The Big Read – Kesha: “I made this record because it made my heart happy”

After a challenging few years away from music – and her astonishing return with 'Rainbow' – pop's resident party animal is making a beeline for happiness, by doing everything on her own terms and not worrying about the haters. El Hunt met her in London to talk about new album ‘High Road’ and making guilty pleasures pop minus the guilt. Pictures: Jenn Five

“Is it OK if I just quickly faceplant, right here?” Kesha suddenly enquiries as her photoshoot with NME draws to a close. Um, yeah… sure? “Not for any particular reason,” she adds, sensing confusion. “I just feel like it.” She crumples to the ground and flops face-down onto the floral creation we’ve been using as a backdrop today, rapidly star jumping as if creating a flowery snow angel. Clearly, Kesha is not somebody who suffers from hayfever.

Once upright, the singer waltzes off and reappears in comfier attire: a silk dressing gown and some purple fluffy slippers. We’ve met today in an apartment in a swanky bit of West London, and now she’s ditched what she aptly describes as her “plastic tablecloth” outfit, Kesha is keen to kick back. “Sorry, my voice is going,” she says, hopping into the bed. Sitting nearby in a chair, notes in hand, the whole set-up feels akin to interviewing my nan – if my nan was a pop star covered in jangly gold bangles. “I’ve gotten older,” she tells me, “and I don’t give a fuck.” Incidentally, this is more or less the headspace in which Kesha created her new album ‘High Road’.

When Kesha first broke out just over a decade ago, she was immediately branded pop’s resident party girl. Gleefully sticking a middle finger up to dental hygienists everywhere, her debut single ‘Tik Tok’ used Jack Daniels as mouthwash and got tipsy on wonky Auto-Tune. Overblown and gloriously trashy, the artist – who used to go by Ke$ha, complete with dollar sign – quickly outraged the authentic music brigade with her glitter-soaked antics, while certain joyless quarters branded her output as flash-in-the-pan chart fodder.

Over 10 years later and ‘High Road’ fights against those various attempts to typecast her. “You’re the party girl,” she sings on ‘My Own Dance’. “You’re the tragedy”. These days Kesha is making gaudy, overblown guilty pleasures minus the guilt. “I went, ‘fuck it. I love pop music, and I’m not going to hide’,” she beams. And despite well-documented events of the last six years, she isn’t willing to be reduced to a flag-bearer for tragedy.

After releasing her second album ‘Warrior’ in 2012, Kesha appeared on ‘Timber’ with Pitbull – and then stopped releasing music altogether. The following year she filed a lawsuit against Dr Luke (real name Lukasz Gottwald) who signed Kesha to his Sony offshoot Kemosabe, and executive-produced her first two albums. The suit claims that he sexually, physically and emotionally abused her over 10 years – “to the point where Ms. Sebert [Kesha] nearly lost her life,” it reads. Meanwhile, Dr Luke countersued for defamation, and Kesha’s request to leave her recording contract early was later denied. Proceedings are still ongoing, and Kesha isn’t able to say much about the case today.

Countless other women spoke out strongly in support of Kesha in the wake of the lawsuit and her subsequent return to music. In one such display of solidarity, Adele dedicated her Brit Award to the artist. Taylor Swift donated $250,000 to help support the musician financially with legal costs. Lady Gaga, Kelly Clarkson, Demi Lovato, Lorde and Grimes are also among the other artists who have been vocally supportive.

That support meant a great deal to Kesha. “As a woman in music it made me feel more comfortable that I had been honest about my life and what had gone on – what is going on – in my life,” she says quietly, choosing her words carefully. “I feel like a lot of times when you’re in entertainment, your job is to just act like everything’s perfect all the time,” she continues. “Sometimes behind the scenes it’s not. That’s one of the main driving forces in my life now. You have no idea what people are going through. It made me want to open my heart and be kind to everyone else, after receiving that kindness.”

Sometimes we forget that pop stars also are real people – there’s a tendency to think of superstars as untouchable figures that float effortlessly through the world, leaving a trail of gold-dust in their wake. “Yeah,” Kesha agrees. “I’m about to lose my voice, y’know?!” she exclaims croakily, as if to emphasise the lack of glamour.

“I feel like the luckiest person in the world getting to do what I do. My job is not a job. It’s my life,” she says. “But it was nice to be received and heard with kindness. For a lot of the first two records I put out, I was just used to people talking shit,” she says. “That was my normal standard: people being negative and nasty towards me. This made me want to open my heart up.”

At first she was unsure what was wanted from her this time around. “I wasn’t sure what people expected from me. I didn’t know what I expected from myself,” she says. “I was a little bit confused. I thought maybe the world would want ‘Rainbow’ round two, but I just wasn’t in the same headspace at all. I felt like that would be disingenuous.”

“The last record was very intense, and had a very deeply therapeutic subject matter,” she adds. ‘Rainbow’ was Kesha’s first release following the legal case and was heavy with subtext. “And we both know all the truth I could tell,” she sings on that record’s astonishing centrepiece ‘Praying’. “I’ll just say this is ‘I wish you farewell’.”

