Kesha: ‘If you say the wrong thing now, your career is #cancelled’
Six years after a high-profile court case, the singer feels free to go wild on her new album
Kesha: ‘I’m not just one thing, I’m not just two things, I’m f***ing everything’
There was a point in Kesha’s career when she felt like she might never release music again. With the release of High Road, her fourth album and the second since her high-profile court case against producer Lukasz Gottwald, she reclaims everything that was nearly taken away from her by celebrating good times and bad behaviour.
“You can’t understand how good you have it until you’ve also felt pain. Or, in my instance, appreciated so much my ability to sing when I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to put out music,” she says.
Kesha Rose Sebert is, of course, referring to the two years in which her career was put on hold after she sued her producer and former label boss Gottwald, known professionally as Dr Luke, in 2014 for sexual assault and battery, sexual harassment, gender violence and emotional abuse.
Months shy of the #MeToo movement breaking in Hollywood, the case was dismissed in 2016 by New York Supreme Court justice Shirley Kornreich, who said that even if the allegations were accepted as true, the five-year statute of limitations had run out on the two most specific rape allegations, from 2005 and 2008. Still contracted with Kemosabe Records, the label that Gottwald signed her to in 2005 when she was a teenager, Kesha had to find a way to carry on working in the music industry and living in the public eye.
On High Road she returns to a full blast of wilded-out pop, missteps and mayhem. I compare her to Ariana Grande, who she describes as an inspiration and a “badass bitch” who “still comes out swinging that ponytail around”, because it feels like a political move to bounce back with uplifting songs when people just want to see you stay down.
“It’s almost like when life is dragging you through hell, the greatest revenge is to be happy,” she drawls in her soft Californian voice. “That’s how I’ve always put it but it’s almost political to be smiling at the end of a tragedy . . . Not letting something that’s really difficult and really challenging completely consume your spirit. It’s a difficult thing and it takes work. It takes conscious effort.”
Declaration of strength
2017’s Rainbow saw her work through that very process, particularly on the lead single Praying. A stripped-back, piano-led ballad, it’s a highly charged but defiant declaration of strength in the face of unnerving hardship and scrutiny.
Performing at the 60th annual Grammy Awards in January 2018, she was joined by Cyndi Lauper, Julia Michaels, Bebe Rexha, Camila Cabello and Andra Day in a striking show of solidarity. Together, standing hand-in-hand and fighting tears, they sang these pointed lyrics to a room full of the music industry’s most powerful people: “’Cause I can make it on my own and I don’t need you/ I found a strength I’ve never known/ I’ve been thrown out, I’ve been burned/ I’ll bring thunder, I’ll bring rain/ When I’m finished, they won’t even know your name.”
But where there’s an impact in displaying righteous sadness and anger, Kesha doesn’t want to be defined by her lows alone. She uses High Road to reintroduce us to the party girl who has seen it all but wants to move on, wearing her scars as proudly as the glitter on her face.
“I’m really excited for the whole world to hear this record. I feel like I’ve been incubating it for so long,” she says with a hint of underlying giddiness. “The last record was a bit more serious and really emotional – as it needed to be – but I wanted to reclaim all sides of my voice and all sides of my personality, which includes going out and sometimes acting like a complete jackass and being open and honest and funny and taking the piss out of myself.”
Just as she did on her debut 2009 single Tik Tok, she delivers tongue-in-cheek lyrics about getting wasted and loving life in her now-trademark dance-rap style on the album’s lead single Raising Hell. Written on the back of the fun she had on her own Kesha Rainbow Cruise – an actual four-day-long music cruise that tours around the Bahamas – the song is all about good people with pure hearts who also dabble in debauchery.
There’s a sense of freedom that comes with standing up to something and standing up for someone
“We were all on a cruise ship together and it was like this floating church of love and happiness and openness and freedom, and everyone was just being themselves,” she dreamily recounts. “All of these beautiful things were happening and it just made me realise that you can do – quote, unquote – bad things or naughty things like stay up all night until the sun comes up, drinking and getting tattoos, but also have a really good heart.”
Stand up for others
If hellraisers were once seen as leather-clad, no-good out-of-towners, does she think that, in the current climate, it’s the people who stand up for others who are now actually raising hell?
