With first single “Hideaway” charting across Europe and a viral music video to match, you’ve probably already heard of Kiesza. If you haven’t, brace yourself, you soon will. EB met up with the Royal Canadian Navy reserve-turned-folk-singer-turned-pop house-starlet to find out what summer 2014 is in for.
Who is Kiesza?
No really, we’re as confounded as you are. The twenty-four year old from Calgary barrelled out of nowhere in April with “Hideaway”, a dance-pop record with a one-take video optimized for maximum viral impact (24,779,084 views, last check). The song adheres to the newly drafted dance charter set down by Disclosure and other predominantly British crossover artists raised on sub-bass frequencies but urged towards the radio-friendly dimensions of pop-house. It’s glossy and fun—an artist having a bash at being a Jessie Ware for the Generation Zs—but something else pulls focus. Kiesa Rae Ellestad herself.
While the curtain has long been open on the mechanisms of stardom (none of us believe pop stars were born ready for all their protestations), Kiesza is an intriguing case study. There’s the pre-fame false starts preserved on the internet and a backstory that casts her as drama school kid, tall ship sailor, and Navy reserve. Then there’s her wide-eyed desire to be a pop star, a primal need which manifests itself in the unsolicited offer of a photograph at the end of our interview. It all strikes an enthusiastic, if not outright puppyish note. Yet it’s one which has chimed with her fans who’ve got very loyal, very quickly. Observing her doing a boshing rework of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” while performing a dance routine somewhere between Zumba and vogue, it was hard not to be caught up in the Berlin crowd’s enthusiasm. Just as well, a quick glance at the comments beneath her videos suggests criticism is closely policed by her fans.
We headed to the offices of her major label to find out what exactly was going on, only to find ourselves being pulled into her world.
We’re trying to piece together your background, because there are so many odd tidbits of biographical info floating around online. You were in the Canadian Navy Reserves, right?
Yes, when I was in high school. So I couldn’t sign up full time.
You can be in the Navy Reserves in high school? Like a cadet?
No, this was the real Navy. Technically if you wanted to drop out and join the Navy you could. But I would always just train in the evenings after school and then do boot camp during the summer. I trained for about two and a half months and then went back to school.
What did your boot camp involve? Like landing in a massive pool with a helicopter and figuring out to escape?
No, we never did that. Maybe I would have done the helicopter thing if I stayed and was training to go off to Afghanistan. But we had simulations of war, obstacle courses and training to sneak up on people in the grass. Camping out in tiny tents and then getting ambushed in the middle of the night—that kind of thing. Fake bombs and grenades going off. When you’re in between being awake and being in a dream and your hearing all of these explosions it can be very weird. It’s kind of traumatic, you feel like you’re at war.
Is there a history of military service in your family?
Actually, yeah, now that I think of it, my dad was in the military. But he didn’t stay. But my grandfather flew planes in World War II. We love boats and airplanes in our family. My grandfather’s life was way more interesting than mine. He was the first person to land a plane in Trinidad! He couldn’t afford to got to flight school but really wanted to fly, so he found a pilot and just trained with him. He was only sixteen at the time, but when they were recruiting he showed them what he could do, was the best in his class and they made him a commander… at sixteen! He flew all these different jets and became a commercial pilot. He actually ended up flying lots of famous people like the President of the United States. Or maybe not the President, but super famous people. But he was so humble that he never told us, and then at his funeral a couple years ago people came out of nowhere and recounting all sorts of insane things. He sailed too. Actually, if you trace back our genetics, it’s all sailors, Vikings and whatever. The Black Douglas’s on my Scottish side. It’s basically a history of people who’ve done terrible things. So guess I have to make up for it, we traced out lineage back to the thirteenth century. On the Norwegian side too.
I guess that must be where the black metal influence comes in to your music.
Actually I was in a death metal band for a minute. Some band had their singer cancel last minute so they asked me, and I learned all these songs. I was screaming the whole time and literally had no voice the next day. I don’t know how people do it. But each their own. I got a lot of rage out.
Speaking of rage, we found a song you did a while ago called “Oops” which is supposedly about having unprotected sex. How did that come about?
