Kesha is all at sea. A smile splashes across her face as she reminisces about the time that she swam with a pod of humpback whales in the middle of the ocean. “They just started playing with me. The baby whale came up, started flapping his fin on the surface, and the mum was watching, and then he dipped down, came back up, and almost tried to bump into me,” she recalls.
“Being able to look an animal like that in the eyes and understand – I kept telling them, ‘I don’t want to hurt you.’ And I could tell… they could just feel the energy off me. That is wild. I’ve heard there are whales that sing the same songs and they’re across the world from each other. It’s all so connected, and I feel like humans, sometimes we forget that we’re all so connected.”
It’s a musing some folks mightn’t expect from the artist formerly known as Ke$ha (she dropped the dollar bill sign almost a decade ago), who strutted onto the scene in the early ’00s as pop’s resident ‘party girl’ with her earworm hit ‘TiK ToK’, bragging about brushing her teeth with a bottle of Jack Daniel’s. But such is Kesha’s mindset in 2023.
NME meets Kesha at the swish Rosewood hotel in London. Dressed in black, her blond hair slicked in a wet-look style that reads edgy on celebrities, and just-jumped-out-the-shower-running-late on everyone else, the LA native appears at home in the capital. So much so she’s considering relocating to the Big Smoke.
“I’m still, kind of, sorting it out. I have a couple of friends that live here, and it just seems – I really like that it feels very safe,” she says. “There’s a cosiness and a great fashion scene… walking around, I get inspired. I see people looking so fucking cool.
Kesha’s on the promo trail for fifth album ‘Gag Order’ (“It’s going to blow your dick off!”), her follow-up to 2020’s ‘High Road’. The eyeball-grabbing artwork is as subtle as a Piers Morgan soundbite. Her head is wrapped in a plastic bag on the cover, while other visuals see her being buried alive, and with multiple hands splayed across her face, fingers jabbed inside her mouth. “I want to make people squirm in their seats a bit,” she reveals. Job done.
Produced by industry legend Rick Rubin, co-founder of Def Jam Records, the singer’s latest offering is raw, introspective and, at points, downright woo-woo. Ruminations include being reincarnated as a house cat and ego death to samples of guru Ram Dass – whose book Be Here Now she has previously credited for helping her through treatment for an eating disorder – and pal Oberon Zell, a wizard. Yes, a wizard.
Synth-kissed single ‘Eat the Acid was not inspired’, Kesha clarifies, by psychedelics (on her mother Pebe’s advice, she’s never touched the stuff) but a trippy spiritual awakening that occurred in the summer of 2020 when she was experiencing a “non-functional” amount of anxiety. “I laid in my bed feeling like I was vibrating from the inside with just this fear. Then my cat, I swear to God, my cat has never done this before, he puts my headphones in his mouth and brings them over to me,” she exclaims.
“I put on my meditation, I start listening to the meditation – I listen to it every night to help me go to sleep – and a different voice is talking, different words are being said, and this was like – I start asking it questions, it’s responding to me [and] I start seeing visuals of, like, what love is… I was crying tears of pure love and joy and hope.”
She continues: “I have no idea what it is, why that happened… [but] I always say from a breakdown comes a breakthrough.”
To describe the last few years as difficult for Kesha is an understatement. In 2014, she filed a lawsuit against producer Dr Luke, real name Lukasz Gottwald, claiming he had sexually and emotionally abused her over a 10-year period. Then, in 2016, her case was dismissed, and Gottwald, who has always denied the allegations, sued for defamation. That case will be heard in July. Legally, there’s a lot that Kesha cannot talk about, and a topic she won’t comment on to NME.
Music has become a sanctuary for her to hold space. On ‘Gag Order’, she digs deep and excavates pent-up emotions. Glittering bops are bypassed for songs that sometimes simmer with frustration, grief, and a tectonic plate-shaking rage. Take the biting lyrics of the deceivingly sparse Fine Line: This is where you fuckers pushed me/Don’t be surprised if shit gets ugly/All the doctors and lawyers cut the tongue out of my mouth/I’ve been hiding my anger, but bitch, look at me now.
“Making this album has allowed me to fall back in love with music, and it’s absolutely more vital than it ever has been for me,” she reflects. “I’m not talking about selling albums at all, I don’t care about that, just emotionally speaking. It’s the place where I get to go and… sort my shit out with myself. That’s where me and myself go to fight it out.”
Kesha’s figured out exactly how she wants to use her voice, and the direction she headed in should surprise fans (shoutout to the ‘Animals’) and naysayers in equal measure. “I was in the mindset of really cleaning the house… I have all these feelings and emotions, all the stuff that I felt nobody really wanted to hear from me, the chick that wrote ‘TiK ToK’. I made my bed, so I should lie in it, right?” she asks, mockingly. “You know what, no, I’m in my 30s, I’m going to live for many, many years, so I don’t want to become a parody of who I once was.”
An integral part of that cleaning process was Rubin, on hand as the 36-year-old dusted off her demons and did some soul-searching, be it about mental health (the lullaby-esque ‘Living in My Head’) or her critics (on ‘Hate Me Harder’, she rails: You say that I’m over/You say I’m a has-been/You say I look older/Nobody was asking). “He got the best work I’ve ever done out of me, by just allowing me to be; there was zero judgement,” she adds.
To Kesha’s initial dismay, the one area of the ‘house’ that Rubin refused to polish were her vocals. Her old friend, auto-tune, barely makes an appearance on ‘Gag Order’. Piercing cracks aren’t buffed and smoothed. These tracks have been written and sung from a battle-scarred heart. “I kept being like, ‘I think we need to fix this one line.’ They had to keep me from fixing things to sound more perfect,” she says. “At first it was a struggle… it’s like if you run every single picture through a filter, and if you take it off, you’re going to start tripping.”
The chart-topper may have retired her JD-swigging alter-ego, but she speaks fondly of the fizzy dancefloor ditties with which she made her name: “They’re my babies, you know what I mean? I was also a baby. So, I think of it as, that’s a part of me, I’m no longer that person, but I fuck with those songs. They’re fun. When I listen to them, I have love and compassion for the silly side of myself.”
Kesha plans to tour, too, after being unable to take her last record ‘High Road’ due to COVID. “I have some shit to take care of this summer, then I’ll probably be touring at the end of the year,” she teases.
There’s light at the end of the tunnel for Kesha these days. ‘Gag Order’ concludes with the hopeful(ish) ballad ‘Happy’, but what does happiness look like to her? She’s momentarily stumped. “I wonder about that all the time. I’m not all, like, fucking yoga pants and chai tea… I still have a horribly foul mouth. I love saying bad words,” she laughs.
“I spent my whole life chasing what I thought happiness would look like, in terms of the house, or the boyfriend, or the car, or the number of albums I sold, or the body, or whatever, and I realised that those things can make you happy, [but] it’s usually temporary.”
She goes on: “Mostly I feel happy when I feel seen, I feel safe, I feel heard, I feel accepted. And I love dancing. I’m starting to take pole-dancing classes, [and] I started doing ninjutsu. That makes me really happy. I love my kitties. I love smelling flowers. I love beautiful fucking awesome sex!” And humpback whales, of course.
Kesha’s ‘Gag Order’ is out now