Sound of a Woman

Kiesza makes the kind of joyful pop music that can melt even the hardest of hearts. In July, the Canadian singer, songwriter, and dancer made her network television debut on The Late Show With David Letterman, delivering a high-spirited performance of her hit single “Hideaway” that found her sashaying into the audience, out behind the Ed Sullivan Theater, and into a gushing fire hydrant before skipping back onto the stage soaking wet. Rather than feign his customary half-hearted enthusiasm, Letterman was visibly genuinely impressed, exclaiming, “Wow! That was great! You’re soaking wet for heavens’ sakes. How ‘bout that, Paul? Wow, that was lovely!” Says Kiesza says with a laugh: “I don’t think he expected me to bathe in the fire hydrant.”

Radiating positive energy, Kiesza seems to attract good will wherever she goes. Her red 1940s-meets-punk hairdo and colorful fashion choices not only turn heads, but her bright belt of a voice and killer back-story (former ballerina-turned NavCom in the Royal Canadian Navy-turned Berklee College of Music scholarship student-turned pop songwriter-turned chameleonic artist) has captivated the press. The New York Times has already dubbed her “the season’s biggest pop music breakout.” And Kiesza’s exuberant performances on Letterman, as well as on Jimmy Kimmel Live! and The Ellen DeGeneres Show, are the perfect delivery system for her spirited hit “Hideaway.” The song — a No. 1 UK single (and the fastest-selling debut single of the year there so far), as well an iTunes chart-topper in 21 countries — has been called “an immediately addictive dance-pop track that brings early-’90s diva-fronted club pop thundering back to life” by Entertainment Weekly. Kiesza further displays her throwback-meets-modern aesthetic with the song’s inventive video — a one-take shot that follows Kiesza as she dances her way through the streets of Brooklyn, changing styles and partners along the way. It has racked up more than 117 million YouTube views to date.

And Kiesza is just getting started. On October 21st, Lokal Legend/Island Records will release her debut album Sound of a Woman — a lyrical journey through an emotional rollercoaster of a love story. “I chose that song as the title track because it’s about finding the inner strength to say exactly what’s on your mind, and that felt reflective of the album as a whole,” Kiesza says. “These songs are the sounds of a woman.” “Hideaway” is about how new love can produce an alternate reality where one’s troubles and stresses are forgotten. “Bad Thing,” featuring Joey Bada$$, is about falling for the bad boy (“you know it’s not the best idea, but you’re inviting it at the same time,” she says) and “Piano” is when you realize he has a little too much control over you. Kiesza describes “Giant In My Heart” as the opposite of “Hideaway.” “’Hideaway’ is the beginning of a relationship and ‘Giant’ is the end where your heart is broken, but the love you feel for that person overpowers the heartbreak, making it hard to move on.” Lastly, amid the up-tempo dance tracks, is the powerful piano ballad “Cut Me Loose,” which finds Kiesza declaring that she’ll be better on her own.

Kiesza wrote all the songs (except for final track “Over Myself” and a stripped-down cover of Haddaway’s 1993 hit “What Is Love”) with her collaborator, fellow Berklee grad Rami Samir Afuni, whom she was introduced to by one of her Berklee professors. Together, the two have conjured up Kiesza’s soulful dance-pop sound, which is strongly influenced by the empowering themes and emotionally resonant vocals of ’90s house music. Not only did Kiesza patronize such clubs as Libation and Body & Soul night after moving to New York City in 2012 (“we’d start at 8 pm and dance until four in the morning”), she also grew up loving “the divas” like Martha Wash, CeCe Peniston, and Robin S, and counts British acts like Disclosure and Hot Natured among current influences. “Also, Michael Jackson was like God in our household,” Kiesza says. “My mom practically had a shrine to him with all the videos and memorabilia. She even turned my brothers and I into a Jackson 5 tribute band.”

Born into a musical family of Norwegian descent in Calgary, Alberta, Kiesza Rae Ellestad was classically trained on the piano from the age of seven. “I struggled as a piano student,” she recalls. “I always wanted to come up with my own songs and the teachers wouldn’t let me.” She also studied ballet from the age of 13, but gave it up after being side-lined by a knee injury. After that, she revisited an earlier love for sailing and by 16 was working on 132-foot tall ships, eventually following her brother into enlisting in the Navy. “I was drawn to the challenge of boot camp,” she says. “I wanted to see if I could get through all the obstacles. I saw grown men break down and cry, but I loved it. Even when I was getting yelled at, I was just like, ‘This is awesome!’” While in boot camp, Kiesza’s impressive aim earned her a Top Shot award after she fired 15 bullets into a one-inch hole. The Army tried to recruit her as a sniper. “I turned that down,” she says. “I had no intention of shooting people ever.”

It was during one particularly turbulent sea voyage
that Kiesza was first inspired to pick up a guitar. As pots and flew off the shelves, the bosun came to the hold where the crew were trying to sleep. “He started playing guitar and singing lullabies, and one by one people began falling asleep,” Kiesza remembers. “And I was just mesmerized by the power the music had. That’s when I really wanted to start writing. I wanted to be able to do that to people. I thought, ‘What a gift.’”

Kiesza describes her first few songs as “folky,” but that changed when she hooked up with Afuni, who is also a hip-hop producer. She began to get into commercial pop songwriting (eventually penning songs for Rihanna, Kylie Minogue, and Icona Pop), but “Rami was the first person who really encouraged me to focus and be an artist.” It was when she wrote “Hideaway” in May 2013 that her new sound began to crystallize. “I suddenly had a clear vision of where I wanted to go as an artist,” she says. “It came as quite a shock because I was really only looking for the best song I could give away to a bigger artist. I was proud of my songs, but not very attached to them. But with ‘Hideaway,’ I couldn’t imagine anyone but me singing it. It connected to my soul and I knew it was my song.”

As for Sound of a Woman, Kiesza not only wants it to inspired people to dance, she wants it to bring positivity to people’s lives. “I want it to connect with people on a deep emotional level,” she says. “I want people to feel like, ‘Yeah, I’ve been there, too. She totally gets me. She’s saying the words that I couldn’t say myself.’”


[October 2014]