“And now,” she smiles, “I just wanna beeline for happiness. My fans have stood by me through so much, and now I want to give them a record that they’re just going to fucking love.”

Which leads us back to ‘High Road’. “With an album title like ‘High Road’ people might think ‘oh, she must be talking about how she always takes the high road’,” Kesha says. “Nah,” she dismisses. “It’s really about how things used to bother me… if I came into contact with someone who’s talking shit, or being negative or hateful – I would get so caught up in that,” she says.

And how about now? “Oh, now? Now I just go smoke a joint and keep talking shit. I’m gonna go and live my life!”

There’s a song on ‘High Road’ called ‘Potato Song (‘Cause I Want To)’. It’s very playful; you sing about leaving drama behind and moving to a remote island in order to grow potatoes. Is it a mission statement for where you’re at now?

“It’s funny, the potato song has existed in the world for a couple of years. I wrote it just as I was finishing ‘Rainbow’. Nobody really understood why it was important to me. ‘‘Cause I want to’ – that’s the answer to most things in life. Why should you do whatever you’re doing? ‘Cause you want to do it. It’s my mission statement in a way. I didn’t know what ‘High Road’ should be, so I made it exactly how I wanted it to be. I’m gonna go and ride a pony around naked, until it’s time to eat candy. That song is my perfect world.”

Brian Wilson features on ‘High Road’. How did that collaboration come about?

“Obviously I’m a Beach Boys fan. I love Brian Wilson. I grew up studying his harmonies, the melodies, instrumentation, lyrics, production – just every part of it. Everything he does is brilliant, and so far ahead of its time. I’m a big fan of just asking, and I’m fine if someone says no, but I figure that you’ll never get to do things unless you try. So I made a list of my dream collaborators, and Brian Wilson was up the top. I asked, and he responded curiously. I sent him a couple of songs, and he picked ‘Resentment’. I held my breath until I heard it had happened. He was on tour, and then he sent it back to me with him doing his Brian Wilson thing. I also collaborated with Sturgill Simpson on that track. That song’s really special to me for that reason. ‘Pet Sounds’ changed everything.”

Does it feel good to be making music that’s completely on your own terms?

“Oh god, yeah. Getting to executive produce this record, and trying new things, picking songs for the record, and getting to experiment… I tried everything I wanted to try for the sake of my creativity – and also, just for the fun of it. I wasn’t trying to prove something or gain a No 1 record, that’s not why I made it. I made this record because it made my heart happy, and I want my fans to be happy. That’s the two things I’m concerned with.”

Though Kesha was born in California, she grew up in the Bible Belt. Televangelism – a Stateside-centric phenomenon where preachers deliver Christian speeches on the telly – was a regular fixture in her Nashville suburb of Brentwood, Tennessee. Before pursuing a music career, Kesha had a place to study comparative religion at New York liberal arts college Barnard. Though her studies took a back seat, the fascination with religion and spirituality stuck around.

“There are more churches per square mile in Tennessee, I believe, than anywhere else in the US,” Kesha says. “I actually had my first kiss outside of a superchurch!” she says. “Do you have those here? It’s almost like an arena show every time there’s a church service. They have pop star microphones, and rock bands playing. It’s a very big event! Growing up around that, it was fun for me to participate in taking the piss out of it a little bit,” she grins.

She’s referring to the record’s lead single ‘Raising Hell’ – in the video, she stars as a Televangelist gone rogue. Decked out in a neon-pink power suit, with a hair-spray-dowsed ‘do that surely violates fire safety regulations, she takes to the podium to preach a message of sexuality and self-acceptance. Measured by sheer playfulness it nods back to Kesha’s earliest releases – the hedonistic silliness of ‘Tik Tok’ for instance – but there’s also a chaser-shot of sincerity. “I’m all fucked up in my Sunday best,” she rejoices, “no walk-of-shame ’cause I love this dress.” The song rethinks sin versus salvation: at Kesha’s church, outdated ideas are chucked out the window.

“On a surface level, it’s a fun, ass-shaking anthem,” she explains. “It’s a booty anthem, about shaking your ass. But it’s also about how I believe you can be spiritual or religious, without feeling excluded for… well, basically, being a part of the LGBTQ+ community, or if you’ve done things which are not quite perfect under certain rules. You can still have a deeply spiritual relationship with whatever, or whoever.”

And this record as a whole, concludes Kesha, is “for anybody else who is like: ‘oh, I like to party’ or ‘I don’t quite fit into this, or that’ or’ I’ve made mistakes in my past’. Just know that bitch, you’re blessed, don’t worry about it,” she declares.

“Try to let go of whatever doesn’t serve you from the past, and live life feeling like you’re blessed. I personally feel like the universe is watching over us. Do your thing, have fun, and don’t feel guilty about it. Don’t feel bad about who you are, and just live.” Now that’s a gospel we can get behind.

Flower wall provided by London Flower Wall Company

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