In the early weeks of 2014, Kiesa Ellestad left her adopted hometown of New York City for the United Kingdom. Unaware and unsure of when or if she’d return, she was more than a bit apprehensive to leave the city where she says she “found her sound.”
“Leaving New York was a huge decision,” the singer, who performs as Kiesza, says, looking back at a bold move across the pond last January. She headed overseas with the hopes that in “six months or a year” she could infiltrate the European dance music scene with her new, house-music-influenced pop slammer “Hideaway.” It took four days. “Everything just happened so quickly!” she says, still baffled by the way her song instantly popped up on U.K. radio “and just exploded,” eventually making its way to the States, where it became a staple on pop radio and entered the Billboard Hot 100. “All of a sudden people wanted to come to shows,” the 26-year-old says. “It was really hard to keep up with the song!”
Even now, over one year later, the Canadian-born singer is still catching her breath: She’s in the midst of wrapping up a four-month headline tour with Betty Who; it came on the heels of her successful debut album, Sound of a Woman, which topped the Billboard dance charts upon its release last October. When Kiesza performs for a sold-out crowd at New York’s Irving Plaza on May 4, things will truly come full circle. “It’s really incredible,” she says of returning to the Big Apple. “New York is the place where I started playing the nightclubs, and it’s where I would go out to these underground dance house nights. I got into all the whole underground scene here. To me it’s overwhelming in the best way possible.”
Before “Hideaway,” Kiesza had figured her career would consist of writing music for other artists. “I loved writing for different genres of music,” she explains, “so I felt like maybe I was meant to be a writer, because I was just jumping all over the place.” But soon she became a fixture in New York’s underground dance scene, immersing herself in deep house, attending DJ Francois K’s Body & Soul parties, and linking up with her eventual producer Rami Samir Afuni. “I realized I didn’t want to give this song away,” she says of the Nineties-influenced “Hideaway.” “That song, for some reason, I couldn’t hear anyone else singing it. I had to take a big risk to keep the song, considering I had no fan base and no following [at the time].”
It’s safe to say taking such a risk paid off in a major way: In conjunction with the song exploding on the airwaves, the music video for “Hideaway,” shot in Brooklyn and featuring Kiesza and a slew of backup dancers performing a complex, choreographed routine in a single shot, quickly went viral. (To date it has been viewed more than 223 million times.) “I was completely shocked,” she says of the video’s massive success. “Going off of my other side projects, I just figured it would be for my Facebook friends. I certainly didn’t foresee this accumulated viral growth happening.”
On the next page: “When I write for other people it makes me a stronger writer for myself.”
[Kiesza attributes the success of “Hideaway” to the dance music scene being on the precipice of change at the exact moment she arrived.
“That deep house sound was already relevant again,” she offers. “It was already resurging across Europe and especially in the U.K. My sound was a little bit more progressive, a little bit more of the modern version of the old Chicago house music.”
Despite her massive success, Kiesza is already looking ahead: When her tour wraps next week, she’ll have a brief respite before hitting the festival circuit with stops at Sasquatch! and Governors Ball. She’s hoping to use some of that time to begin work on her next album.
“I’m excited to start thinking and jotting down a lot of ideas and get started on the second album,” she says. “I have tons of ideas to bring to the studio. I want to just see if they work.” She’s also planning to continue writing for other artists; she recently penned the Jennifer Lopez power ballad “Feel the Light,” alongside super-producer Stargate, for the Home soundtrack.
“When you write for other people, it forces you to think differently and it forces you to explore,” she says. “And when I write for other people it makes me a stronger writer for myself. When you finish your album, and you’ve heard your own songs so many times, you just want to write something different. It wouldn’t make sense for me to sing a country song, so I’m more than happy to write country for other artists.” She laughs. “Honestly, I just like to change it up and keep it fresh.”
Kiesza performs at Irving Plaza May 4. Tickets are sold out but can be found on the secondary market.