Singing about her personal trauma, Kesha became a #MeToo heroine and an industry symbol. But with a new album on the way, she’s focused firmly on the present -- and on ‘writing the fuck out of some pop songs.’
"Follow me!” says Kesha, her long, newly brunette tresses blowing in the wind.
She’s biking a few feet ahead of me, leading us through a residential stretch of Venice, Calif. Every so often, she calls out a direction, pointing to the “killer palm trees” on one street we turn down -- a human GPS wearing a fuzzy cheetah-print backpack with a tail that wags as she pedals. Ten minutes later, we arrive at a surprisingly empty stretch of Venice Beach that she calls her “secret hideaway.”
We lock up our bikes -- hers is the same turquoise cruiser that paparazzi have photographed her on since at least 2017 -- and walk toward the ocean, settling down on a blanket and towels she has brought. “I always have a bathing suit and a passport -- always,” she says. “You never know when you’re going to find yourself wanting to go to a different country or a body of water.” The latter is, apparently, often: After she finished her most recent tour, Kesha went swimming with whales off the coast of a small island in the middle of nowhere.
When she’s home and has a rare day off, though, she’s usually here. “I just do this, pray for animals and jump in,” she says. Kicking off her slides and settling down on the sand, the artist born Kesha Rose Sebert looks much like any beachgoer, the tiger head on her one-piece peeking out from under a red Hawaiian shirt. “This is the only place I usually don’t get paparazzi,” she says -- and over the hours we spend on the beach, and even on our ride later to her favorite dive bar near the fishing pier, no one seems to recognize her. Thanks in part to her decision to dye her signature wild blond waves, she can go incognito, “happy and free -- no anxiety.”
It’s a welcome and still unfamiliar feeling for Kesha, 32, who has spent the past decade in an often glaring spotlight. Her debut album, 2010’s Animal, established both her talent for churning out hits (it became Kesha’s first Billboard 200 No. 1, and she has earned 2.5 billion U.S. streams to date, according to Nielsen Music) and her brash wild-child image. As her bombastic pop bangers climbed the charts -- she has scored 10 Billboard Hot 100 top 10s, including the No. 1s “We R Who We R,” “TikTok” and “Timber” -- the media started to equate their lyrical content with Kesha herself, painting her as a perma-plastered party girl. “Men glorify going out, getting drunk and hooking up,” she says. “As a woman, I came out and did it, and I was like Satan’s little helper.”
By 2013, she had her own MTV show, Ke$ha: My Crazy Beautiful Life, directed by her older brother, Lagan. A year later, everything changed: On Oct. 14, 2014, Kesha filed a civil suit against Lukasz Gottwald -- the mega-producer known as Dr. Luke with whom she had collaborated on her biggest hits -- accusing him of abusing her physically, sexually, verbally and emotionally over a 10-year period. He, in turn, denied the accusations and sued her for more than $50 million, alleging defamation and breach of contract for failing to turn in recordings she owed him under her contract on his label, Kemosabe Records. (Kemosabe started out in 2011 as a joint venture with Sony Music Entertainment; though Sony won't disclose specific financial details of that arrangement, major labels typically finance JVs and then, after expenses, split proceeds 50/50. SME now refers to Kemosabe, which in 2017 went dormant, as an imprint.)
It was only the beginning of what would become a lengthy, ugly legal battle. But in the crucible of that turmoil, Kesha experienced a creative transformation. Long before the explosion of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, artists like Taylor Swift and Kelly Clarkson expressed their support for her as part of #FreeKesha, an ongoing social media campaign aimed at getting her out of her contract. And then in 2017 -- just months after news broke that Gottwald was no longer CEO at Kemosabe -- she released Rainbow, an album of emotionally raw songs that showcased her stunning vocal range, no Animal-era Auto-Tune necessary. Though it still bore the Kemosabe imprint -- and, at the time, a spokesman for Gottwald said it was “released with Dr. Luke’s approval” -- Kesha says Rainbow was the first album on which she had full creative control, and it showed. The most poignant track, “Praying,” which chronicled how she overcame years of trauma, became an anthem for survivors of abuse and earned Kesha one of her first two Grammy Award nominations.
