This article was first published in Attitude issue 316, December 2019
Words: Thomas Stichbury
You can almost hear Kesha’s eyeballs begin to roll as I pretend to reach into my satchel for a toothbrush and a bottle of Jack Daniel’s – a shoutout to the former wild child’s wake-up-whiskey-rinse-and-go routine from her smash song ‘Tik Tok’.
“Oh no, don’t,” she sighs dramatically. I assure her that I wouldn’t dream of pulling such a stunt. I decide to save the untouched, brownbag-wrapped JD for another day. (Or try to put it on expenses).
“You don’t know how many times that has actually happened to me. At least every interview I’ve done since ‘Tik Tok’ came out 10 years ago,” she says.
“I also had to do it for countless photo ops. “You should try it before you put this into writing. It’s your homework.”
Hmmm, I think I’ll stick to my special enamel protection toothpaste — sensitive teeth, just so you know.
Spread-eagled on a leather sofa in the living area of a luxury apartment in London’s Mayfair, the 32-year-old pop star is channelling what can only be described as toddler chic, wearing a faux-fur tiger-print coat, a pair of pyjamas emblazoned with the words Fuck You – we’re assuming these aren’t a Marks & Spencer number – and a sun visor. For a bit of context, it’s a rain-sodden evening.
“I’m very ‘five-year-old’ today,” she grins, adding that her eclectic wardrobe is far from travel-friendly. “I always find that something explodes and it’s usually glitter. It gets over everyone’s everything, then they’re like, ‘Fuck you!’ and I’m like, ‘Sorry’.”
Spirit undampened by the soggy weather outside, Kesha is a welcome warm front of energy, mischievousness and sass, blown in fresh from over the Atlantic. And she’s feeling mighty fine right now, having dyed her trademark blonde tresses a chestnut brown.
“I never thought in a million years I would be a brunette, and I’m having so much fun,” she exclaims. “I feel like very big-dick energy.”
In fact, the American singer – full name Kesha Rose Sebert – thinks a lot of female artists are coming out swinging with that BDE at the moment. Who, I enquire, is giving fully erectile, 10in vibes?
“Everyone knows that Beyoncé has the big-dick energy of all the queens,” she argues. “Also, Rihanna – I went on tour with her and she would not walk out of her bus without five-inch heels on. I was like, ‘Fuck, I suck’.” Special mention is saved for her friend Taylor Swift, who is packing as a “boss-ass, badass motherfucker.”
Soaking up the sunny sisterhood of this era of solidarity, she forcasts that the days of divas turning against one another for the spoils of the tabloids is over.
“People used to pit us against one another and it’s like, no thanks, failed. We’re not going to have a petty bitch fight for someone else’s entertainment. That’s the low-hanging fruit.
“Climb the tree and get me a coconut because that’s where the good shit is at!”
Speaking of fruit, Kesha is in town to bear the fruits of her labour after giving Attitude a preview of her new album High Road.
We listened to a handful of tracks, including riotous single Raising Hell (out now), and for the most part they’re pure, unapologetic pop, fizzing with joy, optimism and a wicked wit. They hold a mirror to their creator’s current state of mind: she’s happy.
“I got my balls back,” she says. “I wanted a vehicle for happiness, for myself and for the world.”
Few would wish to deny Kesha this contentment.
As has been well documented, in October 2014, the chart-topper filed a civil lawsuit against Lukasz Gottwald, better known as super-producer Dr Luke, accusing him of abusing her physically, sexually, verbally and emotionally over a 10-year period.
Gottwald vehemently denies the allegations and, in a counterpunch, has sued Kesha for defamation and breach of contract for failing to deliver recordings she owed him as part of her deal with his label Kemosabe Records.
Taylor Swift, Kelly Clarkson and P!nk were just some of the high-profile names to publicly throw their support behind Kesha, and a #FreeKesha campaign, to release her from her contract, spread like wildfire on social media. That same year, she entered a rehabilitation centre to receive treatment for an eating disorder. To put it lightly, Kesha has had a torrid time of it.
Ahead of our chat, we agree – as per a polite request from her PR team – not to turn over the stones of the legal battle because it’s ongoing. In any case, Kesha has been letting her music do the talking on the matter.
Take 2017’s country-inspired album Rainbow, a wrenchingly raw account of her journey from darkness to light in the wake of the accusations. Lead single Praying has become something of an anthem for survivors of abuse.
Kesha performed the incendiary ballad at last year’s Grammy Awards, in the eye of the storm of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, backed by a chorus of women clad in white, notably Cyndi Lauper, Camila Cabello and Andra Day.
The singer may not have taken home any trophies on the night — she received her first nominations for pop vocal album and pop solo performance, unjustly losing out to Ed Sheeran – but she provided the ceremony’s most powerful moment.
“It gives me shivers thinking about it,” she reflects. “It was the most terrifying 3½ minutes of my life. [For] the two months leading up to it, I was so anxious I could barely have a conversation. But I’m so happy I lived through that performance, through all of it.”
Positioned as a symbol of survival in the music industry, Kesha refuses to be trapped inside a tragic narrative. “Aren’t we all survivors?” she asks. “You can have gone through tragic things, but not be a tragedy.”
That sentiment ebbs and flows through her recent work.
“High Road and Rainbow are the yin and yang of my healing,” she says. “The whole purpose of this record was reclaiming joy and it being OK for me to reclaim [it], having been through all the things I’ve been through, as anyone has gone through hard things in their life.
“You can be happy again, you deserve to be happy again and you don’t need to feel guilty about being happy again.
“At first, I felt really odd about it. ‘Am I allowed to sing about going out, having fun and getting fucked up with my friends?’ The answer is: ‘yes I can’.”
