When the pandemic put the planet on pause last spring, Ana Golja had plans. Yes, we all had plans. But the 24-year-old former Degrassi star (she played Zoë Rivas on Next Generation and Next Class) was weeks from the theatrical launch of her award-winning movie The Cuban, which she produced, when forced to flee LA back to her family home in Toronto.
“Everything just came to a screeching halt and I had to figure out how to pivot,” she recalls. “So, the first part of last year was spent drinking all of the wine and, as much as possible, just trying to stay sane. I learned to really take care of myself and take time for myself, something I don’t usually do, and that made me a lot more conscious and instinctive creatively. I’m now definitely in a better place.”
How she got to that better place is how we got her new EP, Strive, which she calls her COVID survival kit. “It’s basically me striving, during a time of great uncertainty and strangeness, to do the best I could with what I had,” she explains. “This was a reflection of my whole year.”
Golja’s film, about an elderly Cuban jazz musician (Oscar-winner Louis Gossett Jr.) in a nursing home, showed her that music is not only a form of storytelling and communication but, “regardless of what genre or even medium that it’s in, music really is a form of therapy.”
So, she used it as such on herself. On top of the lockdown, Golja was also recovering from a break-up, and emotionally dealing with that led back to music. Her first EP, Epilogue, was similarly inspired but where that music was somber, this time she went the other way.
Her relationship’s end had already lured her into the studio—a depression-soaked demo for new single “Glass” was recorded in LA pre-pandemic—but now stuck at home, she didn’t want to wallow in that version’s sadness. Instead, the former competitive dancer revamped it as Dua Lipa-esque dance-pop, a template she expanded into the R&B-infused future disco EP.
“I just had a completely different perspective on life because of what the world was going through. We have a finite amount of time on this earth, so we have to make the most of it,” she says. “That’s why this release is very much a party release, and you hear it in the production. It’s a celebration of life and every moment that we get, even the bad.”
Nowhere is that clearer than on the “Bailemos,” an amped up Latin-pop banger with Alx Veliz, and her first foray into Spanish-language songwriting. It was “nerve-wracking,” the Albanian-Canadian admits, but Golja’s mother is part-Spanish and she relished the chance to embrace that part of her roots.
“All Night” is an almost too-timely song about being in a relationship with someone dealing with anxiety, depression and addiction while “Feet Don’t Fail Me” is about knowing your worth and using that to find the strength to move forward rather than fall back into old habits just because it’s comfortable.
With studios off-limits, Golja recorded the demos for Strive in her bedroom—and unlike Billie Eilish, whose music she absolutely adores, Golja has no music-genius sibling to help out, just advice via Zoom before emailing the results to her producers. “I’m not a tech-savvy person to begin with, so it was definitely an obstacle and a learning curve for me, but I did what I had to do to get these songs made.”
And while Drake paved the way for Degrassi alum to transition from acting to music, Golja’s no bandwagon jumper. “It’s in my blood,” she says, noting she comes from a family of opera singers as well as performing in musicals and studying singing, guitar and piano since she was a little kid.
Now it’s time to share that lifelong passion and though Golja sadly can’t tour until it’s safe to do so, she hopes Strive will help listeners get through this challenging time. “Seeing the profound effect of music on people is what inspires me to continue making music, to continue creating new songs and new sounds.”