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For as long as she can remember, Calgary-born singer-songwriter Kiesza has danced.
She danced her way through the endearingly DIY video for her 2014 breakout hit, Hideaway, which went viral and turned her into an overnight sensation. She danced at Wembley Stadium as part of the Summertime Ball. She danced for David Letterman, Jimmy Kimmel and Conan O’Brien. She danced with Ellen DeGeneres. Even before she was a professional singer, she danced as part of Calgary’s Young Canadians and studied ballet.
For most of her career, her solo concerts tested her endurance night after night. It was part of her DNA as a performer.
“I danced my entire show, an hour-and-a-half straight,” says Kiesza, in an interview with Postmedia from her home in Toronto. “It was almost to the point where people thought I was insane because I was dancing so much. It was like ‘When do you breathe?’ “
That all changed in 2017 after the Uber she was in was T-boned by a cab running a red light in Toronto. The brain injury she suffered put a sudden halt to a music career that, up until that point, had been accelerating at full speed. She endured years of painful recovery. She lost her balance, she couldn’t digest food properly. She went to California to work with a chiropractor and experimented with alternative treatments such as light therapy.
While she cautiously returned to performing in 2020, her performances were more low-key, without the dancing and elaborate choreography of old.
Which makes her upcoming free concert on Aug. 30 at Olympic Plaza all the more special. For the first time since 2017, Kiesza will be flanked by two backup dancers and will make choreographed dance a part of her show.
“This is my welcome back to dancing, really,” she says. “I was definitely nervous and getting stressed out and I did have one or two issues with my head getting inflamed in the process but I did manage to get through it and learn the choreography. It won’t be perfect, but it’s a great step in the right direction towards taking back my place as a dancing performer.”
The performance is part of Arts Commons’ Party in the Plaza, a free concert that will also include rapper Kardinal Offishall and a showcase of local hip-hop stars.
Kiesza has spent a few years getting her performance legs back. In July, she was called on stage to join Nelly Furtado at the Cowboys Stampede Tent for a run through All Good Things (Come to an End). Two days later, she joined her friend Deadmau5 at the Badlands Music Festival to sing their 2020 song Bridged by a Lightwave.
But Wednesday’s homecoming concert will be a special occasion for the singer, an hour-long set that will not only feature choreographed dance but acoustic performances, songs that she has released but never performed live before, fan favourites and the debut of an unreleased song from her upcoming album.
“You get to see the whole spectrum of Kiesza,” she says with a laugh.
The singer has not fully recovered. Brain injuries are tricky and the lingering effects can be hard to predict. She still suffers from painful headaches and occasionally gets blind spots in her vision when performing. But considering there was a time when she thought her performing days were over, this return seems nothing short of miraculous.
“Some aspects of a brain injury are permanent and some aren’t,” she says. “It takes years for a brain to heal and brains are really slow and bad at healing itself. I don’t know which things are permanent and which things I deal with aren’t. It takes time to find out. My balance, which was really bad at first, is coming back. It’s come back quite a lot. Other things I dealt with, I still deal with.”
“I think a lot of people who go through what I did, they are not in the same career as I am,” she adds. “Everything to do with electronic and dance music is bad for an injured brain: loud music, bright lights, crowds, over-stimulation, the physical aspect.”
While she has focused on recovery, that doesn’t mean she has been idle when it comes to music in the past three years. In 2020, she released Crave as the follow-up to her 2014 Juno-winning and platinum-selling debut Sound of a Woman. In 2022, she put out Tommy, a four-song EP she recorded with her friend Tommy Tyspser, who died suddenly in 2019. Earlier this year, she spent five months in Norway where she taught performance at a school that her friends established. Kiesza designed her own technique for the students, which involves using “the healing of trauma as a means of accessing their connections to themselves, to the audience, overcoming stage fright.”
“I spent six years studying trauma full time to help myself heal from physical trauma, from serious pain, some psychological trauma that came with it and post-traumatic stress disorder,” she says. “Having the perspective of being such a strong performer before all the trauma, I was able to feel the difference and feel when my own trauma was being locked up. It helped me identify and see it (in students.) It’s like an X-ray through their ego. I can see their body language and see what’s authentic and what isn’t. And I’m learning. I’m stumbling into new waters and it’s something I really believe everyone has access to in themselves. My goal with the students is to teach them how to self-grow and self-heal.”
Since she has been back in Toronto, she has been working on tracks for a new record with U.K.-born producer Sugar Jesus. Kiesza is tight-lipped about certain aspects of the project, such as the title and number of tracks. But she plans to start rolling out singles in the fall and has already shot five accompanying videos. She plans to make videos for all of the songs, which will turn into a film. While Kiesza has always operated in the dance-pop world, she says this album will offer a much more eclectic blend of genres. She plans to embark on a solo tour in 2024.
“There is a whole side of me that writes folk music,” she says. “I have hundreds and hundreds if not thousands of songs in my voice memos and Dropbox that I write for myself. I write them like journal entries, I never put them out. But when I play those for people, a lot of people tell me that’s their favourite music that I write and they ask me to put it out. I was like ‘Well, dance and pop is my genre.’ But this time I’ve mixed all of it together. I’m mixing folk with my dance music. So it’s really an eclectic blend of house, club, folk and even some lilting country and Americana and really heavy dance drops. It’s storytelling on the dance floor. There’s a lot of emotion in these songs.”
“I feel like I’ve nailed a sound that encompasses not just a sliver of myself, but a whole section of who I am and brought it all together in a real seamless way. I feel like more of me is reflected in this upcoming music than has been in the past,” she adds.
Arts Commons presents Party in the Plaza with Kardinal Offishall and Kiesza on Aug. 30. Site opens at 6 p.m. Visit artscommons.ca.