One to watch: Kiesza

The Canadian singer-songwriter abandoned a nautical career to create the pop dance hit Hideaway

Canadian-born, London-based singer Kiesa Rae Ellestad, now known to the wider world as Kiesza, is telling the story of how she came to create her sophisticated, deep house-infused pop banger Hideaway, a pre-summer anthem that recently topped the charts in the UK even though she only plonked it speculatively on Soundcloud back in January. The story goes that as she was about to leave her producer and label boss Rami's studio to catch a flight, he started playing the song's sparse, 90s trance-indebted backing track and the lyrics and melody just poured out; the whole thing was completed in just 90 minutes.

"I did the rough demo, sat down for 10 minutes, finished the lyrics, cut the vocals and then jumped on a plane," she giggles over a peppermint tea in an east London cafe, the three small croissant-shaped rolls of hair perched on her head shifting with every eyebrow raise. This sense of spontaneity crops up again in the song's DIY video, a one-take choreography extravaganza shot in New York while she had a cracked rib, and which has somehow survived a parody by Radio 1 DJ Greg James. More significantly, however, the video underlines Kiesza's star quality and undermines any suggestion of Hideaway being another faceless dance hit. "I'm an artist so I wanted to make sure right off the bat that people knew that," she emphasises. "I'm not a DJ."

In fact, there's always been something special about Kiesza. "I was a very unpredictable child," she explains, her saucer-like eyes widening. "I'd pack a bag and go off and do a hike in the mountains for 10 days. I didn't date for my entire teen life – it just wasn't on my mind. I had to climb a mountain or explore an ocean." Plus, to be honest, there wasn't really the time, what with the dance lessons overlapping with the rock climbing, the martial arts and eventually joining the navy reserves, which itself was fuelled by her time sailing tall ships as a hobby. The navy appealed for imaginative rather than particularly patriotic reasons. "When they were teaching us to assemble the weapons I'd always imagine I was Forrest Gump. I was actually the fastest at it," she says. She was so good in fact that she was picked to be in the Queen's honour guard when she visited Canada. "I had to flip my gun in front of her," she laughs.

Eventually an offer to study at a music school in Canada became too good to pass up: "I had to make a decision between sailing on a pirate ship to Japan and catering to the adventurer in me, or taking this opportunity to really focus." From there she won a scholarship to Boston's Berklee College of Music, which led to her indulging her passion for just about every conceivable genre from folk to country to jazz. She even had a misguided brush with Aqua-esque pop in the shape of 2012's Oops ("You did not use a rubber and I think we made an oops"), the mere mention of which almost causes Kiesza to fall off her chair in horror. "Oops was made as a joke, for fun," is all she'll say about it.

Clearly a talented songwriter – she's written for Rihanna's new album, as well as for Kylie and Icona Pop – she struggled initially to find her own identity. Then Hideaway appeared out of nowhere and focused the sound of her forthcoming debut album, due later this year. "I'd written a lot of music and explored different genres but everything else that I was singing, it was more like it wasn't for me. Rather than try and make something work I just decided to not over-think it and the first song I did after that was Hideaway."

Having grown up on a mixture of her mother's two musical obsessions, big-voiced dance divas such as Robin S and the chart-dominating pop of vintage Michael Jackson, Hideaway's unexpected success is a double victory for the Ellestad household. "My mum is so excited," she roars giddily. "I'm doing a sound that she loves; when I first played her Hideaway she was like 'Wow, what is this?'" She wasn't the only one.

Contributor

Michael Cragg

The GuardianTramp

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