Kiesza didn’t grow up inspired by Joni or Janis or Aretha, or any other big-name songwriter or artist. The 26-year-old Calgary native, whose video for her hit dance song “Hideaway” is fast approaching 200 million views on YouTube, didn’t give a music career a second thought until she was sailing tall ships in the Royal Canadian Navy and met a bosun.

“The bosun played guitar and he used to be able to sing people to sleep in the middle of a storm, practically,” says Kiesza, whose birth name is Kiesa Ellestad. “I was in awe of the power that music had over people, so I just wanted to be able to do the same thing. That’s what inspired me to start writing.”

“The year after I started songwriting, I wrote a song every single day of the summer.”

She was 17 by then. Of course her first songs weren’t sea shanties, but they were in a folk vein, she says, a far cry from the retro, soulful dance music found on her 2014 major label debut, Sound of a Woman, which lyrically “channeled a real love story,” she says. The album came together with her main collaborator, producer/co-writer Rami Samir Afuni,

“We were both babies in the ‘90s, and our moms both liked ‘90s music, played it a lot, and that’s what ‘Hideaway’ sounded like,” says Kiesza. “So we thought it would be fun to make a throwback-themed album, that had that deep-house element in some of the music, but also explored the R&B of the early ‘90s, and some of the hip-hop sounds. We put it together in a more modern way to create this album.”

Although Kiesza didn’t set out to be a recording artist, as a child she would “compulsively hum and sing.” She was shy, but performed for the first time in front of a crowd with the Young Canadians of the Calgary Stampede. She did some musical theatre, but her heart and soul was in ballet. She danced until she was 15, when hip and knee injuries squashed that dream. “I needed a new passion to focus on, so I got my licence and started sailing tall ships,” she says.

Inspired by the bosun, she picked up a classical guitar and wrote her first song, “When the Rain Falls.” “I only knew a few chords. The song was very slow and soft,” she says, singing a couple of lines. “I just had a natural sense of melody and my instinct for songwriting came instantaneously.

“The year after I started songwriting, I wrote a song every single day of the summer,” Kiesza remembers. While at Selkirk College in Nelson, BC, to study music, she received a grant from a new Calgary radio station, and made her first, self-titled album during her second semester.

“I didn’t have any idea of who I was, what I was doing, or where it was going,” she says. “So if you listen to that album, it’s all over the place. You get orchestra songs, a big-band jazz song, funky song, a country song that goes into gospel, soft rock mixed in with soul. It was more a compilation of my early songwriting, whereas Sound of a Woman really feels like my first album.”

She got a scholarship to Boston’s Berklee College of Music.  “[But] I quit all the songwriting classes because they actually weren’t helping me. It felt like they were pigeonholing me,” she says. After trying different majors, she decided she wanted to be a commercial songwriter for mainstream artists. She talked to a professor who linked her up with Berklee grad Afuni in New York.

“[Rami] introduced me to all my connections and got me into writing camps. He opened my eyes to the world of being a professional songwriter,” says Kiesza, who to date, has written for, or with, Icona Pop, Jennifer Hudson, Rihanna, Skrillex and Diplo. “I really loved it, really had a passion for it, and I thought that was it, ‘I’ll be a professional songwriter and I’ll do my fun side projects that can be whatever I want them to be.’

“As I started getting known as a songwriter in the industry, I wrote ‘Hideaway.’ That was the first time I wrote a song that was mine, and I had a vision for myself as an artist. So I kind of bet on myself, took a chance on it, and created the whole album around that vibe with Rami.”

Now her music doesn’t lull people to sleep like the bosun, but instead inspires us to dance like the ‘90s.

Turning The Page
“It was definitely writing ‘Hideaway.’ That changed everything. There were a lot of ‘wow’ moments – like playing at Wembley Stadium this summer for the first time, two months after I released my song.”

Publisher: Elephant Eye Music Publishing Ltd., EMI Music Publishing Ltd.
Discography: Kiesza (2008), Sound of a Woman (2014)
SOCAN member since 2010

To mark 20 years in print, our colleagues at Paroles & Musique sat down with three songwriters — Daniel Boucher, Stefie Shock and Dumas, each of whom released a new album last fall — ­to chew the fat on two decades of songwriting and profound changes. They talked about their trade and how they picture themselves in an all-digital future.

Daniel, you recently launched Toutte est temporaire, Stefie, yours is titled Avant l’aube, while Dumas’ latest is an eponymous release. What does releasing an album mean to you in 2014?

Stefie Shock: Releasing a record, I mean the actual physical object, nowadays, doesn’t mean much anymore, but the interest is not lost with regards to the actual work, just for the object. I don’t even buy records anymore…

Daniel Boucher: To tell the truth, I still release physical formats because my distributor told me that in Québec, CD sales still make up half of total sales. Initially, the project for Toutte est temporaire was to lock myself up in the studio and release a song a month.

“If you make good music, people will be interested in it; we need to stop saying it’s the fault of consumers who no longer buy CDs” – Dumas

Dumas, you anticipated this transformation of the market in 2009, when you released four EPs in rapid succession…

Dumas: There was indeed a certain desire to shake things up a little, especially when it came to financing; each EP paid for the next. I’m glad I tried it, but I was very surprised because despite the fact that the market was changing rapidly, it was still very hard to break the mold. I wanted to release EPs – which, by definition only have five or six songs on them rather than 10 – except the actual CD costs the same to produce and therefore to sell, which was disadvantageous for the fans. At least now, with digital, that’s no longer an issue.

