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Out of the Darkness: Calgary's Kiesza returns after traumatic brain injury, but don't call it a comeback

Calgary expat Kiesza has released her sophomore record, Crave, after spending years recovering from a traumatic brain injury.
Calgary expat Kiesza has released her sophomore record, Crave, after spending years recovering from a traumatic brain injury.

Kiesza doesn’t see her recent return to music as a comeback.

After all, the term comeback usually implies an artist who has re-emerged after a period of career doldrums. Kiesza did not fade away. The Calgary-born singer-songwriter’s abrupt exit from the spotlight in 2017 was even quicker than her ascent. After a whirlwind entry into the music scene, Kiesza simply seemed to disappear for a few years.

Powered by the smash 2014 hit song and video, Hideaway, the artist born Kiesa Rae Ellestad had spent a few years touring the globe before deciding to take a break to write her sophomore record. In the summer of 2017, she was riding in the back of an Uber in her adopted hometown of Toronto when it was T-boned by a taxicab running a red light. Everything changed. She spent two years in the dark, both figuratively and often literally, not knowing if she would ever perform again.

“That derailed all of my momentum as an artist,” says Kiesza, in an interview with Postmedia from California where she is undergoing therapy as part of her recovery process. “I was in this car crash and sustained a really, really bad, traumatic brain injury which took me six months to accept. I had to go through all the emotions of not knowing if I’d ever get back to my career. I had actually prepared myself to not come back as an artist and musician. Because of my head injury, there were a lot of things like losing my balance, my body’s ability to digest food was really, really messed up. I didn’t know if I’d be able to dance again, because you need balance to dance. I’ve really been pushing my way back to the stage.”

Kiesza will release Crave, her long-awaited sophomore record, on Aug. 14. It’s nearly three years later than when she planned on releasing a followup to her 2014 Juno-winning, platinum-selling debut, Sound of A Woman. She was in denial for the first six months after the accident, refusing to accept that her career was in jeopardy. Finally, Kiesza began a long and frustrating road to recovery, which included going to California to work with a chiropractor and experiments with alternative approaches that involved oxygen and light therapy. She made a cautious return to the spotlight in 2019 with the single Sweet Love and began playing low-key solo shows. A tour was planned, albeit as a support act with a half-hour set that relied less on Kiesza’s trademark dance moves. Then, the pandemic hit. In a strange way, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise for the artist.

“It has given the time and space to really work on myself,” says Kiesza. “It’s given me the space for a lot of trial and error, which is very helpful when you are recovering. It’s better that it happens off-stage than on-stage.”

Crave, which Kiesza will release independently on her own Zebra Spirit Tribe imprint, represents a leap forward for the artist. As with many artists who make a big splash right out of the gate, Kiesza capitalized on the success of Hideaway by signing with Island Records, which is owned by the behemoth Universal Music Group. But as time passed, she realized it was not a good fit for her, particularly since label brass were pushing her to produce carbon copies of her breakout hit.

“Since Hideaway was such a viral song, the world digested it that way and I think they focused much more on the song than the artist,” she says. “Now I’m coming back with more depth, more artist-focused. People are going to get to know me a lot more, all these different sides of me.”

Despite the trauma leading up to recording the album, Kiesza wanted Crave to be “positive, upbeat and motivating,” which it certainly is. From the propulsive, empowering 1980s dance vibes of opener Run Renegade, to the celebratory techno-party blast of Dance with Your Best Friend and breezy pop perfection of the title track, it’s as if Kiesza is intent on leading the world out of the pandemic by dancing through her own darkness.

Prior to the crash, Kiesza spent some time working on her material in Norway. But the rest was recorded in Toronto, where she collaborated with artists such as Toronto rapper Shan Vincent de Paul and the electronic-punk duo Lick Drop, who Kiesza describes as her “young proteges.”

Kiesza’s own entry into the music business has been well-documented and, at least at the beginning, was miraculously smooth. After spending time in Calgary as a Young Canadian performer, ballerina and Canadian Naval reservist, she got her start as a folkie in Calgary with an auspicious 2006 debut performing live on Tom Cox’s CKUA radio program, Folk Routes. Two years later, she attended Boston’s prestigious Berklee School of Music before heading to New York City where she wrote songs for Rihanna and Kylie Minogue. In 2014, she stepped out from behind-the-scenes with Hideaway, which became a hit in Europe, Australia and North America thanks in part to a funky, single-shot DIY video her brother filmed in Brooklyn and uploaded to YouTube. Suddenly she found herself in the studio with Duran Duran, performing for David Letterman, Jimmy Kimmel, Conan O’Brien and Ellen Degeneres and appearing as part of the Summertime Ball at Wembley Stadium. In early 2015, she received four Juno nods, which was the same amount of nominations Leonard Cohen received that year. It was a whirlwind ride that left precious little time for career and artistic retrospection. If nothing else, the events of the past few years have forced her to move a little more cautiously.

“I don’t know if it’s a comeback,” Kiesza says about her return. “I’m approaching it in such a different way. I was a songwriter behind the scenes in the industry and I decided to put out a song and it went viral and suddenly I was this artist. I was a dancer all my life, so I put a show together really quickly and was touring the globe. I went from being a nobody busking on the street to playing Wembley Stadium six months later. That was very hard to process.”

Crave is out Aug. 14.

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020

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