Kiesza on the car crash that nearly killed her: “I thought I might never come back to music”

A brain injury stalled the electro-pop star's career. Now she's back with new album 'Crave', plus the determination that helped her to make it

If you pop Kiesza’s name into Google, the autogenerated searches include ‘Is Kiesza still alive?’ and ‘What happened to Kiesza?’. The answers are: yes, she’s back with a brilliant new album; and, well, it’s a long story.

The electropop star – aka US-based Canadian Kiesa Rae Ellestad – topped the UK charts with her kinetic debut hit ‘Hideaway’ back in 2014. It’s one-take video and attendant album ‘Sound Of A Woman’ showcased dancing and songwriting prowess that made Kiesza one of the decade’s most promising stars. It captured the attention of Madonna, who in 2014 shared a social media clip of herself to dancing to the hit single.

31-year-old Keisza will release her ’80s pop-inspired second record, ‘Crave’, on Friday (August 14). She had planned to record album two shortly after ‘Sound Of A Woman’, before ascending to pop’s big leagues. Then, in 2017, a serious car accident and resultant brain injury left her unable to move, sing or perform. In fact, she was unable to do anything at all, hobbled by crippling headaches and chronic pain and forced into isolation for months on end. She likens the pain to water torture, except “if you can imagine that every water drop hurts, and it won’t ever subside. It’s like having like a 20-out-of-10 headache every day”.

Her brain injury also caused personality changes (“I’m much calmer now,” she says) and hallucinations. “I’ve literally had sensations where I felt like parts of my arm were on fire, and I’d just have to wait it out,” she explains. “I’d see purple orbs; blobs that would just float around. And what was crazy is they weren’t random – there was a structure to them. It felt like I’d removed a firewall in my brain and I was seeing everything I couldn’t see before.”

Kiesza has always been made of tough stuff. After an outdoorsy childhood in Calgary, California, she joined the Navy and later worked as a sailing instructor. It was on ships that she honed her craft as a performer, whether idly singing to herself while “polishing guns and boots” or singing lullabies to send fellow crew members off to sleep. Her Damascene conversion to a music career happened on the seven seas. “I was on a tall ship sailing to Hawaii with the intention of extending and going to Japan, you know, as a sailor,” she says. “But I gave up on that, because I had just started writing. I sent a demo to a music college and got accepted. It felt like a calling.”

Success came more quickly than she expected thanks to the infectious ‘Hideaway’. “It’s funny, because I had a gut feeling when I wrote ‘Hideaway’,” she says. “Someone said, ‘Oh, I’d love to pitch this to Mariah Carey’ – and that’s a dream – but I said no. I knew it had to be me; it was meant to be me. I just followed that feeling.”

If the first era of Kiesza’s pop career was an adventure, her recovery has been her life’s hardest work, taking her coast to coast in the USA and giving her pause for introspection, understanding and determination. And, it has to be said, embracing some interesting therapies. At one point in her recovery, when Kiesza was living in LA hippie mecca Topanga Canyon in order to be close to her cousin, she employed the services of a spirit animal healer, who spoke to a horse spirit in Kiesza’s head, a frog spirit in her foot and a zebra spirit in her back. The latter apparently identified a blockage in Kiesza’s spine, which was later confirmed and corrected by a chiropractor.

“And she prescribed me to listen to saxophone music, which is interesting,” says Kiesza. Interesting enough to put them on the new album? “I thought about it,” she says.

The artist admits she was forced to face the reality that she may never perform again. “It took about six months for me to get to a point where I allowed myself to believe that I might not ever come back to a music career,” she says now. “My whole identity was wrapped around music.”

Thanks to the encouragement of collaborator and friend Chris Malinchak – an artist who had a UK Number 2 hit with 2012’s ‘So Good To Me’ – plus plenty of grit of her own, Kiesza managed to push through the pain. Not only did she write new music, she also played low-key gigs too, using the only instrument that didn’t give her a headache – the ukulele. Playing the miniature instrument reflected itself in the music she was making. “No matter how sad a song you sing, if you play it on a ukulele it still feels happy,” she notes.

Credit: press

Chris’s bedside manner was to give Kiesza as much time as she needed, while being ready to capture inspiration when it struck. “Chris had some experience with people who had had brain injuries from his past,” Kiesza says. “He and his mom made a room in their house for me, and brought me to New York. Basically, I would sleep for endless hours, and if there were even 10 minutes where I had an idea, he’d help me get it out as fast as I could. It would wipe me out for another five days. He would bring me bone broth, cook food and care for me. I have never experienced friendship like that.”

Recovery is still very much a work-in-progress (”I’m still actually trying to get back to a point where I can read properly,” she says) but if putting out an album at all is a major achievement for someone who’s faced trials like she has, putting out an album as good as ‘Crave’ is practically a miracle. And having learned of her story you’d be surprised to hear how upbeat – and dancefloor-ready – her new music is.

“It definitely is an ode to that ‘80s vibe that a few people are starting to do,” she says. “But I’ll just say that a couple of tunes I wrote during the ‘Hideaway’ era – so I was definitely ahead of my time!”

The experience has left her well equipped to vocalise the feelings we’re all having in 2020 – loss, isolation, frustration and anxiety. “What I learned the most about human nature from my time in isolation myself is that we really don’t like to be out of control,” she says. “And I think the hardest part for a lot of us right now is that we’re out of control of the situation, and that’s scary.”

But, she says, there is a silver lining – personal growth. “As we’re running around outside, we’re not paying attention to what’s going on within us. And when we’re locked up in our homes, we can’t distract ourselves, so all of this starts coming up to the surface. If you do actually kind of take these feelings head on, you grow exponentially.”

‘Crave’ is released via Zebra Spirit Tribe on Friday (August 14)