It’s not often I find myself underlining “sexual ghost exorcism” in green marker pen on my list of questions before a celebrity interview. Then again, an audience with Kesha could never be dull.
In 2009, the 22-year-old star from Nashville tumbled into the spotlight with her breakout song Tik Tok – a brash pop banger about a wild night out that soundtracked the first excesses of many young millennials and became one of the best-selling singles of all time.
The lyric “before I leave, brush my teeth with a bottle of Jack” was immediately filed into the pop canon while the video, featuring a bleary-eyed Kesha climbing out of a bathtub in tiny hotpants and cowboy boots, getting handcuffed over the bonnet of her car and dancing in a pile of silver confetti, established a party girl persona that teenagers were dazzled by and their parents feared.
In the years that followed, Kesha – taught how to craft songs by her single mother and singer Pebe Sebert, who has written for Dolly Parton – got bigger and brasher. A dollar sign replaced the ‘s’ in her name, she gained a gold tooth, was rumoured to be the daughter of Mick Jagger and regularly made headlines for provocative quotes about “drinking pirates under the table”, genuinely brushing her teeth with Jack Daniels, and breaking into Prince’s house (by bribing his gardener) to personally drop off a CD.
Her fans, nicknamed Animals after her debut album, arrived at her concerts covered in lipstick dollar signs and thick with glitter – on which Kesha herself claimed to spend thousands every month. She described “rock ’n’ roll pumping through my veins” and having “sex with a ghost”. It was intoxicating to see a young female musician carry herself with the same swagger and mischief as the men of rock’s golden era. The music industry couldn’t get enough of her.
But 13 years later and there is a very different Kesha sitting before me, dressed all in black with an iced matcha latte in hand. She has lost the dollar sign from her name and the gold tooth from her smile, and is so softly spoken I worry my audio recording won’t pick up her voice.
“I feel like everything I knew has been flipped. And all of the things I understood as truth [turned out] to be a total illusion – a dismemberment of my reality”, she says slowly, describing the impetus behind her bleak but brilliant new album Gag Order, a response to the tumultuous decade she has spent engaged in various legal battles with the Swedish music producer Dr Luke (Lukasz Sebastian Gottwald).
Gottwald, who has also worked with the likes of Rihanna, Britney Spears and Katy Perry, signed an18-year-old Kesha to his label in 2005. It was this year that Kesha claims – among other accusations – that he drugged and raped her after a party. In 2014, she sued him for emotional and sexual abuse over a 10-year period, alleging that comments he made about her weight and appearance prompted her eating disorder, for which she went to rehab.
She requested to be released from her recording contract. But in 2016, the judge dismissed Kesha’s case, and Gottwald, who denies the accusations, counter-sued for defamation. The trial, having been delayed by the pandemic, is finally set for July, which means our interview is heavy with things she cannot say. A lawyer had to approve the lyrics to Gag Order, its name a dark wink to a cruel fact – the album was released on Dr Luke’s label, now owned by Sony, since the star still hasn’t been released from her contract.
Safer territory, however, is the surreal night that prompted Kesha to write the album’s very first song, Eat the Acid. One evening in 2020, she underwent a two-hour long hallucinogenic experience in which she talked to a presence that felt like God – the catch being she was totally sober. The next morning, assuming she had suffered a psychotic break, Kesha called her health worker, who reassured her this was just a “spiritual awakening”.
A Saturn tattoo on her left palm flies past me as she waves her hands and tries to put the life-changing moment into words, coming up with something that might sound eye-rollingly woo-woo were Kesha not so charmingly, hesitantly thoughtful. “It was like the way the forest floor is all connected through a cellular network, or how sperm whales can communicate across the ocean. When I heard that voice, it was like there were neurotransmitters in me acting with a source energy.”
Kesha’s “awakening” led her to the music’s most revered and famously spiritual producer Rick Rubin – shamanic guide to the likes of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Jay Z and Johnny Cash. “My manager said, you’re finally ready to meet Rick Rubin,” she smiles, revealing their mutual love of antiques and shared star sign, Pisces. Every morning, Kesha would enter his studio and cry for two hours, a therapeutic release which perhaps contributed to the album’s focused electronic minimalism – a stark departure from 2020’s more pop-jumbled High Road.
Growing up in Nashville, where everyone she knew “believed in this kind of Judeo-Christian God”, Kesha’s household was not religious, yet she was always “fascinated” by religion. “I’ve been searching for something ever since I was little, I was always going to churches, I had my first kiss outside of one,” she says shyly. She then wanted to study comparative religion, but quit high school – allegedly at Dr Luke’s bidding – to move to Los Angeles and make music. “But religion has always been a driving force in my life.”
Intriguingly, so has the paranormal, and I question the “ghost exorcism” she once described needing after she “went to the bone zone” with a ghost. “I may have elaborated…” she says, a little sheepishly. “It was more that I suddenly felt I had been touched on my leg, and I woke up and there was a spirit woman at the end of my bed.” She shrugs, as if sexy spectres are nothing to write home about in the kaleidoscopic world of Kesha, explaining she had taken her first boyfriend to a bed and breakfast in Texas after hearing it was haunted. “I live for being nervous. It means something exciting is going to happen.”
At 24, Kesha saw “balls of fire” in the sky that she thought might be UFOs, and during the pandemic she launched a podcast talking to people who had experienced paranormal activity, including celebrity medium Tyler Henry. “He told me things about my family lineage that nobody knew,” she says, and a ghost-hunting TV show, Conjuring Kesha, shortly followed. She looks at me conspiratorially. “I mean, I saw my cameraman get scratched. That was mind-bending.” Her mother, she adds, is “on a whole other level…I mean, she firmly believes that she can communicate with the dead.”
She compares these “supernatural impulses” with songwriting, describing the curious process for co-writing the album’s most memorable song, Fine Line, with her mother, a frequent collaborator.
“I walked into the studio with her and I felt this intense energy and the words ‘fine line’ kept coming into my head, my hands were shaking. And my mum said, ‘No I don’t want to write that’, but I said, ‘we are writing it’. We worked on it for an hour a day for over two years.”
It is a painful and haunting song, with Kesha describing the “doctors and lawyers who cut the tongue out of my mouth”, and drawing the many fine lines between “genius and crazy”, “selling out and being bought”, “hope and delusion”. It ends abruptly, with a devastating lyric that could speak for many female stars chewed up and spat out by the music industry: “There’s a fine line between what’s entertaining and what’s just exploiting the pain/ But hey look at all the money we made off me”.
Yet despite the harrowing words there is a defiance to her tone, and Kesha says she is “coming to peace”. The album’s surprising moments of levity might also suggest the star has turned a corner. The Drama, for instance, dissolves into an absurd chorus of meows as Kesha imagines being reincarnated as a house cat, inspired by her own “babies”, including one she rescued from the trash outside a strip club. “How many until I’m officially a mad cat lady?” she quips. “Another fine line!”
Incredibly, Kesha seems to be writing another album already. “Rick told me to keep writing, and I’ve been writing five songs a day, every day. It’s actually been kind of maddening,” she says, looking happily exhausted. Considering the cover art for her last two albums have shown the star disintegrating – Gag Order has her head in a plastic bag, her skin disturbingly blurred, while on High Road she is a bust of melting wax – perhaps for the next album, we will see Kesha whole again. But for now, she says, alluding to the looming trial, she has “some stuff to take care of”.
Gag Order is out now
The post Kesha on going through hell – and finding peace in the paranormal appeared first on The Telegraph.