Well it was a bit of a joke. I was writing for another artist and we demoed the song and the artist we recorded it for got a little nervous about the content. At the same time I was learning to do animation, so I thought it would be fun to do a little video with my friend’s baby, sitting there with goggles on. I ended up having to take it down because I didn’t want people to think of me as that artist.
So the baby in the video is the result of having “made an oops” i.e. not using protection?
Yeah. It’s about getting knocked up. We just dressed my friend’s baby in a tutu and put goggles on her and had the lyrics fly all around her.
Did you have anybody come and try to moralize with you—tell you that teen pregnancy is a huge problem and lecture you on the dangers of unprotected sex?
No, the song wasn’t out long enough for it to be controversial. But I was worried about it. If it was out there long enough it probably would have.
You mentioned in a previous interview that you’ve written for Rihanna. Can you tell me a bit about that?
Yeah, she’s recorded two, but they’re not out yet. Kylie Minogue has also recorded one. The thing is, I’ve written literally hundreds of songs during the gap between going to college and getting involved in the industry. You have to get in people’s faces and be like, “Come on, just give me a chance!” A lot of people listen with their eyes rather than with their ears. They look at what you’ve already done and not what you can do. It took a while for people to put me in a room with a big producer. So I found my own producers. And I took part in a couple of writing camps, where sometimes there are big name producers you can work with. My first camp went well, and that’s how I started getting calls. I had to build a repertoire to get to work with a certain level of producer. And with these things you write for a specific person, like Selena Gomez or Lady Gaga—well, not Lady Gaga, she writes her own stuff. But it’s always for somebody.
Is it a boys’ club?
No, there are a lot of women writers—mostly for melody and lyrics. There are more male producers. I’ve come across a few girl producers who are pretty good though.
Why do you think there are fewer women producers?
I think it’s a more macho thing. And I think women want to be singers. They gravitate to that and maybe become writers as a result of wanting to be a singer. Whereas men aren’t necessarily trying to be artists. Maybe it’s the same reason that boys like to play with cars and girls with dolls. Although I never played with dolls, I liked to play with cars.
Maybe it’s because boys are encouraged to play with cars.
Yeah, men are more “expected” to be producers and women are “expected” to be singers. But when the tables turn you get interesting stuff. The few women producers I worked with were great and had a different quality to their sound.
They had a different touch. I don’t think it had to do with whether they were male or female. They were good. I think we’re all exactly equal in what we’re capable of.
Your website is set up like a Tumblr and it has all these aphoristic looking quotes from you. Can you tell us about that?
My Tumblr originally was always the documentation of my own inner thoughts and artwork. And when I put it online I didn’t make it private, but I didn’t tell anyone about it really. I thought if people find it, then they find it. Sometimes I just get really introspective and start thinking about life. I love quotes so when I get inspiration I would just come up with a quote myself. Then I’d be like, “I like that!” so I started putting them online. Sometimes I go back and look at them and wonder what was I even thinking. Somebody asked me about a quote of mine the other day. They were like, “What does this mean?” and I was like, “I have no idea!”
Your website is interesting because the further down you go, the more personal it gets. There’s one where you mention finally arriving in L.A. and having your own room for the first time in months. It seemed revealing—like insights you don’t usually get into the life of popstars. Most want to build up a mythology around what they’ve done, like “I was born this way.”
I have a different theory on that. I think of it as stepping through a veil. There’s a veil between normal life and the celebrity world. I’m straddling that right now. And from the outside looking in, if you want to be a pop singer, you wonder, “How do I do that? Everything looks so perfect and polished.” I am open to people seeing me mess up. There’s a lot of lip-synching nowadays, and I avoid that under all circumstances. Even though when I sing and dance it’s like an aerobics workout. It’s hard to sing and dance. But I want people to see me progress. Because I think the progression is more inspiring. It wasn’t just an overnight thing—you have to work for what you love, you have to work for your dreams, you have to work for your art. It takes years of constant work and consistency and keeping your eye on this goal. And you have no idea how you’re going to get there because it’s never the same road.
So you would say you seriously busted your ass to get where are?
