Ke$ha: The Billboard Cover Story
If you want insight into a celebrity's self-image, you could do worse than watch one make the brief walk from the star's chosen chariot to the red carpet prior to an awards show. The frenzied VIP drop-off area at the 2010 Grammy Awards reveals more than any klieg-light TV interview could. Alice Cooper pulls himself from a nondescript car and strolls-nonchalant and unassuming-through the throng before anyone can look twice. Lady Gaga's mini convertible pulls up with her sitting atop the back seat, eyes fixed studiously on a point in the distance; as she exits the car, some of the dozens of wires that orbit her dress get caught on the seat, and there's a collective holding of the breath as she detaches.
And then there's Ke$ha. The 23-year-old steps out of a black SUV with the grace of a baby colt-all legs that she sometimes looks to be still learning to use-squints and rubs her eyes. She's stunning, twirling and spinning in her gold Nicolas Jebran dress, teetering on Guiseppe Zanotti heels. I know the designers' names because she has them scrawled on a cheat sheet, and as she makes her way down the carpet for the preshow carnival-cameras clicking and stressed TV producers yelling her name-she murmurs Jebran's name to remind herself. Her long blonde hair is disheveled, even when styled. She wobbles and looks around warily. Everything in her body language, expression and posture perfectly conveys one thought: "I'm not sure, but I may still be drunk."
In December, with "Tik Tok" at No. 3 and poised for No. 1 on the Hot 100, Billboard.com's cameras asked Ke$ha to talk "Tok" and 2010 plans.
It's not so different from the look on her face when she climbs out of the bathtub in the video for her breakthrough song "TiK ToK," which just spent its ninth consecutive week at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100-the longest stretch for a debut single by a female artist since Debby Boone held at No. 1 for 10 weeks in 1977 with "You Light Up My Life." Her album, "Animal," debuted the week "TiK ToK" hit No. 1, sold more than 150,000 copies and went on to become the No. 1 album on the Billboard 200. It even did the undoable and finally stopped the Boyle-dozer, ending Susan Boyle's six-week run atop the albums chart.
Just 18 months ago, swanning down this or any red carpet would've been unimaginable for Kesha Rose Sebert. She had no major record deal, no manager, and she was estranged from the producer who discovered her, Dr. Luke. Tonight, Fergie from the Black Eyed Peas walks by and yells, "Ke$ha, I love you!" Ryan Seacrest talks to her for a full minute or so. Cameras flash nonstop in her direction and networks beg her PR team to stop for even. One. Question.
As she waits to go on E! and share a love-fest interview with Adam Lambert, she suddenly turns to one of her handlers and loudly asks, "Can you see my ass?" Her designer dress is made of hundreds of thin, 3-inch-long metal chains that swing as if on a flapper's gown, and may be see-through underneath. Her handler doesn't hesitate. From one knee, she carefully inspects, and then pronounces Ke$ha's ass "ready."
Last fall, before Ke$ha made her run up the charts, she stopped by Billboard HQ to talk about Prince, Flo Rida, and her glitter cannon.
MOTHER'S LITTLE HELPER
A couple of nights later, Ke$ha is sitting in a loft studio halfway between Beverly Hills and Santa Monica, Calif. She's taking a break from a photo shoot for Q magazine and wearing a faux fur coat, giant arty rings on her left hand, about a pound of glitter and not much else that I can see. We're in the borrowed office of the absent studio manager and Ke$ha picks at his dinner, left on a desk; quickly, one of her day-to-day managers, Emily Burton of Vector Management, comes in, takes the plate away with a sheepish grin and replaces it with a cup of coffee.
Last month, Ke$ha stopped by our daily video show, The Daily Noise, to give the author of this article a mini-makeover. Yes, you read that correctly.
At the Grammys, everyone wanted to ask her the same two questions. One was "the Prince thing," and yes, she says it's true she snuck into Prince's house in Los Angeles and gave him a demo. (He never called.) The other, she says, is, "Am I a party girl?" She launches into her answer.
"I'm having a party in this weird office, hanging out with you, totally sober. If you mean 'party girl' like, at a club with a short skirt on with no underwear, then no. I've gotten drunk before but never gotten a DUI. I don't go to clubs. I try not to let my vagina hang out. I don't do drugs, but I think I'm a walking good time and I talk kind of funny, so people think I'm messed up all the time. I'm not."
You can see where those people might get their ideas. In the space of a few minutes sitting in the office, conversation veers from the ghosts she has seen (her first experience was at an old ex-brothel in San Antonio), to the book she is reading ("A Brief History of Everything," by Ken Wilber), to her favorite dinosaur (the plesiosaur, of course). Ke$ha burps a lot-unapologetic, hearty man burps-and she punctuates her sentences with bits of song, laughter and words like "retard" and "DoucheBerry," which is the only way she'll refer to her BlackBerry. In short, the Ke$ha you hear on her songs is the Ke$ha you get in person: irreverent and deceptively ambitious.