On Rainbow, a new Kesha emerged, and the industry embraced her. “I did the therapy,” she says on the beach today. And now, after this “huge purge of emotions,” she’s prepping her fourth album, due this December on Kemosabe/RCA, on which she revisits some of the big-pop sounds that launched her career. Largely co-written with her best friend and longtime collaborator, Wrabel (they met through Lagan when Kesha left rehab in 2014 after receiving treatment for an eating disorder -- after which she also dropped the dollar sign from her name), as well as her songwriter mom, Pebe; Justin Tranter, Tayla Parx, Nate Ruess, and Imagine Dragons’ Dan Reynolds; with production from Jeff Bhasker and Ryan Lewis, “it’s the happiness that I began my career with,” says Kesha. “But it feels more earned and healthier than ever.”
In going from good-time pop star to symbol for an industry -- and a movement -- Kesha made the kind of personal, and creative, pivot that few artists manage to accomplish intact. Remaining an artist on her own terms will be a different kind of challenge entirely, especially when a handful of tracks from her new album can’t help but call to mind the now-fraught sounds of her time working with Gottwald.
And with the trial date for his defamation and breach-of-contract suit not yet confirmed, a great deal of uncertainty still hangs over Kesha’s future. A jury will decide whether she is liable, and if so, how much she might owe Gottwald in damages for, as he sees it, irrevocably hurting his career.
“There are so many what-ifs, and quite honestly, I’m not allowed to talk about it,” says Kesha. “And I’m really not used to not being an open book about everything -- but I do have to defer to my lawyers on this one, and they’re just like, ‘Focus on the music, focus on your happiness and mental health, and we’ll deal with this.’ Doing that has been greatly helpful.”
And right now, she says, “writing the fuck out of some pop songs” is precisely what she needs to stay focused on the present. “I dug through the emotional wreckage, and now…” She trails off, perhaps momentarily caught in the past. “I can go back to talking a little bit of shit. I really wanted to put a solid footprint back into pop music, like, ‘I can do this, and I can do this on my own.’ I don’t know if this is my last pop record, but I want to have one where I go out with a bang.”
The day before Kesha met with Reynolds at Los Angeles’ Village Studios, she planned to write a slow song with him. But when she told Lagan, he suggested something totally different: something “big and epic.” (This was the Imagine Dragons guy, after all.)
She took his advice and ended up writing one of the album’s most epically IDGAF pop-rock anthems -- with lyrics that feel like a pointed rebuke of the world’s perception of her both before and after the Gottwald legal suits: “We get it that you’ve been through a lot of shit, but life’s a bitch, so come and shake your tits and fuck it/You’re the party girl, you’re the tragedy, but the funny thing is, I’m fucking everything.” (While the album goes through final mixing, Kesha and her team cannot disclose song titles.)
“She’s not taking the high road, which is kind of the point,” says Lagan. “That’s originally what people really noticed about her, and I felt like her fans wanted that from her right now, especially when the world is so fucked up.” Or, as Kesha more succinctly puts it: “I got my balls back, and they’re bigger than ever.”
At first, Kesha was hesitant to return to her early sound -- one reminiscent of the earwormy hits Gottwald had crafted alongside Max Martin for the likes of Clarkson and P!nk by the time he heard Kesha’s demo. In 2005, she signed with Gottwald’s production company, Kasz Money, and his publishing company, Prescription Songs. He landed her a feature on Flo Rida’s “Right Round,” a Hot 100 No. 1, and major labels came knocking. By 2009, she had signed a recording contract with RCA; in 2011, when Gottwald founded Kemosabe, she joined the Sony imprint.
Kesha says that her earlier hits’ connection to that time in her life hasn’t tainted them for her. “When I play some of the poppier songs, people lose their shit, and those songs are my babies too,” she says. “It brings me so much joy to see people boogie and have the best time with their friends, and I shouldn’t take that away from myself.” But songs like “Die Young” in particular -- as she has claimed in a since-deleted tweet -- she felt forced to record and include on her albums, often in place of ones she felt better aligned with her own vision.
Over the course of making the new album, Kesha says, she proved to herself that she could find a balance between her early style and her more recent, introspective inclinations. “Emotions are forever,” she says. “Part of this album is resurrecting the fact that you can be a fucking mess in your head one day, and then you can also be glittered-up and have the best night of your life.”
