Star on the Rise
The Making of Kiesza: From Navy Sharpshooter to Beauty Queen to Pop Diva
Her hit single “Hideaway” shot to No. 1 in the U.K. and spawned a viral video and her debut album, Sound of a Woman, comes out Oct. 21. Meet the world’s most eclectic pop star.
A yellow cab pulls up to the curb. A sinewy woman emerges, stepping out onto the gray city sidewalk. Her uniform—strapless white bra, blue jeans, suspenders, and fiery red mohawk—evokes the era of Desperately Seeking Susan. Then the beat kicks in, followed shortly thereafter by strident vocals. Backup dancers materialize, sparking a torrent of eye-catching choreography.
The music video for “Hideaway,” the debut single by pop artist Kiesza, was the most innovative of the summer. Shot in one continuous take on North 12th Street and Kent in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, it became a viral phenomenon, racking up 137 million YouTube views (and counting), and propelling the song to No. 1 on the U.K. singles chart.
Seven years prior, Kiesa Rae Ellestad was in simulation training, dispatching virtual terrorists with a Colt Canada C-7 rifle—the equivalent of an Armalite AR-15.
“Ours is advanced for cold weather, so the barrel won’t explode in arctic conditions,” she says with a grin. “I was really good at shooting.”
She enrolled in the Naval Reserve of the Royal Canadian Navy at 17 and soon learned that, due to an undiagnosed eye condition, her brain could lock focus on to a single target and refused to let it go. Before long, she was awarded the “Top Shot” award, and poised to be a top-level sniper. She was even recruited by the Calgary Highlanders—a Primary Reserve infantry regiment—which offered to have her be mentored by the Canadian who fired the longest sniper shot in history.
But killing CG enemies was as far as she got. “I could never kill a real person,” she says.
I’m seated across from Kiesza at House of Small Wonder, a fantastical, Asian-tinged café with a tree growing out of the center that’s a mélange of Swiss Family Robinson treehouse and opium den. The place is located in Williamsburg, a mere six blocks from where her brother Blayre Ellestad filmed that memorable music video, and a month before her debut album, Sound of a Woman, is scheduled for release on Oct. 21.
The 25-year-old is tiny, with the paleness of her skin augmented by her fiery mane. She’s also charming, and filled with restless energy—which is why she’s probably the most eclectic pop star ever.
Kiesza’s first love was ballet. She started when she was 3, and by the seventh grade, enrolled in a special program that called for her to leave school early and train three to four hours a day. “I made it a goal to be a prima ballerina,” she says.
At the same time, around the age of 4, she took up tap-dancing, and eventually won a gold medal in tap at a local Calgary competition. But she was forced to drop it at 11 to focus all her energy on ballet. At 15, she developed iliotibial band syndrome, injuring her knee, and had to surrender her dream.
“My IT band popped out of my hip socket, which caused problems because it’s attached to the knee, so I couldn’t go on pointe and allow it to heal and had to stop,” she says, adding, “It was really tough.”
Kiesza had also been sailing since she was 13, so once ballet was out of the picture, she figured, “Well, I like sailing,” and soon became “obsessed.”
She entered into the Naval Reserve of the Royal Canadian Navy at 17 while still in high school. “I was very hardcore and thought sailing would be my life, and I’d be the captain of a ship,” she says.
That same year, she began playing guitar to pass the time on boats. The first day she picked one up, she wrote a song about “a guy who looked like Frodo”—her movie crush.
“My parents split up around the time I started writing, which brought in a lot of emotional baggage,” Kiesza says. “I was a weird teenager. My mother was actually worried because I didn’t have any interest in dating in my teenage years. I had all this desire to pursue my passions like ballet, then sailing, then music, so I didn’t have any emptiness to fill.”
If that weren’t enough, at 18, her grandmother—a former Miss Army, Navy, and Air Force—coaxed her into entering into the Miss Calgary beauty pageant. “I put on a dress and walked down, and ended up getting first runner-up,” she recalls. “Then, there ended up being a scandal with Miss Calgary, so she couldn’t hold her title, and they told me I needed to take her place as Miss Calgary.” She reluctantly agreed to make her grams happy, and participated in the Miss Universe Canada pageant, placing in the top 15.
After that, she enrolled at Selkirk College in Nelson, British Columbia, majoring in music performance and learning basic jazz training, hearing, and music theory. She soon accepted a scholarship to Berklee College of Music in Boston. During her college years, Kiesza tried everything—jazz, rock, and death metal. She played the Canadian music fest Rockaganza!, performing with a makeshift rock band.
But it wasn’t until one of her instructors introduced her to music producer Rami Samir Afuni that she began to find her musical voice. Afuni was a pop producer who’d mentored several up-and-coming stars, including an Akon protégé.
“He got me away from jazz and helped me simplify my craft and began my commercial songwriting thing,” she says.
With the help of Afuni, Kiesza began writing songs for big-name pop stars like Kylie Minogue, Icona Pop, and Jennifer Hudson. Rumor has it that a couple of her songs will appear on the upcoming Rihanna album.
“[Rihanna] recorded one or two of my songs, and she claimed she really liked one of them, but you never know until the album comes out!” says Kiesza.
In addition to her songwriting, she had what she calls a “side pop project” with Afuni.
“It’s a hard industry to figure out your own lane,” she says. “There are always trends, and you never know what the next one will be. To be a mainstream artist is so hard, and it’s even tougher for people to take you seriously, so I wanted to keep myself balanced and have a project where I didn’t care about the market or trying to fit in. It was just fun.”
And that’s how “Hideaway” came to be. Back in May 2013, Kiesza was fooling around at a studio in New York with Afuni and running late for her flight to L.A. when she heard something that struck a chord.
“I was rushing out to make my plane when I hear him in the background start playing with the synth. Then I started humming, Taking me higher than I’ve ever been before,” she says. “I had to lay it down. So I jumped into the booth and ended up laying down the whole melody for ‘Hideaway’ right there, and then filled in lyrics, and then we recorded the demo vocals.”She adds, “By the time I got to the airport, he’d finished the production. So, the whole song was written, mixed, recorded, and mastered in 90 minutes. And nothing has changed. We used that original recording for the single and album. This song was a phenomenon from start-to-finish.”
Still, Kiesza was mostly known as a songwriter at that stage. Once label execs heard “Hideaway,” they began circling it like hawks. They tried pressuring her into giving it up, saying, “Please, give us this song! You have no platform… you’re not established.” I don’t care, she replied.
Then came the video, which was shot on the streets of Williamsburg for less than $1,000. They flew in her younger brother from Canada to film it, and shot it on public streets with volunteer dancers.
“We didn’t even have the budget for the editing to take two takes and splice it together as one,” she says. “We had no permits, nothing. So we did it in one take.”
Kiesza put the video on Facebook and it started spreading. It was boosted by Lokal Legend, a startup label that signed her as their first artist, and received support from Your Army, a record shingle that helped launch several U.K. dance acts like Disclosure. The track eventually made its way to Annie Mac, who debuted it on her BBC Radio 1 show, and on April 26, it entered the U.K. singles chart at No. 1.
Like Sia and other songwriters who’ve stepped out from the shadows and into the spotlight, Kiesza was slightly reluctant to take on the role of pop star. She enjoys her anonymity, as well as her autonomy.
“People keep asking me to make another ‘Hideaway,’ but there will never be another one. Now, it’s all about progress,” she says. “And label people try to change you so quickly, it’s amazing. I’ve gotten notes like, ‘Butt selfies are in!’ You need to take in select advice, but also not lose track of who you are.”