Part of the recording process involved revisiting – or rather, reclaiming – the “shit-talking” sound of her early material, songs that would have been produced by Gottwald. But she insists it wasn’t triggering.
“I purposely didn’t do the shit-talking ‘rapping’ on Rainbow because I had some serious issues to attend to. Now, I want to come back and own my shit,” she says.
“It was so empowering to reclaim a sound that I was very much instrumental in creating in the first place… I was given a bit of a shove by my older brother to make some pop songs and I reluctantly did it. It made me realise that I own my sound and I can make these fucking pop songs all by myself.”
She adds: “This is my voice. Why should I deny myself a part of my art that I want to utilise and explore more?”
The artist formerly known as Ke$ha (she dropped the dollar bill sign in 2014) feels somewhat vindicated, too, after proving to the world that she can sing. Naysayers (me, included) had their doubts after her debut album, 2010’s Animal, seemed to feature more than a lick of auto-tune.
“That made me so sad for the first couple of years. I would put music out, [followed by] ‘Oh, she can’t sing’. I thought: ‘That’s one of the couple of things I can do’,” she recalls.
“Rainbow was the first time I’d put it out there in all the ways, but especially vocally. I was the executive producer, so I got to be in charge of exactly what my vocals sounded like: they were not auto-tuned, or digitally messed with and chopped up. I wanted to make sure that I showed off my voice. I got to do that and my soul was satisfied.
“I’m not Mariah Carey kinda vocals, but I can sing,” she smiles.
An open book on topics that we are allowed to talk about, Kesha flicks to a chapter of her life that she is confronting in song for the first time, that of growing up without a dad. One of the most emotionally charged tracks on the new album, Father Daughter Dance features the telling lyric: “Sometimes I wonder if I’d had a dad, would he have protected me from the bad shit and the bad men.”
Kesha explains: “My mum [singer/ song-writer Pebe] decided to have a child and she wanted a Pisces, so she enlisted the help of friends to accomplish the goal. It was more or less planned and I have so much respect for her.
“She is amazing, both masculine and feminine, and taught me everything I know. I want to make sure that people know I have so much respect for single mothers and women who go out and have children like that and do it on their own. I could do it myself one day...”
Kesha continues: “But I couldn’t help thinking about what life would be like if it had been different. I was sitting in the studio and the song just came out of my mouth like a stream of consciousness. I was thinking, ‘I don’t want to consciously address this, but subconsciously somewhere I’m becoming a conduit for something that needs to come out’. I wasn’t actually going to put it on the record, it’s too intense, but I played it to a friend who had an absent father, and she said: ‘Please, for me, you have to put this song on, so many people can relate’.”
Wearing her rainbow-coloured heart on her sleeve, Kesha also has no qualms about diving into the subject of sexuality.
Identifying as bisexual, she lives in Los Angeles with long-term boyfriend Brad Ashenfelter -- and her four cats – but hints that they have a flexible arrangement. “I never hid [my bisexuality] from anybody. I never had a moment of feeling I had to come out about it. It was always there. “I think I had a conversation with a gay magazine in the US and they just asked me, ‘Oh, are you bisexual?’ and I was like, ‘Obviously’.
“You’ll learn more about my feelings about this on a song called Kinky but I have always been attracted to the soul behind a person’s eyes. It has never occurred to me to care about a specific gender, or how someone is identifying, to make me wonder about whether or not I’m attracted to them. I’m attracted to a beautiful person on the inside and that’s that.
“My boyfriend knows that. We’ve had long conversations about it and he’s fine with [it],” she says.
Kesha — who, don’t you know, appears in Katy Perry’s I Kissed a Girl video – has dated women in the past.
“It hasn’t been caught by the paparazzi because I’ve been with the same guy for six years,” she reveals. “He’s a sweetheart but he also lets me be me. You know, I’ll call him and be like, ‘I had fun tonight, I met a sweet girl and we had a really good time’.
“And he’ll say: ‘Cool babe, love you’. It’s so nice. In the song, it’s about how anything is fine as long as we’re honest with each other.
“That’s the understanding we have, a kinky understanding is what it’s called. As long as there are no secrets, no lies, no hiding anything, let’s just have fun.
“I have both male and female energies and so does he. He understands that me being attracted to a woman has nothing to do with my attraction for him. He knows that I’m just a wild spirit that needs to run free, and that I always come back to the barn for apples from my boy,” she laughs.
Of course, no LGBTQ advocate is worth their stripes until they’ve sashayed on to RuPaul’s Drag Race, and Kesha has appeared twice. Well, kind of...
She enjoyed guest judging duties on the show’s ninth series but also made a brief cameo in the Ru-niverse when close pal Detox impersonated her on Snatch Game. It left viewers gagging for all the wrong reasons – especially when drag Kesha fake-peed on the studio floor, but somehow their friendship has survived.
“I loved it. She captured my general essence,” Kesha says. “Detox actually texted me the other day. She was on safari. I’m picturing her in full drag spotting a lion and making dirty jokes about it.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I spy the publicist’s fingers giving me a countdown of two minutes.
“Are you being yelled at?” Kesha asks.
I tell here I’ve been given a couple of fingers, and not in a good way.
Time for one last question. I ask her to relive her most embarrassing showbiz encounter.
“Oh God, I have so many,” she teases. “I’ve been thinking of one that I should not tell you. It’s really bad… OK, turn your recorder off and I’ll tell you.”
Following her instructions, I switch off my dictaphone and mobile phone, and, a woman of her word, Kesha shares her story. Boy, is it juicy…
The High Road is out now.