Singing about her personal trauma, Kesha became a #MeToo heroine and an industry symbol. But with a new album on the way, she’s focused firmly on the present — and on ‘writing the fuck out of some pop songs.’
«Follow me!” says Kesha, her long, newly brunette tresses blowing in the wind.
She’s biking a few feet ahead of me, leading us through a residential stretch of Venice, Calif. Every so often, she calls out a direction, pointing to the “killer palm trees” on one street we turn down — a human GPS wearing a fuzzy cheetah-print backpack with a tail that wags as she pedals. Ten minutes later, we arrive at a surprisingly empty stretch of Venice Beach that she calls her “secret hideaway.”
We lock up our bikes — hers is the same turquoise cruiser that paparazzi have photographed her on since at least 2017 — and walk toward the ocean, settling down on a blanket and towels she has brought. “I always have a bathing suit and a passport — always,” she says. “You never know when you’re going to find yourself wanting to go to a different country or a body of water.” The latter is, apparently, often: After she finished her most recent tour, Kesha went swimming with whales off the coast of a small island in the middle of nowhere.
When she’s home and has a rare day off, though, she’s usually here. “I just do this, pray for animals and jump in,” she says. Kicking off her slides and settling down on the sand, the artist born Kesha Rose Sebert looks much like any beachgoer, the tiger head on her one-piece peeking out from under a red Hawaiian shirt. “This is the only place I usually don’t get paparazzi,” she says — and over the hours we spend on the beach, and even on our ride later to her favorite dive bar near the fishing pier, no one seems to recognize her. Thanks in part to her decision to dye her signature wild blond waves, she can go incognito, “happy and free — no anxiety.”
It’s a welcome and still unfamiliar feeling for Kesha, 32, who has spent the past decade in an often glaring spotlight. Her debut album, 2010’s Animal, established both her talent for churning out hits (it became Kesha’s first Billboard 200 No. 1, and she has earned 2.5 billion U.S. streams to date, according to Nielsen Music) and her brash wild-child image. As her bombastic pop bangers climbed the charts — she has scored 10 Billboard Hot 100 top 10s, including the No. 1s “We R Who We R,” “TikTok” and “Timber” — the media started to equate their lyrical content with Kesha herself, painting her as a perma-plastered party girl. “Men glorify going out, getting drunk and hooking up,” she says. “As a woman, I came out and did it, and I was like Satan’s little helper.”
By 2013, she had her own MTV show, Ke$ha: My Crazy Beautiful Life, directed by her older brother, Lagan. A year later, everything changed: On Oct. 14, 2014, Kesha filed a civil suit against Lukasz Gottwald — the mega-producer known as Dr. Luke with whom she had collaborated on her biggest hits — accusing him of abusing her physically, sexually, verbally and emotionally over a 10-year period. He, in turn, denied the accusations and sued her for more than $50 million, alleging defamation and breach of contract for failing to turn in recordings she owed him under her contract on his label, Kemosabe Records. (Kemosabe started out in 2011 as a joint venture with Sony Music Entertainment; though Sony won’t disclose specific financial details of that arrangement, major labels typically finance JVs and then, after expenses, split proceeds 50/50. SME now refers to Kemosabe, which in 2017 went dormant, as an imprint.)
It was only the beginning of what would become a lengthy, ugly legal battle. But in the crucible of that turmoil, Kesha experienced a creative transformation. Long before the explosion of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, artists like Taylor Swift and Kelly Clarkson expressed their support for her as part of #FreeKesha, an ongoing social media campaign aimed at getting her out of her contract. And then in 2017 — just months after news broke that Gottwald was no longer CEO at Kemosabe — she released Rainbow, an album of emotionally raw songs that showcased her stunning vocal range, no Animal-era Auto-Tune necessary. Though it still bore the Kemosabe imprint — and, at the time, a spokesman for Gottwald said it was “released with Dr. Luke’s approval” — Kesha says Rainbow was the first album on which she had full creative control, and it showed. The most poignant track, “Praying,” which chronicled how she overcame years of trauma, became an anthem for survivors of abuse and earned Kesha one of her first two Grammy Award nominations.
On Rainbow, a new Kesha emerged, and the industry embraced her. “I did the therapy,” she says on the beach today. And now, after this “huge purge of emotions,” she’s prepping her fourth album, due this December on Kemosabe/RCA, on which she revisits some of the big-pop sounds that launched her career. Largely co-written with her best friend and longtime collaborator, Wrabel (they met through Lagan when Kesha left rehab in 2014 after receiving treatment for an eating disorder — after which she also dropped the dollar sign from her name), as well as her songwriter mom, Pebe; Justin Tranter, Tayla Parx, Nate Ruess, and Imagine Dragons’ Dan Reynolds; with production from Jeff Bhasker and Ryan Lewis, “it’s the happiness that I began my career with,” says Kesha. “But it feels more earned and healthier than ever.”
In going from good-time pop star to symbol for an industry — and a movement — Kesha made the kind of personal, and creative, pivot that few artists manage to accomplish intact. Remaining an artist on her own terms will be a different kind of challenge entirely, especially when a handful of tracks from her new album can’t help but call to mind the now-fraught sounds of her time working with Gottwald.
