In January 2017, Billboard published an interview with Kiesza — the eccentric redhead behind 2014’s club-ready hit “Hideaway” — with the headline, “Kiesza Discusses ‘Immense Tragedy’ Preceding Second Album: ‘I Had to Let Myself Heal.’” Nearly three years later, that statement still holds true, but in a way Kiesza never could have anticipated.
The tragedy that the headline referred to was Kiesza losing a close friend to cancer in 2015. Then, six months after that interview, Kiesza was involved in a near-fatal car accident in Toronto that left her with a traumatic brain injury, putting her career as an artist in question.
Two years later, the Canadian singer occasionally still faces incapacitating fatigue, memory loss and vision issues. But she’s stopped seeing her physical setbacks as actual setbacks. “My brain injury has been my biggest pathway to growth,” Kiesza, who was born Kiesa Rae Ellestad, tells Billboard. “I’m really opening up parts of myself that were shut before.”
In June, Kiesza delivered the echoing “Sweet Love,” which wasn’t a huge departure from the dance-driven sound of her 2014 debut album Sound of a Woman. While it’s an ironic choice for her first official single since 2017 — the song was written before the accident, and Kiesza admits she has plenty of “darker” music in her arsenal — “Sweet Love” marks a new beginning for the singer, as it’s the debut track on her own label, Zebra Spirit Tribe (more on that name later).
Formerly signed to Island, Kiesza scored a top 10 hit overseas with the 2014 single “Hideaway,” and worked with artists like Jack U, Joey Bada$$ and Duran Duran, among others. Yet Kiesza’s passion for an opera-tinged song called “Phantom of the Dance Floor” drove her to part ways with the label because, as she claims, “people were scared of the risks I was taking.”
“Sweet Love” was written the day after “Phantom,” and both tracks served as the beginning of Kiesza’s artistic independence. Releasing “Phantom” without a label last year, Kiesza felt it was also important for fans to hear “Sweet Love,” which she suggests bridges the gap before and after her accident.
Kiesza put out five other tracks in 2018, all of which feature producer Chris Malinchak, whom the singer credits for helping her get back to songwriting following her injury. Though the process proved difficult (“If I wrote one song I would crash for five days,” she remembers), Kiesza soon realized that the cranial injury actually improved her songwriting ability. In turn, the two have penned enough material for an album — as well as an entire musical, which is still in the early stages but apparently has a Kinky Boots associate director interested — that Kiesza plans to release sometime next year.
Even so, Kiesza is in no hurry. While she has music ready to go, her most valued takeaway from the past two years is that being happy with who you are is a bigger accomplishment than any kind of chart achievement or career milestone.
“I couldn’t write music for a while because it was just too hard on my brain — I didn’t have that ability to channel anymore, so I was forced to really focus on myself,” Kiesza says. “I came out of this journey wanting to be vulnerable, bare all, and empower people to be accepting and loving of themselves, no matter what they’re going through.”
That’s part of what inspired Kiesza to launch Zebra Spirit Tribe: as she worked through her own growth process, the singer realized her strength in artistic development, and after her own major label experience, she knew the importance of giving an artist space to grow artistically. Kiesza’s currently working on developing a U.K.-based duo, but hasn’t officially signed any artists — she admits she’s not quite ready to, since she’s still re-igniting her own career.
As for the label’s name? An animal spirit healer channeled a “zebra spirit” that helped resolve one of Kiesza’s accident-induced medical issues. After explaining Zebra Spirit Tribe’s origin, Kiesza can’t help but laugh: “I feel like I’ve become the most unusual human being.”
But her newfound quirkiness is what’s making this next chapter meaningful for both Kiesza and her fans. Just after the June 20 release of “Sweet Love,” Kiesza played acoustic shows in New York, California and her native Canada, during which she says she “felt people really being moved by the music.” Perhaps that’s because her new material is about as direct as you can get, especially a song called “My Head’s Fucked Up.” (“There was just no other way to put it!” she quips.)
There will be some of Kiesza’s trauma reflected in the music she plans to release in the coming months — addressing both the tragedy she faced with her friend’s passing in 2015, and her post-accident hardships — that she suggests will be more heavy sonically than lyrically. “You can feel the weight of what I was going through,” Kiesza says. For now, though, she’s just happy being, well, happy.
“I feel like I’m in a different life,” Kiesza says. “It’s weird, because I have all this access to that person that I was, but I have transformed so much internally that I don’t look at the world the same way I did before. I’m finally in a place where I’m looking back, and I’m seeing a lot of silver linings.”