Kiesza is on fire. After conquering the U.K. and YouTube with her single “Hideaway,” the red-haired musician is experiencing fame for the first time.
At MTV’s Video Music Awards this year, she says, “Katy Perry walked into a room, recognized me and came over to talk to me. I was like, ‘Wait, how does she know who I am?’ ” Kiesza explains, “Everything has happened really suddenly. Back in January, I was completely anonymous, and at the VMAs [in August], I walked down the red carpet and saw Nicki Minaj and the Kardashians, and all of these people who went to this for real.” The experience of being in a room with dozens of celebrities “is strange the first time and then it becomes normal,” she says.
Kiesza’s path to fame wasn’t easy though. She struggled to make it as a singer and songwriter in New York after graduating from Berklee College of Music in 2011. She played classical guitar and focused on acoustic music then but “always had to work,” she says, during the day while she tried “to get people to listen.” Even though she grew up in Canada, Kiesza says she “feels most at home in New York” because that was the place, where she “sort of tried and failed [as a musician] for the first time.”
She moved to Los Angeles and transitioned into songwriting with some success. Icona Pop, Kylie Minogue and Rihanna all recorded songs penned by Kiesza, but many of those recordings never saw the light of day.
Things turned around for Kiesza when she started working with producer Rami Samir Afuni on an underground house project. The duo came out with a single, “Oops,” that didn’t go anywhere and has since been referred to by Kiesza as a “joke.” Their next effort, “Hideaway,” was thrown together quickly in New York. Afuni produced the beat for fun and, upon hearing the track, Kiesza knew what she wanted to sing over it. She wrote lyrics on the go and sang a demo before rushing off to the airport. Afuni sent Kiesza the finished song, as she waited to board her flight, a mere 90 minutes after she recorded vocals.
The now-iconic single shot video for “Hideaway” came next. Kiesza brought her brother from the West Coast to direct and worked with dancers individually before throwing them all together for the Brooklyn shoot. She went into the video shoot with a rib injury and came out with broken bone.
But the injury was worth it. The song exploded in the U.K. after being premiered by British tastemaker Annie Mac on her BBC radio show. Kiesza released the video shortly after the Annie Mac premiere. It became a viral sensation, helping “Hideaway” debut at number one on the U.K.’s official music charts.
Kiesza embarked on a European tour in the wake of the single’s success. She experienced her first sold-out show there, a new experience for an artist who had struggled for so long in the industry. “When people are so excited to see you that they are fighting to get to your show… it’s the most rewarding feeling ever,” she says. She also performed at Capital FM’s Summertime Ball in front of 80,000 people at Wembley Stadium. “All of the energy didn’t fit in the space and when it’s compressed, you feel it more,” she recalls. A self-professed “huge Queen fan,” she calls the performance her “Freddie Mercury moment” after the band’s legendary 1986 performance there. She says, “It was terrifying for a second, but then I kind of snapped into it and was like ‘Let’s do this!’ ”
In preparation for her live shows, Kiesza “worked really hard” on her ability to sing and dance at the same time, refusing to use backing tracks or tone down the physicality of her show. “We sort of got into an era of lip synching and now a lot of people do it or just sing over tracks. I’m totally old school. I want to do it on my own. Singers like Michael Jackson and James Brown and Janet Jackson were singing fully live, hitting every note and dancing out. That’s what made them such great artists. I don’t want to be combined to a track and singing over something. I’d rather sing off-tune than have assisted singing. If I screw up, then I screw up. I don’t mind that. I wanted everything to be really legitimate and that forced me to rise to the challenge.”
Because of the physical nature of Kiesza’s performances, she and her backup dancers “are always adjusting” to ensure they can fit on stage. “When I started out, the stages we’re quite small,” she says. “Sometimes, we have had no room to move at all, and we’ve made it work.” Despite scheduling shows on some small stages on her debut North American tour, Kiesza is confident that she’ll “make it work.”
U.S. concertgoers can also expect Kiesza to slow her shows down with piano covers of Haddaway’s “What Is Love” and Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” She says the slower songs are “a nice change of pace” for her and her audiences. “The more I sing acoustic stuff, the more people are asking for it. So, I think there’s a whole other audience there, and I’m very at home in that setting.”
As “Hideaway” crossed the pond and began making waves stateside, Kiesza put together her debut album, “Sound of a Woman,” due out Oct. 21. In writing the album, she says she was influenced most by “throwback dance artists like Robin S and Corona” in addition to “singers like Lauryn Hill and Erykah Badu.” “The songs were written quite fast, but ‘Hideaway’ was definitely the quickest,” she says. “Lyrics took a bit longer on some tracks, and one song ‘Cut Me Loose,’ took “almost two years to finish.”
“The album, without me even realizing it, goes through the emotional progression of a love story from start to finish,” Kiesza says. “[It starts with] feeling love on the surface, [then] that feeling turning into real love, [then] finding out this love isn’t quite what you thought it was, to wanting out, to falling back into love to realizing that you really need to end the relationship.” She laughs, “It’s funny because I went through something like that myself and it wasn’t a plan for the album… but it turned into that exactly.”
Kiesza worked on the visual side of the album as well, designing the artwork on Photoshop. She says that a friend helped with the finishing touches, adding, “I’m not like a master at it. But it is my design.” During the photo shoot for the cover, Kiesza went for a “strong but ambiguous” look that “translates your emotion whether it’s happy, sad or something else.”
After completing her album, Kiezsa is “itching to start working on some other music.” She recently sang on “Take Ü There,” the debut single from Jack Ü, a collaboration between Diplo and Skrillex. The prolific producers “unexpectedly” approached Kiesza after a set in Ibiza and said they loved her songs and wanted to work with her. She remembers thinking, “I have no idea what that [collaboration] would sound like, but I’m going to do it!” They recorded the vocals in a hotel room later that day.
Kiesza has also started writing her second album. She cites a number of artists as inspirations for her new work, including Duke Dumont, Sigma, Blood Orange and, particularly, Hozier, whom she gushes about. “His voice is heavenly,” she says. “His lyrics reminded me just how powerful music can be and helped me realize I can write good pop music with deeper substance. ‘Take Me To Church’ made me want to say a lot more and really make an art of the lyrics.’ ”
Hearing comic turned slam poet turned rapper, Mick Jenkins, “play around with lyrics” also inspired a move in a more artistic direction lyrics-wise. Jenkins inspired Kiesza so much that she recruited him to rap on “Losin’ My Mind,” a song from her album.
As for her recent fame, Kiesza says, “I never wanted to be a dance-pop icon or anything, it just sort of happened. I’m expanding on me and building on what’s genuine to me. I’m just kind of combining a bunch of things I like to do into one project.” And she’s “grateful to have a career where people want to show up.” She’s inspired most by her audience, “because I know I have people awaiting what’s to come and that gives me confidence to be more creative with what I give to them.”
"Sound of a Woman"
- Island Records