Speaking of which: Kesha may have matured beyond her early brush-my-teeth-with-a-bottle-of-Jack vibe, but she’s not entirely tamed. Since finishing the Rainbow tour, she has caught bucket-list shows by Neil Young and Willie Nelson (she calls both the “real deal”) and enjoyed the occasional night out. “They are more few and far between than they were, let’s say, at 21 years old,” she admits. “But I’m not dead.”
One night in particular, Kesha and her crew went to see Elton John’s farewell tour in Los Angeles. The experience inspired a song with a piano intro that morphs into a bass-thumping anthem for a girls’ night. “I, of course, stand for so many things,” says Kesha. “But sometimes you just want to escape into a happy motherfucking song. It’s like a three-minute vacation, and I want to give that to people because I know I need that sometimes. Every time I’m sad, I put on [Carly Rae Jepsen’s] ‘Call Me Maybe.’ Every single time.” Lately, she has been listening to “positive, badass women” like Cardi B, Lizzo, Ariana Grande and Swift, who in 2016 donated $250,000 to help Kesha with her legal fees. (The two remain close friends.) “She has amazing integrity,” says Kesha of Swift.
RCA president of A&R Keith Naftaly has worked with Kesha for her entire career, and he believes that she can easily return to the same pop stratosphere that these women currently rule. “Even in a hip-hop-dominated landscape, Kesha will strike a chord with a contemporary global pop audience because her lyrics are right on time,” he says, pointing to how honest and specific storytelling like hers has been crucial to the success of RCA artists like Khalid, SZA and H.E.R. Plus, notes Naftaly, Kesha’s audience is still incredibly young.
“When ‘Tik Tok’ and ‘Your Love Is My Drug’ and ‘Take It Off’ came out, her audience was like, 9,” he says. “So now, a lot of her die-hard fans are in their early 20s, while a lot of her peers and their audiences have shifted into more of an adult-contemporary context.” Kesha, for her part, admits that she’s “not a 21-year-old bitch anymore, [but] I can still go onstage in assless chaps because I want to. And maybe one day, when everything is sagging and I don’t want to wear assless chaps anymore, I can sit on a stool and play country music.”
That isn’t just a pipe dream. Kesha says she writes sad country songs all the time and is saving them for future release. (She has so much new music that she has lost track of how many songs she has written.) Naftaly says she “already has a gorgeous folk album that is just waiting for its moment to shine.” How and when that is all released, of course, depends on what happens after her next court date.
Though no one interviewed for this story would so much as speak his name, Kesha as of 2016 owed Gottwald three more albums on her original contract (as Kemosabe went dormant in 2017, Gottwald has no title there, though he still profits from any of its remaining releases). Rainbow was one and the coming record will be two, which leaves her with one more to go -- unless, of course, a judge decides to terminate her contract early. (Neither Kesha nor Jack Rovner, her longtime manager at Vector Management, would reveal a post-contract plan; like his client, Rovner says he is focused on her forthcoming album.)
In the meantime, fans will hear a “Praying”-esque song on that new album. It’s about growing up without a father, contemplating having children (she has been with partner Brad Ashenfelter for nearly six years) and wondering if having a dad around would have protected her from “all the bad shit, the bad men.” She wrote it shortly after her late business manager, a beloved father figure whom she prefers not to name, passed away -- around the same time that, in need of a change, she decided to go brunette.
“Everything goes up and down, and I think it probably will for the rest of my life,” she says, lifting her heart-shaped Gucci sunglasses to catch a tear. “So you ride the highs, and you write songs about an awesome night where you go and meet Elton John and get fucked up and lose your phone in the Uber, and sometimes you write songs about what it might have been like if you grew up with a father, because you have absolutely no clue. And hopefully, by now, the world has realized that you can be multidimensional.”
Lately, Kesha has taken to walking around her house in a bathrobe, carrying one of her four cats. “Have you seen The Big Lebowski?” she asks. “I kind of feel like the female incarnation.”
“You’re The Dude,” I say.
“I’m The Bitch!” she decides. “It feels really good to feel good. I went through the shit, you know? There was a time where it was really dark, and now I really am so happy, and that’s why I want to make happy songs -- and as a distraction from the bullshit that’s going on, either in someone’s personal life or in the world. I want to inspire joy.”
