By Colin Gallant
CALGARY — Braids. Viet Cong. Kiesza? When Calgarian artists break out internationally, they don’t usually sound like this. Originally a folk artist, Kiesza (Kiesa Rae Ellestad) found international success with the ‘90s reverent, garage and house inflected dance pop. Her diva vocals are front and centre, while bouncy synth and circular basslines carry her to jubilation. It’s a far cry from the often-downcast garage-rock and dream-pop to come out of the city.
Last month, Kiesza won an astounding three Junos in the categories of Video of the Year, Dance Recording of the Year and, most fittingly, Breakthrough Artist of the Year at the 2015 Juno Awards. Although The Globe and Mail claimed the ceremonies were “all pomp, no circumstance,” that “celebrated profoundly little of the music it purported to,” Kiesza treasured the moment, welcomed the recognition remarking, “It’s funny how you work your whole life for an overnight success.”
The wheels of success were set in motion with a song called “Hideaway.” If you’ve heard more than 10 seconds of top 40 radio, been to a nightclub or have followed popular dance music trends in the past year, you’ve probably heard the international smash hit.
Its low-budget video has since accumulated more than 230 million views on her official YouTube channels alone. The video, shot all in one take on the streets of Williamsburg in Brooklyn, N.Y.C., features an unknowingly injured Kiesza strutting, working up a sweat, performing highly athletic dance moves.
“I just figured I hurt my rib or had a bruise of something. And then it got really, really bad after the video shoot. Honestly when I was doing… the video, I didn’t feel like I was in that much pain. So, I don’t know, it was weird, it was a weird thing to find out that my rib was fractured. It ended up getting really, really swollen and I was in bed for like a good month after that,“ she explains.
The video has all the symptoms of having gone viral. Whether it be a parody or a heartfelt tribute, YouTube is littered with other people’s takes on the ambitious flash dancing, as well as Kiesza’s signature look with her suspenders and stegosaurus-like hairdo. A parody from as far away as Russia has garnered itself more than one million views.
It would be foolish to try and reduce the singer, songwriter and dancer to her looks or style, however. Kiesza has a proven record of hard work and dedication. It all traces back to her training in ballet and its unfortunate end stemming from an injury to her iliotibial band, which connects the knee and hip.
“It was really tough because I had worked my whole life to be a ballerina up until that point. It was really sad but that’s actually how I found sailing, and through sailing I found music,” she says.
Sail and Life Training Society (SALTS) is the non-profit organization based out of Victoria, B.C. that Kiesza joined after the demise of her ballet career.
“SALTS really taught me a lot about life. I learned to be an instructor and I learned to teach. When you’re on a sailboat you have to be really, really patient. [You’re also] at the mercy of the weather, really… And also, you learn how to work with people in a smaller space and live with people in such a small space that you understand people a lot better,” she says.
After that experience, she took things a bold step further and enlisted in boot camp for the Royal Canadian Navy.
“I think the Navy had an effect [on me] in the fact that it taught me that I had a lot of limits placed on myself that were in my head. Boot camp kind of drilled that out of you. Whenever you want to stop, you can’t stop; you have to keep going until you’re allowed to stop… You realize that a lot of it is in your head, and you think you’re going to collapse, but you can go so much further.”
And further she went. At a stop in Hawaii on a sailing trip headed for Japan, Kiesza received the news that she had been accepted into the music program at Selkirk College in Castlegar, B.C. When asked if music could be taught, she explains: “You can guide a person, but you can’t teach them, in a sense… I had an instructor at Selkirk College who I’d say was a huge influence on my career. He was a great piano teacher but he guided me as a songwriter as well, and he really believed in my potential and found ways to bring it out in me. Without teaching me how to write a song, and without really knowing how to write a song the way I wrote it, he was able to encourage me to sort of find that within myself. I don’t think I would probably be where I am today if it weren’t for him.”
In addition to moving on to the world-renowned Berklee College of Music, part of finding her voice as a songwriter traces back to her days at sea.
“I started writing on a boat, which is one of the most inspiring places in the world and for me one of the most positive environments. So I started writing music from a very positive place,” she says.
It’s a skill she then developed, somewhat unconventionally, on the streets of Calgary before taking it to Brooklyn. Originally working with an acoustic guitar on pop-infused folk music, she would find ways to make people hear her music and get out of her comfort zone.
“I remember my early days. I would strap a guitar onto my back, with no case, and go walking through the city. I would take the bus downtown and I would just go up to random buildings… [I would] walk in and just ask anyone if they wanted to hear a song, and 99 per cent of the time they would say yes. Often, they would bring their whole office out and I wouldn’t know anybody in the room. I would just play a song and then I’d say thank you and go on my way. I don’t know what thrilled me to do that but I loved doing it. I think that really changed me as a musician. It allowed me to test my music out on complete strangers before I had a stage to really do it on.”
That stage did eventually come. Her self-released debut album, Kiesza (2008), showcased a different sound than you’d expect from her today. Composed mostly on an acoustic guitar, its sound has been described as ”orchestral pop-folk with a dash of funk.”
Afterwards, Kiesza dabbled with different pop-focused styles while working across America. In a mad dash to catch a flight from JFK to LAX, she hastily wrote and recorded “Hideaway” in less than two hours with producer and collaborator Rami Amir Safuni. This laid the framework for the style of Sound Of A Woman that propelled Kiesza into a household name.
The album, written largely by the two with help from a handful of collaborators, is defined by its adoration for the ‘90s, the proclivity towards for the current deep house trend and Kiesza’s larger-that-life vocals. There are some left turns, however. “Losin’ My Mind” is smoky in a way that summons Amy Winehouse, “So Deep” employs minimal synth-pop akin to Junior Boys and ballad “Cut Me Loose” relies on piano and voice alone to close the record. The festival-ready single “Giant in My Heart” was treated to a video depicting a drag queen escaping the hardships of everyday life by partying with friends. It’s a suitable icon for Kiesza as a whole. Her diva-quality vocals and implementation of early dance music styles are staple sounds to the gay community and new mainstream-EDM kids alike.
But then, isn’t the point of commercial pop to make you feel a simplistic kind of good, if even just for four minutes? It gave this writer pause to consider how one may make quick judgments about pop musicians targeted and criticized for their seemingly frivolous contributions. Sure, your four-year-old niece might love “Hideaway,” and it’s probably played ad infinitum by some of your least favourite radio stations, but that doesn’t cheapen the immense dedication that led to its success. Along with those four minutes of pure bliss, Kiesza’s truest sound is a thundering roar of triumph.
Catch Kiesza live at the Commodore Ballroom in Vancouver on April 20th, at Union Hall in Edmonton on April 22nd and at MacEwan Hall in Calgary on April 23rd.AB, Alberta, BC, British Columbia, Commodore Ballroom, Hideaway, Junos, Kiesza, MacEwan Hall, Sound Of A Woman, Union Hall