Inspired by epic nights out at NYC hotspots like Body & Soul and Libation, this Calgary-born 25-year-old’s debut album is packed with deep house grooves and shimmering soulful melodies, but Kiesza is also an in-demand songwriter for acts across the globe, puts together her own stunning artwork, is a trained ballerina, and former tall-ship sailor who the Army once attempted to train as a sniper.
Many of the dancefloor-dominating voices Kiesza idolized as a child belonged to fearsome talents whose natural habitat was the vocal booth. Now Kiesza pays homage to those singers — Michael Jackson, Martha Wash, CeCe Peniston and Robin S — while adding more recent influences like Disclosure and Hot Natured to conjure an irresistible hybrid pop sensibility. What’s more, she’s got the star quality to take the songs to a whole new level.
Kiesza’s teenage years are a procession of bizarre but fascinating twists and turns. Having shown early promise as a ballet dancer, knee problems forced Kiesza to pursue other ambitions; she drifted towards the high seas, having enjoyed sailing since she was 13. “For a large portion of my teens I thought I was going to be a captain and set sail forever,” she smiles. “I dreamt a lot.” By 16 she was working on a 132-ft tall ships, while her impressive aim earned her a Top Shot award, her reputation so strong that the Army considered training her as a sniper. “I’d been firing these humongous guns,” she recalls. “It was fun. It was like a video game, but when I started realising that one day they’d want me to use them in a real situation on real people, I knew I had to back out.”
It was during one particularly turbulent sea voyage that Kiesza’s passion for music really came to life. “People would bring their instruments onto the boat,” she remembers. “One would bring drums, another guitar - the odd person would bring a keyboard. Every night, we’d get together and we’d jam.” One night, during
terrible storms, while pots and flew off the shelves, the bosun came to the hold where the crew were trying to sleep. “He just started playing guitar and singing lullabies, and one by one people started falling asleep” Kiesza remembers. “That’s when I realized how powerful music was.”
Accordingly, Kiesza’s own first songs were also little more than lullabies, with a distinctly folky edge, but her writing progressed and after recording a few demos with a friend, she decided to submit the CD to a music school. She popped it in the post and set sail for Hawaii. When she arrived at her destination, her mum phoned: there was a letter from Selkirk College, who’d accepted her without an audition or interview. Kiesza said farewell to the high seas, and after a year at Selkirk received a scholarship to the prestigious Berklee College Of Music in Boston. Her songwriting quickly developed, and she found that an esoteric and emphatic take on pop was where her heart truly lay.
“A lot of people would say, ‘well that’s not even music - anyone could do that’,” Kiesza remembers. “And I started to think, if it’s so easy, why don’t more people do it? And of course it’s actually the hardest music to write. Its simplicity is an art in itself.” One sympathetic professor knew that Kiesza had a rare skill, and put her in touch with a recent graduate, Rami Samir Afuni who was in New York starting work on his own music. “Rami and I had incredible writing chemistry right from the beginning,” Kiesza explains. “We were experimenting with pop music. He gave me a whole different perspective on writing.” It’s an experiment that continues to this day, with Rami and Kiesza collaborating on the songs that form the backbone of her debut album. When Rami and I progressed into the deep house sound and I began singing in that style, it just flowed out of me,” Kiesza says now. “It just worked. It was an effortlessness I’d never come across before.
Kiesza’s adventurous, addictive personality means she’s never content to watch from the sidelines, and when she arrived in New York she quickly immersed herself in the city’s nightlife, hooking up with dancer friends to head out to parties like the legendary Body & Soul night. “We’d go out to these dance parties and
people weren’t drinking or doing anything else at all, they were so into the dance. We’d see the dancing, the battling, the voguing; we’d start at 8pm and dance until four in the morning.” This, naturally, fed back into Kiesza’s music, which was continuing to evolve.
In 2014 she kicks things off in style with her debut single, the blistering anthem ‘Hideaway’. Unbelievably, the song was written and recorded in just over an hour. “Rami was making a beat in the studio and I had two hours before I was due to get on a flight,” Kiesza smiles. “He said, ‘why don’t you hop in the booth and see what happens?’ The whole thing just came out. We ended up finishing the entire track in an hour and a half. It’s like it was meant to happen.” The song’s distinctive video was shot on the streets of Brooklyn, and showcases Kiesza’s attention-grabbing dance moves. “I wanted to recall some of the classic street dance moves of the 90s, and throw them in with some more modern moves." The result is a stunning, but simple one-take video. Like Kiesza’s music, the video combines something old with something new to create a stylish hybrid pop moment.
In January 2014, with ‘Hideaway’ scheduled for release by Rami’s own Lokal Legend label, Kiesza moved to London. “I’m launching my music here, and I love the music here, so I want to do more than just pop my head in and go ‘buy my song’ then disappear again,” she reasons. “I want to immerse myself.”
There are no half measures for Kiesza. A committed artist whose extraordinary ambition is matched only by her unusual clarity of vision and overwhelming talent, this former queen of the high seas has spent years plotting a course to the epicentre of pop. In 2014 her voyage is just beginning, and everyone is welcome along for the ride.