25 year-old Kiesza has packed an awful lot into her quarter century here on planet Earth. This multi-instrumentalist songwriting singer and one-time ballerina taught herself guitar perched at the top of a mast whilst sailing from Canada to Hawaii, turned down the opportunity to be a sniper for the Canadian army in favour of music school and counts capoeira and karting as two of her hobbies. Earlier this year, she wrote a song called Hideaway, played by everyone from Mistajam and Annie Mac to DJ Cameo and Zane Lowe. Seems like the redhead has a huge hit on her hands with a single that looks set to storm the charts next week...
Lets get straight to the action. How old were you when you joined the Navy?
I was 16 or 17. I was still in high school so I'd work the whole summer and then do part time. I’d go to class and then a couple of times a week I’d leave school and go and work for the Navy. I was a naval communicator, so I’d decode, including morse code. I was really good at it at the time. They would shine a light at me and I could interpret the light really fast.
Why did you join up? In the name of patriotism?
No, not at all, although I love Canada. My brother signed up first and I really loved the challenge. I’ve been a thrill-seeker since I was a kid so the idea of boot camp was really exciting to me; it’s one of the biggest challenges out there. It was really tough.
Rundown the ‘highlights’ of boot camp. I’m guessing this isn’t X-Factor style camp where you sing a few songs for heavily botoxed pop stars?
There’s so many obstacles. They put you in a gas chamber and gas you, you have to climb a 13-foot wall with no pegs. There’s a really long rope over a lake that’s really loose and you have to try and climb across. You have to walk 14k in blazing sun with 70, 80lbs on your back, one water bottle, in formation, marching. Some people passed out. They teach you how to sneak up on people in the grass and different ways of taking them down and ways to be silent while you’re sneaking up. There was a really cool, beautiful forest that they trained us in, and they had us make these tiny little tents and at the night time they would set off grenades and fire blanks at us to simulate war. When you’re asleep and someone starts blowing stuff up, it feels pretty weird. You have to snap into reality really fast and follow procedure.
And then you were nearly a sniper, right?
I guess the story goes that I did some very accurate shooting my first time holding a rifle. They taught us the basics; how to point, cock the weapon and so on. Then they had us fire different shots at the target, which was really far away; 100/200m. They took the people that had accurate shots and then they narrowed us down and had a competition. After everyone had shot, we were taking down the targets and I heard my name being called out. I thought I was in trouble, but I’d been selected to join a new competition taking place in the next field. I was up against police officers and hunters – I’d never shot a weapon before that day. This is where I think mind over matter comes into play. There was this movie at the time that I really liked, Enemy At The Gates, about two snipers so I just pretended to be one of the characters. We took 15 shots and I think I got them all into the space of like an inch; very small. I had no idea, but as we were graduating they called out my name and the chief said it was the best shot he’d ever seen. Later, some people from the army approached me and suggested I could go on sniper training. It was never official. They’ve never allowed a female to be a sniper in Canada before so the question is, would they have allowed it?
Why didn’t you pursue it?
Shooting at a target is fun but when it comes to a person, there’s no way I could have pulled the trigger. They kept my training up in a simulator, with real weapons but with laser sensors and it’s like a real life video game, with helicopters and moving targets stuff. That’s when I realised they were preparing me for real life situations. The training is great but I’m too soft of heart. If you have a command to shoot a person a mile away who can’t even see you, you don’t even know who that person is or why you’re shooting them… no way. I could never kill a person.
And why the Navy and not the Army?
I love sailing. Before the Navy, I’d sail on this dam, Glenmore Dam, near my home. I started on smaller vessels and then went up to taller ships and ended up sailing to Hawaii from Canada.
Course you did.
I fell in love with the ships and ended up volunteering to do anything; crew, chef. I would stand on the masts for hours, totally happy just to be near the boats. You’re in a very confined space with a lot of people so you never really have your own time, but there’s fun ways to zone out; I used to climb up the mast and that’s where I taught myself guitar. It’s a weird feeling; like you’re riding a giant horse when you get up to the top; the boat is literally galloping over these waves. Anyway, every few years, they go on a trip to Japan and back. I made it as far as Hawaii before I found out that I had been accepted to music school so I had to decide what I wanted to do. That was a tough decision but music won out.
So how did a classically trained Canadian singer find out about house music and end up writing a song like Hideaway?
I think it was ingrained in me from a child because my mum was into all that stuff. She was a hardcore Michael Jackson fan but then she got into 90s dance music. The moment that Romi, the producer I work with, started playing the beat for Hideaway I jumped on the mic and it all came out. It just felt so natural.
It’s been played on like every radio station, it’s been No.1 on Shazam for 4million weeks. Why does everyone love it so much?
I don’t know. I went though about two years as a songwriter, writing for other people. Usually you’re writing pop music, from indie to bubblegum to folk even - I wanted my own project too. So I tried different things but I never stumbled on something that felt genuine. The moment that I wrote Hideaway it was so me, it connected with who I was. So maybe that’s what people like; it’s genuine and it’s different too. If you break it down, it’s not a classic structure. It has pop elements, it has underground elements, it’s this hybrid thing.
What’s next musically?
I have a full album nearly, I write constantly. I have follow-up songs that are similar to Hideaway but then I want to progress into slower, breakbeat stuff. I want to keep it soulful but also pay tribute to my favourite music from the 90s.
Given what you’ve already done in 25 years, what else is left for you to do? Hideaway looks like it will be a hit next week, so what’s next?
I hope to inspire people to take more risks and to do things they didn’t think they could have done otherwise. A lot of the things I’ve done, at the time, they didn’t seem possible. It’s about taking a chance on yourself and giving yourself no limits. Staying educated is really important, staying up to date. I’m reading constantly. I get excited about things and want to learn more and I think that’s really important in life. Keep learning.
Hideaway is out on now.
Big thanks to Don at the Bay Ridge Rod & Gun Club, Brooklyn, New York