She pauses, tilting her head. “Isn’t that Marie Kondo’s line? I love her. She inspired me to get rid of a bunch of shit.”
Even so, Kesha has a lot left to confront. While she does seem genuinely happy, the degree to which she repeats the word also feels like a reminder to herself: to focus on the present, even as threatening shadows from the past still loom. Her protracted legal battle with Gottwald -- which led to five separate suits in three states and more than 2,865 court filings -- is far from over.
While Gottwald’s defamation and breach-of-contract case against Kesha is pending in New York, in 2016, Kesha voluntarily dismissed her 2014 California case against him, saying at the time that she wanted to focus on her career. Gottwald’s lawyer, Christine Lepera, says that since then, Kesha “has continued to use the baseless accusations that were the subject of her failed lawsuit as a platform for publicity,” and adds that Gottwald “looks forward to the trial” of his suit against her, which has yet to be scheduled. (Kesha’s legal team declined to comment.)
Though Prescription Songs, where Gottwald is owner and principal, just reached its 10th anniversary, he has been largely absent from the music world. Rising pop singer Kim Petras is the most high-profile artist to acknowledge collaborating with him recently -- and she has faced criticism online both for working with him and for calling it a positive experience. In August, he appeared on the Hot 100 as a writer for the first time since 2016, on Doja Cat and Tyga’s No. 83-peaking “Juicy.” (He also last charted as a producer in 2016.) Throughout the lengthy litigation, his legal team has questioned Kesha’s motives both in court and in the media, claiming she and her team orchestrated a smear campaign to hurt his career and get out of her recording contract. Discovery later revealed that her team at the time had, even before her lawsuit, laid out a coordinated media blitz to turn public opinion against Gottwald. But Kesha maintained in court filings that she knew nothing about it.
In some respects, she has already won outside of court. When she performed “Praying” at the 2018 Grammys -- introduced by Janelle Monáe and backed by a chorus of women clad in all white, including Cyndi Lauper, Camila Cabello and Andra Day -- it became the most-tweeted-about moment of the evening and one of the most powerful in Grammy history. “It was one of the most gratifying experiences of my career to see her release Rainbow and for it to culminate with that performance, and to see the respect that she had,” says Rovner. “Her stature in the business reached a level that had never been there before.”
“It was so foreign to me to get good press, and about my voice and about my music,” recalls Kesha. “I felt more seen as an artist and as a person than ever.” Even so, she still hasn’t watched the performance and says she never will. (Sometimes, she has nightmares of accidentally Googling herself.) “It makes me nauseous thinking about it,” she says. “It was kind of like jumping out of an airplane. I’m really happy I did it -- and happy I lived through it.” Today, she has an open-door policy at her home for the friends, band members and dancers who “all weathered the storm with me. It’s not something I’m ever going to forget.”
Ten years ago, she says, things were drastically different: Just starting her career, she was “under the impression that to do this job, you don’t eat, you don’t sleep, you don’t have privacy, and you don’t have time for yourself.” No milestone felt important enough. “I would talk to myself in a way I would never talk to another human being in a million fucking years,” she says.
But eventually, “I just got sick of being mean to myself.” And once it clicked that she was in this “for the forever,” she realized her way of life wasn’t exactly sustainable. “I’m not starving myself for shit anymore. I’m too old for that. Been there, done that, it sucked, almost killed me, no thank you,” says Kesha. “I turned 30, I got an ass, and I’m OK with it!”
We order PBRs at the bar, which she appreciates for having a jukebox, a pool table and great burgers. “My man loves the veggie burger,” she says. The bartender compliments Kesha on the eye tattoo on her right palm, seemingly indifferent to who the owner of the tattoo is. Kesha, pleased that she blends in, leans in close to note that she’s wearing a Hawaiian shirt similar to one an older patron wears a few stools down.
Soon after, she leaves the dimly lit bar on a mission: Her friend recently spotted a sea lion around the pier, and she’s determined to find the little guy. When I run into her a bit later nearby, she tells me she couldn’t find him. But her hair is dripping wet.
“We just jumped in!” she says, flinging her arms in the air.
Additional reporting by Claudia Rosenbaum.