Daniel: As artists, we sometimes like for things to go faster, to be more adventurous, but part of our job is to understand that it’s not always possible…

Dumas: As we all know, the web has changed everything over the last 15 years. I remember when I started and we’d ask the record label for some help in building a website. No one had a clue what we were talking about and what purpose it would serve! On the other hand, the cost of production for an album hasn’t really gone down. Of course, technology has made a lot of things much simpler, but I can’t pay my collaborators less than I did fifteen years ago. In the meantime, we keep arguing about the value of music and the revenues have all but disappeared…

Daniel: Personally, I can’t resolve myself to give my album away. Why should I? To let people try it out? So, in that case, I’ll have something to eat from the restaurant we’re sitting in, but I won’t pay. If I like it, I’ll come back. The only difference here is that you can’t e-mail a meal. That has a big impact on songwriters and musicians. I get the impression making music is no longer considered a real job. I’m glad for the artists who give away their music and become successful, but to me, that’s like giving up part of your income, like separating the two sides of our trade – stage and studio – and saying that one should become voluntary work?

Stefie: There are very good examples of artists from abroad that make it big while giving away their music. Good for them. But it goes without saying that their reputations and audiences are global. In Québec, it’s hard to get a big enough buzz to go on the road for a 200-concerts tour that you can earn a living from.

Dumas: Back then, labels could take risks on an album and recoup their cost from sales, but let’s be frank: nowadays, most of us barely recoup production and marketing costs from sales and hope to make money from licencing and publishing. Those are the real stakes in 2014. From this perspective, a record is no longer more than a business card to get concert and festival bookings.

Daniel: I just hope that, at some point, we’ll figure out how to compensate for that loss of revenue. It seems to me all we need is a way to get back some of the money that’s on the Web – maybe through a higher royalty destined to artists, a bit like what broadcasters pay to SOCAN?

Dumas: True, but I think it’s also an incredible opportunity for up-and-coming musicians. Back in the day, even if you were nominated for an ADISQ Award, if you didn’t play during the award show, nobody remembered your name the next day. Nowadays, if I hear about an artist I didn’t know about, I can immediately go on iTunes or Bandcamp to listen to and buy their music. This is an extraordinary time to discover tons of artists.

Daniel: That’s undeniable, but we need to make sure the work is compensated fairly…

Dumas: In then end, all a songwriter can do to survive is to write good songs that connect with the public. If you make good music, people will be interested in it; we need to stop saying it’s the fault of consumers who no longer buy CDs.

Let’s get one thing straight right from the get-go: poutine was invented in Québec and nowhere else!

Now, with that out of the way, we can debate endlessly on the proper balance of ingredients in this dish and the establishments where best to experience this gastronomic wonder. There’s even an underlying debate on whether all the eccentric and bizarre variations proposed by chefs during Poutine Week are actually poutine because they stray so far from the tried and true fries-cheese-gravy trinity…

There is, however, one other ingredient the co-owners of Resto La Banquise located right at the heart of Montréal’s famous Plateau neighbourhood, will never omit: music! La Banquise is nothing short of a proverbial institution in Montréal, serving poutine since 1968, and being Licensed to Play by SOCAN made complete sense, according to Annie Barsalou, co-owner and daughter of the establishment’s founder, Pierre Barsalou.

“Music has a clear and direct impact on business, on the clients, and on the atmosphere of the place.” – Annie Barsalou

“We could look at our ledger and think that this licence is one more item in our expenses column,” says Annie. “But take a step back and it quickly becomes obvious that we need the music from all those songwriters, and it’s important to us that they get fairly compensated for their work. It’s perfectly in line with our values as restaurateurs.”

For Marc Latendresse, her life partner and co-owner, the Licensed to Play sticker proudly displayed at La Banquise is more than just proof that their restaurant is among the more than 30,000 establishments in Canada that are legally licensed by SOCAN to play music in their business.

“We’ve had comments from customers who said they appreciated our respect for artists and songwriters,” he says. “It’s particularly important in our neighbourhood, Plateau Mont-Royal, which is a major cultural hub in this province.”

And indeed, staffers of the restaurant can tell you that many a well-known or up-and-coming musician visit their eatery, such as We Are Wolves or Random Recipe, to name but a few…

“Music has a clear and direct impact on business, on the clients, and on the atmosphere of the place,” says Barsalou. “We adapt our playlist and the volume we play it at according the the time of day. Our employees are the ones feeding the choice of music and we give them full latitude. We often get questions from customers curious to know what they’re hearing, and that creates a bond between the staff and our clients. We even have one regular customer who comes in and shares his latest musical discoveries with us!”

“Our musical choices vary according to the time of day – something crucial since we operate 24/7 – and they help define our identity and unique atmosphere,” adds Latendresse. “To us, music is an essential part of a positive customer experience and therefore an integral part of our restaurant’s success.”

Poutine has frequently been part of Québec’s musical culture – think Hommage en grain by Mes Aïeux, Mononc’ Serge’s Les Patates or Québec-France duo Omnikrom and TTC’s Danse la poutine – so it seems only fitting that the Mecca of such a staple of comfort food would use music to offer its patrons a complete experience, while fairly compensating the creators thanks to SOCAN’s Licensed to Play program