And with the trial date for his defamation and breach-of-contract suit not yet confirmed, a great deal of uncertainty still hangs over Kesha’s future. A jury will decide whether she is liable, and if so, how much she might owe Gottwald in damages for, as he sees it, irrevocably hurting his career.
“There are so many what-ifs, and quite honestly, I’m not allowed to talk about it,” says Kesha. “And I’m really not used to not being an open book about everything — but I do have to defer to my lawyers on this one, and they’re just like, ‘Focus on the music, focus on your happiness and mental health, and we’ll deal with this.’ Doing that has been greatly helpful.”
And right now, she says, “writing the fuck out of some pop songs” is precisely what she needs to stay focused on the present. “I dug through the emotional wreckage, and now…” She trails off, perhaps momentarily caught in the past. “I can go back to talking a little bit of shit. I really wanted to put a solid footprint back into pop music, like, ‘I can do this, and I can do this on my own.’ I don’t know if this is my last pop record, but I want to have one where I go out with a bang.”
The day before Kesha met with Reynolds at Los Angeles’ Village Studios, she planned to write a slow song with him. But when she told Lagan, he suggested something totally different: something “big and epic.” (This was the Imagine Dragons guy, after all.)
She took his advice and ended up writing one of the album’s most epically IDGAF pop-rock anthems — with lyrics that feel like a pointed rebuke of the world’s perception of her both before and after the Gottwald legal suits: “We get it that you’ve been through a lot of shit, but life’s a bitch, so come and shake your tits and fuck it/You’re the party girl, you’re the tragedy, but the funny thing is, I’m fucking everything.” (While the album goes through final mixing, Kesha and her team cannot disclose song titles.)
“She’s not taking the high road, which is kind of the point,” says Lagan. “That’s originally what people really noticed about her, and I felt like her fans wanted that from her right now, especially when the world is so fucked up.” Or, as Kesha more succinctly puts it: “I got my balls back, and they’re bigger than ever.”
At first, Kesha was hesitant to return to her early sound — one reminiscent of the earwormy hits Gottwald had crafted alongside Max Martin for the likes of Clarkson and P!nk by the time he heard Kesha’s demo. In 2005, she signed with Gottwald’s production company, Kasz Money, and his publishing company, Prescription Songs. He landed her a feature on Flo Rida’s “Right Round,” a Hot 100 No. 1, and major labels came knocking. By 2009, she had signed a recording contract with RCA; in 2011, when Gottwald founded Kemosabe, she joined the Sony imprint.
Kesha says that her earlier hits’ connection to that time in her life hasn’t tainted them for her. “When I play some of the poppier songs, people lose their shit, and those songs are my babies too,” she says. “It brings me so much joy to see people boogie and have the best time with their friends, and I shouldn’t take that away from myself.” But songs like “Die Young” in particular — as she has claimed in a since-deleted tweet — she felt forced to record and include on her albums, often in place of ones she felt better aligned with her own vision.
Over the course of making the new album, Kesha says, she proved to herself that she could find a balance between her early style and her more recent, introspective inclinations. “Emotions are forever,” she says. “Part of this album is resurrecting the fact that you can be a fucking mess in your head one day, and then you can also be glittered-up and have the best night of your life.”
Speaking of which: Kesha may have matured beyond her early brush-my-teeth-with-a-bottle-of-Jack vibe, but she’s not entirely tamed. Since finishing the Rainbow tour, she has caught bucket-list shows by Neil Young and Willie Nelson (she calls both the “real deal”) and enjoyed the occasional night out. “They are more few and far between than they were, let’s say, at 21 years old,” she admits. “But I’m not dead.”
One night in particular, Kesha and her crew went to see Elton John’s farewell tour in Los Angeles. The experience inspired a song with a piano intro that morphs into a bass-thumping anthem for a girls’ night. “I, of course, stand for so many things,” says Kesha. “But sometimes you just want to escape into a happy motherfucking song. It’s like a three-minute vacation, and I want to give that to people because I know I need that sometimes. Every time I’m sad, I put on [Carly Rae Jepsen’s] ‘Call Me Maybe.’ Every single time.” Lately, she has been listening to “positive, badass women” like Cardi B, Lizzo, Ariana Grande and Swift, who in 2016 donated $250,000 to help Kesha with her legal fees. (The two remain close friends.) “She has amazing integrity,” says Kesha of Swift.
RCA president of A&R Keith Naftaly has worked with Kesha for her entire career, and he believes that she can easily return to the same pop stratosphere that these women currently rule. “Even in a hip-hop-dominated landscape, Kesha will strike a chord with a contemporary global pop audience because her lyrics are right on time,” he says, pointing to how honest and specific storytelling like hers has been crucial to the success of RCA artists like Khalid, SZA and H.E.R.Plus, notes Naftaly, Kesha’s audience is still incredibly young.
“When ‘Tik Tok’ and ‘Your Love Is My Drug’ and ‘Take It Off’ came out, her audience was like, 9,” he says. “So now, a lot of her die-hard fans are in their early 20s, while a lot of her peers and their audiences have shifted into more of an adult-contemporary context.” Kesha, for her part, admits that she’s “not a 21-year-old bitch anymore, [but] I can still go onstage in assless chaps because I want to. And maybe one day, when everything is sagging and I don’t want to wear assless chaps anymore, I can sit on a stool and play country music.”
This article was originally published by: Billboard