work harder every week.
“The whole way through the show, people said ‘oh you’ve been a favourite of Will’s from the start’, but I didn’t ever feel like that,” she says. “I always felt like I had to earn approval from him and from the audience. I felt like I wasn’t good enough each week and that I was still stuffing up. ‘I’ll Be There’ I thought was terrible. I was really self-critical. You look at the others when you’re in that position and think they’re better than me. But you can’t get caught up in that, because you just get lost.”
Suffice to say, Anja seemed genuinely shocked to be crowned ‘The Voice’ of 2014.
“It was just crazy to win the whole thing. It still doesn’t feel real. You think about it. You visualise it. As we all do. Each person in the competition would think ‘how would it be if I was actually to win this’. You put yourself in that position, but you never actually think that it’s going to happen. I’ve done that so many times before and it hasn’t. I always prepare to think, ‘okay Anja, you did a good job, but…’ I was completely prepared to hear Jackson’s name in that last few minutes. So to hear mine was a complete shock. It’s been a dream come true.”
But the celebrations were short-lived. Though Anja made an appearance and speech at the official after-party, her time there was limited. She darted into the studio that same night to record some tracks with Will before he jetted off for his next commitments in Asia. She tells us what it’s like to work with one of the biggest producers on planet pop.
“He’s a great guy. He works hard. He’s a very good businessman,” she confirms. “As much as he has fun and can play around, he has determination and focus and when it’s time to work, it’s time to work.”
Anja’s copped a bit of criticism post-show for not releasing the obligatory “winner’s single”. There’s been plenty of talk about the Delta Goodrem-penned ‘My Girls’, but in Anja’s words, “It was a great song. There’s no denying it. But Will just wasn’t sure it was right.” So for now, the debut single slate is clear.
“I’m actually really excited, because I think it’s a bit unexpected. We’re not following the rules,” she says. “You don’t have to follow the rules all the time. Why do you have to do everything because people say so? Will agrees… it’s about being ready. It’s about being right. It’s about having everything in place. Will wanted to make sure that everything was in place before we launched it and we just didn’t have the time.
“I want to be pushed too. And to come out with something that surprises people. They’ll say ‘I didn’t expect that’. And I think that’s what’s going to happen.”
For the time being, however, fans of the blue-eyed starlet will have to make do with her self-titled debut album; a studio-based collection of tracks she performed throughout her time on the show. Anja remains philosophical about its chances of success and maintains that her first co-penned album will be more indicative of her as a performer.
“I think when I come out with my own music, that’s going to be the crunch point,” she admits. “Whereas this one, I’m wondering whether people are going to like it because of the covers I’ve chosen; they are very different to what I’d normally sing. That’s because I wanted to show that sometimes you can take a song that’s completely out of your genre – like Tom Petty or John Mayer’s ‘Free Fallin’ and mould that into your own style.
“‘Free Fallin’ was done in one take. ‘Eye On The Sparrow’ was done in one take. We did three full takes and that’s what I love about it. It’s authentic. There are some tracks on there that are produced and have lots of backing vocals, but those songs are very stripped back.”
There’s talk that Anja will follow up the release of this album with her second before year’s end; an album of originals.
“This album that’s out now is not substantial. It’s a few songs I’ve done on the show and a few covers,” she admits. “Whereas to come out with stuff I’ve written or co-written… the first one will probably be mostly co-written. I don’t want to fully dive in with doing my own songs just yet. I’ve been writing since I was nine.
“But I don’t know what the plans are. I’m just taking each day as it comes at this stage trying to keep the ball rolling for as long as possible and try to substantiate myself and show people that I want to be in this for the long run. Even if it’s slow and steady…”
And has so often been proven in the past, sometimes, just sometimes, it’s slow and steady that wins the race.
Anja Nissen’s self-titled debut album is out now.