Kiesza’s “Hideaway” began life as a viral dance video when it was uploaded in February. By summer, it had transitioned onto the pop charts and into the clubs, shedding the clip and becoming a Top 10 hit on the dance charts on both sides of the Atlantic. A self-proclaimed “thrill-seeker,” the 25-year-old Canadian singing the song and dancing in the video (with a fractured rib, no less) entered music as a ballerina, but after stints in boot camp and a Jackson 5 cover band, she finally made it as a pop star. Last week, she released her first major studio album, Sound of a Woman, and explained to RS the complicated, unusual path that brought her to this point.
Did you always grow up with music in your life?
Yeah, I had a very musical household. I was more focused on ballet, actually. I trained until the age of three until 15, and then I had the classic “got an injury and had to give it up.” I was also a theater kid. I was in The Nanny: The Musical, I was in Little Shop of Horrors. But then I had my mom, who was Ms. Diva-Worshipper. She loved all the divas and Michael Jackson. She controlled the music in our house. She made a Jackson 5 cover band with myself and my two brothers. So we learned all the Jackson 5 songs, and we put on costumes and sang along. It was just in our living room, but Pearl Jam was interested in having us open for them once. My mom was actually like, “Uh, they’ve never actually done this live.”
Wait, how did Pearl Jam find out about you?
I think my mom was just interested to see if this little household band would have any interest outside, so I think she just asked. I’d have to ask her, but I think just a Jackson 5 cover band with three little kids is really appealing. The thing is when you have kids performing in your living room, you don’t know how they are going to perform in front of a stadium of people. I don’t think she want to risk us freezing onstage.
What divas was your mom into?
I had a lot of Aretha Franklin, Diana Krall… Why did I say Diana Krall? We actually did have Diana Krall, but that’s totally separate. That was not a diva. We had Aretha Franklin, Etta James, we had Robin S., classic house records like Haddaway and Crystal Waters. And then I fell in love with Aaliyah, so I was into R&B. My brother was into hip-hop, so through his hip-hop influences, I got into R&B: Aaliyah, Destiny’s Child, Salt-N-Pepa, TLC, Sade, Erykah Badu.
And at some point here you decided to join the Navy?
The Navy actually happened simultaneously. I started the tall-ships when I was 16, and I joined the Navy when I was 17. I was in the reserves. I wasn’t signed on a contract, because I was still in high school. I was like a part-time naval person, so I had to go through all the training and everything. I would do part-time in the Navy every week, but in the summer I would do the tall-ships.
I loved boot camp. They would test us to see how we went over these obstacles, and I’d go climb up this shaky rope over a puddle of water and then go back and do it again. I was showing off. I was like this 17-year-old diva like, “Look I could do it three times over” [laughs]. I ended up winning “Top Shot” award, so I found out I was a good shooter. Somehow the buzz got around, and they called me “Sniper” after that. Then someone from the army approached me and said, “Hey, I work with somebody who trains snipers. There has never been a female sniper, but would you be open to training with him.” But I said no.
Were you in different bands before you became a solo artist?
I was in a rock band; I was my own folk singer; I was in a death metal band for a very short time; I was in a cover band, a jazz band, a blues band. I was in a gospel choir. But they were all side projects. When I started writing commercially, I went to New York and met Rami [Samir Afuni], who did “Hideaway” with me. He got me into the commercial pop writing world, which is ultimately where I was aiming. And I was like, “Oh, I’ll just write pop music. It’s just a side project to develop my writing.”
I just wanted to be able to go into a room with any kind of artist. And, “pop” just means popular. Like, whatever is popular at the time, and even if it’s an Irish drinking tune that’s popular. I wanted to learn how to write popular music, just really simple, catchy melodies.
So how did “Hideaway” come about?
It was the quickest song I’d ever written. I was actually thinking about moving to L.A., so I had a flight booked that day. I was working in the studio with Rami, and then I was going to go to the airport and catch a flight to L.A. I was leaving, we had finished whatever we were doing and he just started playing around with synths and came around with the “Hideaway” intro. I was just about to leave, and the “Hideaway” melody popped into my head, and I said, “Oh, I like that. Let me just lay it down quickly.”
He finished it half an hour after that, did a rough mix and master and sent it to me. By the time I got to the airport it was finished, and then I was running so quickly that I only managed to listen to it when I got to L.A. But essentially the song was written, recorded, mixed and mastered in 90 minutes. We never changed anything after that. We didn’t give it to anybody to mix or anything. It’s the demo that ended up coming out.
After the success of “Hideaway,” did a lot of artists hit you up to feature on their songs?
Actually, at first I said no a lot. I was coming in with not necessarily a new sound, but it’s new again. It’s coming back. I was trying to stay with the deep house music, and it’s a little slower than the EDM, so you have to get people used to the sound. I felt like a lot of the people who were hitting me up were solid, straight-up EDM artists with great music and great songs, but I wanted to really establish who I was as an artist, and I wanted to be successful on my own. I didn’t want to be that artist that is successful as a result of someone else. Not that that’s wrong, but I felt like I had what it took. I really believed I could do it on my own, so I wanted to try at least.
You co-wrote “Go All Night” for the new Gorgon City album. How did you guys get Jennifer Hudson on that track?
Actually, they were trying to get my “Hideaway” for her because she was going for a Chicago house sound. I was a sort of established writer now, and they were like, “Uh, please, can we have this song?” And I was like, “Sorry, I’m going to bet on myself this time.”