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