Songwriting isn’t an activity that’s hazardous to your health, but for triple-JUNO-Award-winner Kiesza, who suffered a traumatic brain injury in 2017 – when her Uber was struck by another taxi – she has to really listen to her head and know when to take a break. “It’s a lot on the brain to write lyrics,” she says.

“The funny thing about brain injuries is they go forward and backward. I always think that I’ve crossed another line or another hurdle that it’s behind me, and then suddenly I relapse. I’m not crashing as much as I used to, then last week I crashed the whole week.”

Kiesza – born Kiesa Ellestad in Calgary and now living in Toronto – is just releasing Crave (on Aug. 14, 2020), the long-awaited follow-up to her 2014 debut Sound of A Woman — which sold a million copies and contained the ‘80s-inspired dance-pop smash “Hideaway” (now closing in on half a billion views on YouTube alone). But it isn’t full of introspective songs about healing, health, or struggle.  In fact, if one didn’t know about the accident that caused a shutdown of the electrical nerve pathways to one side of her brain, the dance-pop songs seem like a natural follow-up to her breakthrough from six years ago.

“I wasn’t ready to go back into what I’d just come out of,” says Kiesza. “It was this really dark, dark, dark time, and I’ve been literally climbing my way out of it just to see the light again. It’s been hard. It’s been the hardest thing I’ve ever gone through. So when I finally was in a place where I felt like I was ready to re-launch, I wasn’t ready to go into that again. I wanted positive energy, especially with the pandemic going on right now. I felt like that’s what the world needs, too. So I chose to make this album really upbeat and really positive.

“Honestly, my songwriting, in many ways, has gotten stronger”

“‘Love Never Dies’ is probably the closest one you’re going to get to start to scrape the surface,” she says of the second-last song on Crave, a powerful ballad that sounds like a James Bond movie theme. “There’s more coming. That’s tapping into that depth, and that pain, and those feelings. It’s a lot to go back to. I get overwhelmed. And with my recovery, just being stressed out or overwhelmed like that, it actually causes my head to relapse. So I’m just not even physically in a place where I can do that.”

Collaborating Carefully 
Kiesza has co-written for Rihanna and Jennifer Hudson, worked with Duran Duran, and collaborated with Skrillex, Pitbull, and Diplo, as well as with many people for her own songs. But now writing with others requires some ground rules she didn’t have before her injury:  no smoking, for one. She’s been writing with a lot of local artists and rappers. “I have to tell everybody that they’re not allowed to smoke weed,” she laughs. “Usually I would just put up with it. I’ve never done any drugs or anything, but I’m really strict. My head can’t handle being around any sort of smoke.” While she still writes quickly — “I’m actually still faster than the average songwriter” — concentrating on lyrics can give her a headache, so her partners must be understanding and patient. “Sometimes I’ll have to let people know when my head does swell up, or feels like it’s hurting, and that I’m too tired to finish, and just re-book for another time. Or I’ll just let them know that I’m unable to come up with new lyrics right now,  just because of how my head feels. I like to step away, maybe do them on my own time, and come back and record.”

That material will be “compartmentalized,” as Kiesza says, on her next album. “Honestly, my songwriting, in many ways, has gotten stronger, because it unlocked a lot of stuff going on internally while I was recovering,” she says. “My lyrics really expanded. I did begin writing a lot more personal stuff, going back to my youth. I’ve been getting as much of my own inner truth out as I possibly can, just out of my body, out of my soul, and on to some form of paper or digital notepad. There’s so much to decipher right now and to go back through.

“And then the next album is going to have a different sound and a different mood.  I like that because whatever mood I’m in, I select my playlist based on that. So I’m approaching my albums that way. I have some acoustic folk songs. How do I put out a guitar style [of music] after Crave?  I’m just going to do it. It’s little confusing, but to me it’s important to make sure that all of that gets out or else people are not going to know me.”

She says she writes in “so many genres.” Her very first album, written and released during her second semester at Selkirk College in Nelson, BC, with money from a grant she won from a then-new Calgary radio station, she told SOCAN in 2014, was “all over the place, very experimental. You get orchestra songs, a big-band jazz song, a funky song, a country song that goes into gospel, soft-rock mixed in with soul.”

This skill of adaptability has enabled her to write for a range of other artists, and also reveal more of herself. “It’s actually really confusing for people who work with me to try to figure out what to put out, but I’m really embracing that aspect about me,” she says. “That’s what makes me unique, is the fact that I actually can jump genres. So I’m trying to find ways to fuse all the styles that I write in.

“I definitely want to have lifelong fans. It’s way more important for me to really make sure that my music contains every aspect of who I am.”