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Kotomi talks childhood piano lessons, writing music professionally

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FEBRUARY 14, 2023

When Kotomi heard she would be scoring the new Judy Blume documentary, she thought she was dreaming.

“I was pinching myself, like, several times,” she said in an interview with The Daily Californian.

“Judy Blume: Forever,” a touching tribute to the children’s book author, premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. The documentary is the newest project for LA-based composer Kotomi, whose real name is Lauren Culjak, who grew up reading Blume’s novels.

“She had this instant recall of what it felt like to grow up, the struggles,” Culjak said, referring to Blume. “It’s not easy being a kid, there’s so much that you don’t understand… and there’s just so much changing all the time. She just had a way of making everyone that read her books feel not alone.” 

In addition to Judy Blume, Culjak grew up around music. Her mother, a classical pianist, wanted to give her lessons but instead arranged for Culjak to learn from a close friend. Studying piano, Culjak learned to read music and play classical repertoire, such as Mozart, Bach and Beethoven. At the same time, the environment was awash with formality and seriousness.

“I remember my teacher said I was not ready for Chopin until I was at least 13,” Culjak reminisced, laughing, in an interview with The Daily Californian. “I just really wanted to play Chopin because he was my favorite. And she’s like, ‘You need a certain level of maturity to handle that era of Romantic composers, like Debussy and Chopin.’”

Culjak’s musical interest started to change as she got older. She began writing songs toward the end of high school, vesting an interest in production, songwriting and composition. After writing music on the side, Culjak decided to quit her day job at a marketing agency to pursue composing full time. 

“I did not make a lot of money that year,” she admitted. “It takes time, but I saved up. It was exciting.”

Watching her speak, Culjak’s incipient interest in Romantic composers makes sense. She exudes a down-to-earth and sensitive spirit, speaking about the past and its challenges with warmth and infectious positivity. 

“There’s not a clear cut path to becoming a composer,” she said. “I didn’t study composition in school. I was just trying to figure out how to do it by learning from others and watching YouTube videos… I was just making it up as I went along and piecing it together.”

Wading through the improvisatory and elastic practice of composition, Culjak found a wellspring of guidance at a music company in Santa Monica. Fresh out of college, she started at the company as an intern, went on to work at the front desk and eventually performed a series of odd jobs that offered hands-on experience to learn in the field.

“I answered phones for about a year, and then when they needed a singer to sing a jingle, I was like ‘I can sing that Tropicana orange juice commercial.’ And they’re like, ‘Alright, I’ll give you a shot,’” she said. “So, I kind of worked my way into session singing through them.”

Culjak went on to secure a full time composing residency with the company. For 3 years, she composed on a regular basis and led an array of musicians, including the drummer on Michael Jackson’s “Beat It,” through recording sessions. The program was rewarding but rigorous; she recalled frequently sleeping on the couch since she didn’t live close to the studio.

The composer says one of the biggest lessons she learned concerned the compromise between the workday’s highly regimented structure and the unpredictable artistic whim that’s seemingly required to be creative. Professional composers can’t afford to wait for inspiration to strike, they must strike first.

“I loved to write music at night, I was a total night owl… I’d have an idea, go record, and it was all about inspiration,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if you have an idea or not, you have to just start.”

Culjak’s discipline remains an important part of her composing practice today. Instead of grinding at a desk for days, she wants to spend as much possible time with family, specifically her 15-month-old child. 

Even with the regulated circumstances, Culjak’s music doesn’t sound stilted or mechanical. Her score for “Judy Blume: Forever” is fluid as the film traces Blume’s biography through a tour of novels and their reception. 

“This was a journey, and I feel like the music needed to evolve with Judy,” Culjak said. “I wrote a theme for [Judy Blume] that echoes throughout all the different eras. But sonically, the music for ‘Superfudge’ and the visuals of that book needed to be so different from ‘Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret,’ which is more spiritual.”

Culjak’s score swiftly moves to unite the soundscape with the changing moods. Her music works to sculpt the ambiance and accentuates the nostalgic, sentimental chords the film hopes to strike.

Contact Maya Thompson at 


FEBRUARY 14, 2023