Put Kiesza on a rooftop with a rifle and she could probably shoot you down from a block away — not that she’s planning to. Prior to her amazing one-take video for her debut single, “Hideaway,” going viral (to the tune of 132 million-plus views since February), the dance-pop singer-songwriter from Canada chased her teen obsession with boats all the way to the Royal Canadian Navy, where she excelled on the shooting range. “They put you in a war scenario, and you have to test your accuracy,” says Kiesza, forking a grilled salmon fillet in Manhattan restaurant HK Hell’s Kitchen. The thought, however, of training a weapon on a human being torpedoed her naval dreams. “It’s fun when you’re a kid to try to shoot a target, but then reality sets in and it’s not a pretty business.”
Now, the 25-year-old (born Kiesa Rae Ellestad) has her sights set on dancefloors, using the joy and subsequent demise of her first (and only) relationship to fuel her debut full-length, Sound of a Woman (Oct. 21, Island/Lokal Legend). Kiesza’s timing couldn’t be better: “Hideaway” surfs the house-music nostalgia wave that’s dominating the British charts and beginning to make an impact here, mining ’90s musical touchstones that recall the streaking synths and club-sized power hooks of Crystal Waters and CeCe Peniston. After topping the U.K. Official Singles chart in April, the song followed in the retro-flavored footsteps of British dance acts Clean Bandit and Disclosure and cracked the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at No. 51 on the chart dated Sept. 20. It has sold 394,000 downloads through Oct. 5, according to Nielsen SoundScan, and peaked at No. 7 on the Hot Dance/Electronic Songs chart. Sound of a Woman expands on its single’s vintage house sound while dipping a few promising toes in soul, pop and even hip-hop, with guest appearances from rappers Joey Badass and Mick Jenkins. “I could do the cheesiest pop music you’ve ever heard, then it’s an Irish drinking tune, and then it’s hip-hop,” says Kiesza. “I don’t think I’m going to be stuck to one thing.”
Her talents are as multi-pronged as her sound. Kiesza’s adolescent stint as a ballerina, which ended at age 15 thanks to knee injuries, laid the groundwork for the invigorated choreography she hits during star-making live shows. Piano lessons as a kid gave way to the guitar, which she taught herself while sailing on tall ships prior to the Navy. And a few years at the prestigious Berklee College of Music informed her songwriting skills: She recently penned two cuts for Rihanna‘s upcoming album, has written for Kylie Minogue and also wrote and sang on “Take U There,” the debut single from Skrillex and Diplo‘s Jack U collaboration. Berklee also led her to classmate Rami Samir Afuni, the 27-year-old Kuwait-born producer with whom she conceptualizes her music and videos. “We have similar sounds and styles, but we have polar-opposite personalities,” says Kiesza.
“We’re never on the same page, which is why it ends up sounding as it does. We don’t even necessarily get along per se, but when we get in the studio, it creates this tension [that] brings out things in each other.”
Afuni, the calm, laid-back inverse to Kiesza’s intense focus, developed the singer through his Lokal Legend imprint under Island Records, where he also is an A&R rep. They used the free rein that Island gave them to create “Hideaway,” its video (personally funded by Afuni for around $4,000) and July’s Hideaway EP, which featured a melancholy piano-ballad take on Haddaway‘s 1993 house anthem “What Is Love.”
“There was this tiny revival of house music happening in the U.K.,” says Afuni. “We were like, ‘Why don’t we put a face behind it?'”
Island president David Massey witnessed the same potential: “I already see her as the first artist to emerge from the area that touches on dance, a bit like back in the day in Madonna. She’s emerging as a fully formed artist. I think the world was ready for her.”
And she’s making it look effortless. When Kiesza filmed the highly choreographed video for “Hideaway,” she danced through the pain of an undiagnosed hairline fracture in her rib, a determination she traces back to her childhood. Raised in Calgary, Alberta, she managed to get A’s and B’s in spite of a lifelong struggle with dyslexia. Even today, she keeps saying “Charlie Blossom” when trying to recall The Killers frontman Brandon Flowers, with whom she recently collaborated. “This is how my dyslexic brain works,” she explains. “But it actually makes you more creative, apparently. I found out Einstein and da Vinci were dyslexic and was like, ‘Awesome!’ There’s just so much going on in my mind that I have to get out. If I don’t, I won’t sleep.”
That relentless drive to create led her to end the relationship that inspired Sound of a Woman. Though she’s mum about the details of who and when, she does admit that music got in the way. “I’d be selfish to be with a person when I’m so focused on something else; I didn’t want to torture them. The person I’m with has to be as important as everything else I do, or else it’s not fair to them. When I meet that person, I’ll know, because I’ll have that same passion for them.”
After finishing her salmon and signing some posters for fan giveaways, Kiesza, who now lives in New York, walks over to a nearby dance studio, where she’ll spend the next six hours tirelessly practicing moves for the video for her U.K. single, “No Escapesz.” In addition to upcoming gigs on Good Morning America and Conan, she’s already thinking about her sophomore album, writing songs for it during a recent tour stop in Italy. All she needs now is a second relationship to inspire her, just like on Woman. “I got a whole album out of it!” she says. “I’ll get into another crazy situation and rant again: ‘I have to end this because my album is done.’ ”
This article first appeared in the Oct. 25 issue of Billboard.