“I completely accept and agree with you and I would love to stand for that,” she says, decisively. “I think it’s really important because I’ve found in my past I was just pretending everything was fine and not really living in my complete, full truth. It was way more difficult than when you’re just completely honest. There’s a sense of freedom that comes with standing up to something and standing up for someone. It makes you feel empowered.”
The cruise, which returns this October, exists to create a safe space of “non-judgment” for her fans, who she endlessly thanks throughout our conversation. She has nicknamed them her Animals, as a nod to her debut 2010 album, and she is as concerned with their lives and welfare – “I know them. I know their dance moves, I ask about their parents . . .” – as they are about hers.
In 2012, they launched the Free Kesha campaign when her single Die Young was pulled from radio play following the Sandy Hook school shooting. In since-deleted tweets, she wrote at the time: “I had my very own issue with Die Young for this reason . . . I did NOT want to sing those lyrics and I was forced to.”
Her Animals aimed to raise enough money to buy her out of her contract, claiming that “Dr Luke is controlling Kesha like a puppet, feeding her what she doesn’t want, and her creativity is dwindling”. They suspected that something was off-kilter in their dynamic long before the court case, and the issue of creative control appears to be addressed in My Own Dance. She clarifies that it was mostly written as an internal conversation, but the assertive lyrics – “Well, the internet called and it wants you back but could you kinda rap and not be so sad?” – could be construed as a clapback to similar conversations with label executives telling her how to feel and how to behave.
“I had experiences where people, you know, didn’t want me to write a sad song because I put out Praying, so why would I follow that up with a sad song? And my answer to that is that sadness is a part of life. It bonds all people,” she says. “We all feel sad about something at some point in our lives. So you can’t just have one without the other. Usually for me – I don’t know if this is overly emotional – but I feel a range of emotions every single day, going from wonderful and ecstatic and elated to sometimes disappointed or resentful or sad.”
It scares me to be open and honest but I don’t know how to be anything other than open and honest
To own your entire identity so freely is a pretty fantastic way to re-enter the pop realm, but, in the age of cancel culture, she’s aware of how one ill-thought-out move can change everything. She expresses this caution with Honey, a snappy, barbed and funny song about her ex-boyfriend cheating on her with her former best friend.
“Honey was one of those songs I debated on putting on the record or not. I just think what I’m worried about is there’s such a culture of cancel culture [that] if you say the wrong thing, your whole career and livelihood and everything you worked so hard for is, hashtag, cancelled. And it scares me to be open and honest but I don’t know how to be anything other than open and honest,” she says, well, pretty damn openly and honestly.
But being angry with two people who broke your heart is rather justifiable – it’s not something to feel guilty about.
“Yes! I agree and that’s why I inevitably decided to put that song on that record because I just can’t pretend that I’m cool with everything. I’m a bit of a . . . I’m a nature punk,” she states, expanding on the many, sometimes conflicting, identity flags she waves. “I try to be as cool with everything as possible because in the end, I’m also a bit of a nihilist and not sure that anything really matters anyway.”
But if you keep playing the cool girl in situations where you should feel sad, it will eventually come back and bite you on the ass.
“Oh my god. Have you seen that movie Gone Girl? There’s one scene where she’s talking about always trying to be the cool girl and I so related to that because it’s just really exhausting,” she says. “It’s not giving ourselves enough credit to be able to be emotional and emotionally intelligent beings when we are allowed to get mad. We are allowed to be sad.”
I wanted to make sure on this record that all sides of my personality were represented
“There are moments where I feel really mad and tatty. I just want to be able to be honest about that emotion, even if it’s not very . . . me vibrating at my highest frequency,” she says, almost audibly rolling her eyes over the phone.
She returns to the double entendre of High Road. “I think people would maybe think that I was calling it High Road because I intend on always being so pious and taking the high road,” she says, putting on a prim voice for emphasis, “when in reality this song is about . . . Come at me with your hateful comments and the stuff that used to bother me. I’m just going to smoke a little weed and laugh at it because I don’t have time to get mad about it, quite frankly. I’m too busy to get pissed off about some stranger’s mean comments.”
Riding the highs to cope with the lows, Kesha knows herself better than ever and High Road is reaffirmation of that.
“I wanted to make sure on this record that all sides of my personality were represented because, as I say on My Own Dance, I’m not just one thing, I’m not just two things, I’m f***ing everything.”
High Road is released this week on Sony