KIESZA interview – Evening Standard, 18 July 2014

Kiesza came from Canada via New York to London for the clubbing but unfortunately hasn’t had much luck so far. “I came here to get into the scene and go out to the underground clubs but the song blew up in a week so I never had that opportunity,” she says of her debut single Hideaway, an instant number one upon its release in April. “Every club that I’ve been out to so far was one that I’ve been performing at.” Curse you, highly successful dance-pop career!

At least the 25-year-old’s new Shoreditch base is handy for her appearance at Hackney’s Lovebox Festival, which starts today. The Victoria Park weekender has become a thriving spot for electronic music and hip hop over the past decade. If you can’t move your feet here, you don’t have feet.

Kiesza (sounds like “Kaiser”) will fit right in there. When we meet in a Hoxton hotel she looks every inch the hipster dance diva in her striking get-up of extensively ripped, sleeveless denim jacket, mesh top, gold trainers and black trousers patterned with sheet music. Today’s hairstyle, pushed up into a thick red mohawk, is the 15-minute version apparently. There are also 30-minute and one-hour editions. She’s small, pale and beautiful, all smiles and hugs, happy to explain how an unlikely back story that involves ships, ballet and heavy weaponry led to serious chart action.

Musically, she was inspired by the Nineties dance sounds her mother played when she was small. Her new single, Giant in My Heart, continues the mix of house beats, retro synth sounds and her powerful falsetto. Elsewhere on her debut album, due in October, there are hip hop rhythms on the slower Losin’ My Mind and late-night balladry on So Deep.

She covers Haddaway’s 1993 hit What Is Love at her concerts, which fits well with her own material. “My sound definitely pays a lot of homage to the Nineties but not just the dance music. There’s also breakbeats, R&B, the big ballads. It’s that whole era infused with very modern sounds.”

It’s an improvement on the glitzy, high-energy EDM sound currently sweeping North America, she insists. “It’s hard to dance to really fast music. All you can do is pump your fist to it and after a while you’re going to have a seizure. There’s some really great music coming from that scene but when you slow it down a little you start being able to move your whole body.”

That’s what brought her to London to launch her own songs — the success of dance acts such as Disclosure with a classier, less brash approach. “That deep-house sound was already popping over here. When I made Hideaway I felt that London was the place that would embrace it.” And embrace it we did, its debut airing on Annie Mac’s Radio 1 show quickly leading to airplay ubiquity.

And that’s only one achievement of many. After an hour in her company, I’m left feeling like a pretty inferior specimen of humankind. She wrote and recorded Hideaway in roughly an hour before rushing to catch a plane. Prior to that she has been a student at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston, a ballet dancer, a tall-ship sailor and a crack shot in the Royal Canadian Navy reserve.

As we wrap up and I ask her what else she’s up to, she mentions that she’s also composing an opera and designing her own boat. Suddenly my 25-metre swimming badge starts to look a little feeble. “When something really grabs me, I dive into it,” she says with the bright-eyed enthusiasm of someone who has no intention of pausing to look at the scenery this far into her ascent.

She was born Kiesa Rae Ellestad and brought up in Calgary. “You’re close to all this lush beauty, you have the mountains nearby, these rolling hills, every species of animal you can think of. You’re really connected with nature. It’s very active, so I’m definitely an outdoorsy person as a result.” Before sailing, there was a potential ballet career, curtailed by a knee injury at 15. She followed her older brother into the Navy reserves at 16 and proved remarkably adept. “I just loved anything that had a challenge to it. I wanted to be that person running and climbing walls and ropes,” she says.

She did codebreaking and, at one boot camp, found that she had the potential to be a sniper the first time she picked up a gun. “I ended up winning the top shot in my training camp. I enjoyed hitting the targets. It was fun.” Didn’t she think that the obvious eventual outcome of a Navy career, serious action, was pretty unappealing? “Not when I was 16! It just seemed so hardcore, it was really cool. When it really hit me that this was not just a game was when they put me in a war simulator. A whole room with screens all around, real weapons hooked up to lasers. It’s a real war scenario with helicopters you have to shoot down, ships coming in and people. I was doing all this, thinking: ‘They’re preparing me for this for real. This is crazy, I can’t do this any more.’ ”

She’d spent two years doing it part-time, and it took her two more to extricate herself fully from the system. It was perhaps an odd, regimented career for someone who talks so much of rule-breaking in her songwriting. “Yeah, and that’s exactly why I didn’t fit in,” she says. “You cannot teach a person how to write songs. It’s about being your own person and following your instincts. There are things you can learn, like there are certain jumps between notes that the ear likes, chords that sound happy or sad, but once you learn those rules you just keep breaking them anyway. That’s what makes the ears prick up.”

She also sailed on tall ships for fun, and taught herself the acoustic guitar on one long teenage voyage. She cut short a journey by sea from Canada to Japan when she reached Hawaii, after finding out that she’d got into music college. Initially she was writing folky songs, and also dabbled in rock, jazz, a covers group and even a death-metal band. Her intention was to be a pop songwriter for others, and she started getting invitations to songwriting “camps” organised by record companies, where established and newcomer writers are pushed together with producers to brainstorm the latest chart toppers. She says that one, possibly two, of her songs have been recorded by Rihanna but she won’t know if they’ve made it to her next album until it’s announced.

Meanwhile, she had been introduced to a Berklee graduate, producer Rami Samir Afuni, and started travelling to New York to make her own music with him. There she discovered the fertile club scene. “Rami is a creative genius. The first time I heard his music, I thought, ‘This is the guy.’ I would skip class to go and write with him.”

Now their first song’s hit status is creating demand for her high-energy show all over the world. There’s still time for her current passion, the Brazilian martial art capoeira, however. Her New York instructor trains her via Skype now that she’s here. She has been given a capoeira name, which is something of an honour. It’s Emilia, after a redheaded Brazilian cartoon character, though her stage name, with the “z” that she added when she was 12, is a little cooler.

Capoeira has strong connections with music and dance, and she says all that sailing helps with her pop career too. “There’s a community that forms on a boat that operates so in sync when it’s right,” she says. “You really learn how to work with people and adapt to a lifestyle that actually is very similar to the touring life.”

So she’s fully trained and ready for more hits to come. And if pop doesn’t work out, there’s always opera or boat design to fall back on. It’s good to have options, and this high achiever with the high hair has plenty.

Kiesza plays today at Lovebox, Victoria Park, E9 (0844 844 0444,; her new single, Giant in My Heart (Virgin EMI) is out on August 10.