She was born in Los Angeles in 1987 to a struggling songwriter mom, Pebe Sebert. (Ke$ha doesn't know who her father is.) Sebert had written a successful song for Dolly Parton called "Old Flames" and been recorded by Johnny Cash, but had fallen down on her luck. At age 6 or 7, Sebert, Ke$ha and her two brothers moved to Nashville.
Ke$ha says her time in Nashville was largely defined by academics. She says she got a 1500 on her SATs and was enrolled in an "international baccalaureate" program. For fun, she would listen in on classes about the Cold War at Belmont College. "I'm not trying to say I'm an expert on the Cold War," Ke$ha says. "If you grilled me on it, I'd sound like a retard. But I was interested. The point being, I'm not just a little pop moron."
Sebert often brought Ke$ha to the studio and encouraged her to sing and write songs. Ke$ha had been recording demos for a couple of years, when one wound up in the hands of Samantha Cox, senior director of writer/publisher relations at BMI. Cox had done some work with Sebert, and it was Cox who passed along Ke$ha's demos to a friend at BMI, who ultimately passed them to the manager of then-rising producer Lukasz Gottwald, better-known as Dr. Luke.
In 2005, Luke had just enjoyed his breakthrough, writing and producing the Kelly Clarkson hits "Since U Been Gone" and "Behind These Hazel Eyes," in partnership with Max Martin. And he was looking to grow beyond just writing and producing. "I've only written two songs I didn't produce," Luke says. "I can control the song a bit more by producing it. The next evolution of that was to just find an artist."
Luke solicited more than 100 demos from friends and contacts. Included was one from a then-relatively unknown singer Katy Perry (Luke and Martin wrote and produced the Perry hits "I Kissed a Girl" and "Hot N Cold") and another from Ke$ha.
At Conway Studio where Luke works in Hollywood, he plays me two songs from the Ke$ha demo, each striking for different reasons. The first is a gorgeously sung, self-penned country ballad that hints at what could've been had Ke$ha pursued a different path. The other is a gobsmackingly awful trip-hop track. But at one point toward the end, Ke$ha runs out of lyrics and starts rapping, for a full minute or so: "I'm a white girl/From the 'Ville/Nashville, bitch. Uhh. Uhhhhh."
Luke and his producer friends were smitten by this bit of screwball-gangsta improv. His face lights up even now as he remembers. "That's when I was like, 'OK, I like this girl's personality. When you're listening to 100 CDs, that kind of bravado and chutzpah stand out."
Luke and Martin called Ke$ha's Nashville home from Sweden, where the two were working. In a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction moment, when Luke called the first time, Nicole Richie hung up on him; the Seberts were a host family on that season's "The Simple Life." Eventually he got Ke$ha on the phone, and then to a meeting in New York. Ke$ha left her "international baccalaureate" program behind and moved to Los Angeles. At 18, she signed to Dr. Luke's label, Kemosabe Records, and his publishing company, Prescription Songs.
THE GOSPEL OF LUKE
Ke$ha was anything but an overnight success. Luke was busy with his burgeoning production projects and Ke$ha ultimately wound up signed to David Sonenberg's DAS management company. While at DAS she worked with several top writers and producers, but rarely worked with or even spoke to Luke. It was in a co-writing session with Katy Perry and Mika producer Greg Wells that Ke$ha says she honed her four-on-the-floor, beat-driven sound. During her time at DAS, she also hooked up with the twin Nervo sisters, who went on to write the top line of the David Guetta and Kelly Rowland smash "When Love Takes Over." The Nervos worked on a track with Ke$ha called "Boots and Boys" that made the final cut for "Animal."
"She's a brilliant writer," Mim Nervo says of Ke$ha. "People shouldn't underestimate her at all. She has a really strong sense of what she wants to do lyrically and has a great head for melody."
According to several sources, DAS shopped a label deal for Ke$ha without Luke's permission, despite her still being signed to Luke. (Sonenberg didn't respond to e-mails seeking comment.) Kara DioGuardi, in her capacity as an A&R rep for Warner, liked what she heard and wanted to strike a deal. But at the 11th hour, there were simply too many questions about the outstanding Luke contracts. Shortly after, Ke$ha and DAS parted ways and Ke$ha reunited with Luke.
At the end of 2008, Luke was working on a track with Flo Rida called "Right Round" and the two decided they needed a female hook. Luke pulled Ke$ha into the studio and within two months, "Right Round" was an international No. 1 and set a single-week record for digital sales that still stands. Suddenly Ke$ha-though she wasn't credited on the U.S. version and didn't get paid-was a hot commodity. Atlantic, home to "Right Round," had some interest, as did Jason Flom's Lava label, now at Universal. But Luke and Ke$ha ultimately decided on RCA. Luke had done a lot of work with RCA/Jive Label Group chairman/CEO Barry Weiss, whom Ke$ha found to be "ridiculously smart and driven," and she connected with RCA A&R executive Rani Hancock. "Rani doesn't ever try to censor me," Ke$ha says. "And I like being surrounded by strong, intelligent women."