Definitely. I really busted my ass. There was a time when I almost had to go back to Canada because my visa was expiring, I didn’t have a sponsor and nobody was taking a chance on me as a musician. I was like, “What am I gonna do? If I go back I have to start from scratch in a new scene with new people.” It was really tough. But you have to bet on yourself. And here I am. One hour defined the rest of my life.
What hour was that?
When I wrote “Hideaway”, which was actually under an hour. I was supposed to catch a plane and I was in the studio and ready to go and then my producer started something else. Then the melody popped into my head and I was like, “Can I just lay this down before I go?” And I ended up writing the lyrics and the melody. There was this moment between having to catch a plane and deciding to drop my bags and staying. Had I not done that I could have been starting from scratch in Canada.
Your sound is noticeably based on a nineties pop vocal house sound. The genre has been around for a long time and…
Yeah, it started in Chicago and then disappeared. Then it blew up in Europe and now it’s back in the U.S. and everyone’s like, “Wait, what?” It’s like crossing back. And that’s what drew me in. When I was a baby, my mom was really into that music. Even though I was so young when it was playing, there was a sense of nostalgia. It reminds me of my childhood and all these diva singers I used to listen to and idolize. I was like “How do people do that?” To be singing the music I thought was impossible as a kid is pretty amazing. But I just identify with that nineties sound. But Rami [Samir Afuni] is a hip-hop producer, not a house producer. And so even though it is nineties house, there’s something different about it. It’s a former folk music person and hip-hop person coming together to make deep house, a soulful dance track.
There’s this new concept of deep house that’s recently emerged. Deep house once meant something very specific and now it’s been redefined in a more pop context. What makes this music “deep” anymore?
The sound of the bass is very important. The quality of the sound. It’s very… deep. It’s a deep bass sound. You notice when you compare these tracks they’re very similar. I mean everything you’ve been listening to for the past three years, progressive house they call it.
Yeah. It’s fist pumping, 128 BPM. It’s so fast you can’t dance to it. Deep house is slowed down to around 120 BPM.
Which is where it started.
Yeah, it doesn’t go past, say 124 BPM. You can move your whole body to it and when they play it in a club, people are moving. When a song comes on you just start moving. And it feels so good. It feels much better than this [pumps fist].
The bro fist pump in a club is never great.
Yeah! But sonically you can’t just have one element that makes something deep. But deep house is very simple, very open. It leaves a lot of space for the vocals. Maybe it makes you go “deep” into yourself.
Hmmm. There’s been this whole backlash…
Because it’s become commercial. You know, it’s cool and underground and then the world finds it and you have to find something else. But what is the backlash?
It’s related to appropriating an existing genre that was not fixed to pop sensibility. “Deepness” referred to a warmth and understated quality to the production, a jazziness. And to focusing on an idea at length. That is, it wasn’t confined to pop structure. And house music in general of course was appropriated from predominantly queer black culture.
I hope at some point in history it won’t matter. It won’t matter that black people do it, that white people do it, that it’s gay or straight. I understand there are different cultures but if a song is good it should bring people together. What’s happened is that the sound of deep house been put into commercial structure. People call something “deep” because it has the sounds of something that is nine minutes long but it’s been formatted for the radio. Then people are saying because it’s formatted for the radio it’s not deep. And others say because it has the sounds it is. Is it or isn’t it? It’s a huge debate. To me it’s not. The definition has been redefined.
Do you remember your dreams?
Sometimes. I should write them down because they’re crazy.
What was the last dream you can remember? It can also be a nightmare. Those are sometimes more memorable.
I remember my last nightmare. First I was in this world, it was a zombie dream, but not normal zombies. It was sailor zombies actually. We were on this boat sailing away from land because there was a zombie infestation. And the zombies would separate souls from people’s bodies and the souls would hang in limbo. They had no souls. Nobody knew where each soul was. And there was this mad scientist who had invented this machine that shined a purple light, and with that light you could see where the souls were. And if we could get the soul in contact with the body it could come back together. ~
Published June 11, 2014. Words by A.J. Samuels & Louise Brailey.