Artist Spotlight: Anna Aya on Her Journey from “Little Big Shots” to J-pop Soloist

By: Tiffany Vu
Thumbnail courtesy of Handcraft Entertainment and Virgin Music.

Anna Aya might have just made her singing debut, but she said it was a long time coming. Between dance practice and translating for Ellen Degeneres, young Anna always kept her eyes on the prize: being in the spotlight. 

The Japanese and Armenian American model and actress spent her days split between Los Angeles and Tokyo. In a blink of an eye, her summer breaks spent in the Japanese classrooms of Kumon, a learning enrichment program, became escapades abroad to participate in high fashion modeling gigs. Modeling for luxury brands like Gucci, Dior, Celine, and Louis Vuitton landed her in front of six-time Japan Gold Disc Winner, multi-platinum producer Michael Africk and GRAMMY Award nominated, multi-platinum producer Louis Bell

Recording in a Boston studio, the angeleno quickly went from fashion model to J-pop soloist. Describing it as a culmination of all her experiences, Anna Aya’s debut single “Someone Else” is a hard-earned lesson of finding your own path. She joined EnVi for an interview over Zoom to speak about her journey. 

Back in the Day

The Anna we know today has her schedule split between modeling, music, and acting. How does she handle it all? She learned the lessons of time management long ago at six years old. As an elementary school student, she was juggling dance practice, commercial work, and school. “Balancing it was overwhelming at first,” she admitted. Her parents placed a strong emphasis on her academics and Japanese fluency, enrolling her in Japanese and math Kumon. Her feet were often sore getting used to ballet pointe, learning traditional Japanese dance, or grooving in hip hop lessons. 

All of this instilled a strong sense of discipline in her. Before she knew it, her path grew tenfold. Little Anna graced our screens as a child actor in Target, Samsung, and American Girl doll commercials. Her fluency in Japanese served her well, landing her the role of a child Japanese translator for Steve Harvey’s Little Big Shots. All this attention was new to her. “It had an impact on how I viewed myself. You are always being looked at, and that’s something a regular child wouldn’t be comfortable with,” the artist said. 

@annaayaofficial #duet with @memezar hi i’m Anna the translator in this video! so happy everyone still loves this video like I do, thank you 🥰💗 #littlebigshots #minibrucelee #steveharvey #memezar ♬ original sound – Memezar

However, the fear of being seen never bothered her. Anna had a natural talent for being on camera. The star’s presence was undeniable as she rose through the ranks, going from guest appearances to a season regular host of the show. But her biggest challenge? Growing up surrounded by other young, talented prodigies. On one hand, she was inspired by them. On the other hand, the comparisons made between her journey and others’ made her feel insecure. “Not everyone wishes the best for you.” she said matter-of-factly. Finding her own path was following her own interests separate from people’s opinions and timelines.  

The show was not only a huge opportunity for her career but also provided a lesson she greatly appreciated.“It made me realize I can’t compare myself with a lot of people, and I just have to live my own way and my truth.” This is the very lesson she hopes to instill in her new song “Someone Else” the singer told us, finding your own self worth.

East meets West 

Her debut single “Someone Else” is an effort to introduce the United States to J-pop. However, Anna wanted to do it her own way. “I thought it would be cool to do my own take on [J-Pop] with the bilingual lyrics and some inspiration from Japanese music culture and Western music culture,” the soloist explained.

The song, a fusion of western beats and Japanese storytelling, is rooted in her mixed heritage. Anna came from a Japanese and Armenian household. Dinner consisted of Japanese, Armenian, and American food on rotation. She speaks Japanese to her mom and Armenian to her dad. In preschool, she learned English. An expert of three languages, the artist uses language to express the different sides of her identity. In an interview with Celebmix, she explained that English has a stronger sound to her, which she uses to convey empowerment in her song. To Anna, Japanese is more delicate and softer sounding, so those verses were used to express more sentimental, introspective messages of self-worth. 

Unable to forgo her translating instincts, she personally reinterpreted and transcribed verses of “Someone Else,” which was originally written in English, in Japanese. Initially intending to make two separate versions, an English track and Japanese track, it was Anna’s idea to combine the two. Despite being new to the songwriting process, she wanted to ensure “people [could] relate to the lyrics and words.” Her translator background made her more cognizant of how the Japanese lyrics would be interpreted by a global audience. 

Of the things that was most important to her, properly introducing the Japanese language in her debut was at the top of the list. According to Anna, the Japanese language is fairly new to people, despite the rise of anime. With more international music entering the western music scene, she wanted to introduce J-pop’s distinct sound. As she got more involved in the songwriting process, the final song turned out to be “something very fresh and unique” that the model-now-turned-singer takes pride in. 

On Air, Recording Live

Image courtesy of Handcraft Entertainment and Virgin Music.

Anna admitted she “had no clue how a song [was] made and how music [was] produced” before recording her single. Although she has taken vocal lessons before, singing was a new endeavor. Producer Michael Afrik and Louis Bell brought Anna down to their Boston recording studio to show her the ropes. She recounted being terrified of singing in front of the producers. “I was really afraid I was not gonna sound perfect or not harmonize the right note correctly.” However, as she got more familiar with the process — with a mispronounced word here and there — she was delighted to learn “sometimes a mistake can sound good!” 

“Someone Else” is a melancholic pop song with rock-like slams and bass. Anna mulls over her relationship after being left on read following her love confession. Softer Japanese verses bring a fresh, introspective side to the song. The chorus breaks out into a fun pop beat when she sings, “A girl just needs to hear it for herself/or she might from someone else.” Adorned in stylish outfits, such as a blue monochromatic motorcycle fit, Anna’s playfulness is infectious. The sassy and upbeat energy carries the song as she sings, “If that’s how the story goes/ then this book will have to close.” Empowered and changed, Anna moves on. 

Looking Back and Looking Forward

Anna’s career path unfolded in a way she never could have imagined. Jumping from translating, to acting, to modeling, to singing, she’s always lived her life following her interests. If her music career taught her anything, it’s that everything she took on made her who she is now. Her modeling relationship with Fendi and Christian Louboutin lead to their partnership for the “Someone Else” music video. The sweat breaking days studying Japanese in Kumon transformed into writing Japanese verses of her new song. Her bruised toes from pointe shoes made for graceful ballet choreography for her music video. The uncertainty of it all never scared Anna. “Take any challenge that comes your way because what do you have to lose?” she’d tell herself back then. 

What’s next for Anna Aya? “There is actually a ballad that I have been working on. It’s more of a softer, slower song,” she told EnVi with all smiles. There’s no stopping her now.  

Want to learn about more rising artists? Check out EnVi’s interview with MEMI here.