The rest of 2009 was spent recording "Animal." The resulting album is relentlessly uptempo electro pop, spritely and fun one minute, "Girls Gone Wild" raunchy the next. "Don't be a little bitch with your chit chat," she sings in the opening lines of new single "Blah Blah Blah," "just show me where your dick is at." Ke$ha has a writing credit on each of the album's 14 tracks. To hear her speak in her highly animated streams of consciousness is to realize that her lyrical style is indeed her own. Many of the songs are autobiographical. Take "Backstabber," which she wrote with David Gamson, formerly of British band Scritti Politti.
"A very close friend of mine stole my car one night," Ke$ha says matter-of-factly. "The car is gone, and I was like, 'What a backstabber!' And then I found out that she was also talking shit, so I was like, 'What a shit-talker!' The next day, I had a writing appointment in Long Beach [Calif.]. I got there and I was like, 'We should write a song about this girl.' The line in the song is, 'Jeanie, why you gotta tell the secrets about my sex life?' I write how people would talk over a drink."
Ke$ha was initially reluctant to rap on "Animal." "The white-girl rap swagger thing is really a little bit of a joke," she says. "I never thought of myself as a rapper. This is just the way I talk." But toward the end of the recording process, she wrote "Blah Blah Blah" with U.K. electro-poppers Neon Hitch and Benny Blanco, who does a lot of work for Dr. Luke's Kasz Money production house. "I didn't come up with it," Luke says of Ke$ha's sing-songy rapping. "But when I heard it, I was like, 'Oh, my God, we need more songs like this.' " To that end, Luke, Blanco and Ke$ha sat down in a room and came up with "TiK ToK."
Luke says that a New York Times article that tagged Ke$ha as a white rapper caught them by surprise. "We were all like, 'No, no, no-she's not a rapper.' But in actuality they were right and we were wrong. If you look at the iTunes charts, after 'Animal' came out, the tracks where she was rapping were the ones that were in the top 10."
Indeed, during the week her album was released, "TiK ToK" and "Blah Blah Blah" were the two biggest-selling tracks in the United States. "Animal" set records for first-week digital albums sales for a debut artist-almost doubling "American Idol" victor David Cook-and for the highest-ever percentage of first-week digital sales for a No. 1 album (76%); previous bests from John Mayer, the Fray, Colbie Caillat and Coldplay were all in the 40% range.
This didn't happen by accident. In part, it's a sign of a maturing digital market. But it's also clear evidence that RCA built on the digital success story of "TiK ToK." The label saw the song building not just at radio but at retail and on social networks and hurried Ke$ha to ready the album for a Jan. 5 release. "She was off doing promo around the world," RCA Music Group executive VP/GM Tom Corson recalls. "We got on a call with Luke and with management and we moved stuff around and got it done."
RCA was also concerned that Ke$ha might sell a lot of singles, but not albums. The label sat down with Apple to figure out how to turn 2 million single sales of "TiK ToK" into album sales. "Animal" was presold on iTunes at "a reasonably sharp price" of $6.99. "And with the Complete My Album program, if you already had the single at a buck twenty-nine, it made it even more attractive," Corson says.
The "Animal" preorder went live Dec. 15, which meant the label was able to take advantage of the three biggest weeks of the year at iTunes. The strategy paid off. "When you do 76% of your sales at iTunes and it's not an indie record, that's unprecedented," Corson says.
Now "Blah Blah Blah"-which already cracked the top 10 of the Hot 100 based on digital sales the week of the album's release-is beginning to climb back up the charts. It was most-added at top 40 in its first week at radio.
"Sales of the album are holding up nicely," Corson says. "We're now selling for $9.99 at iTunes. But the physical is holding up at 20,000-22,000 a week. 'TiK ToK' isn't burning really-it's just starting to lose its front end a little. I think we may have two songs in the top 10 simultaneously."
Now the challenge is just staying the course at a proper pace. "We need to stay focused," Vector Management principal Jack Rovner says. "We don't want to get caught speeding. We want to build a career."
Rovner and Vector partner Ken Levitan say they're entertaining high-profile summer touring options. "She has every ability to create on multiple platforms," Levitan says. "She has a distinct fashion sense around her. At some point, there might be some acting involved. She's very comfortable in front of the camera. She loves to write, and she can write for other people."
Ke$ha is taking her sudden fame in stride. It's tough to tell exactly when her coronation became official. It could've been any one of her chart feats. It could've been the night before the Grammys at Clive Davis' star-studded party, when Ke$ha, singing "TiK ToK," looked left and saw Barbra Streisand, then right to see Jane Fonda. Or maybe it was at the awards show itself, where, after sharing the stage with Justin Bieber to promote a Bon Jovi fan contest, she went backstage and ran into Ringo Starr, who congratulated her on her success.
"He congratulated me?" Ke$ha asks incredulously. "Ringo Starr? Congratulations to me? It was more like, 'Congratulations to you for being a fucking Beatle.'