From Lizzo to Queen & Beyond: Kesha Shares Albums That Inspired 'High Road'

Kesha
David Needleman 

Kesha photographed Sept. 13, 2019 at Malibu Canyon Ranch in Calabasas, Calif.

When Kesha re-emerged in 2017 with Rainbow, an emotionally resonant masterwork of healing, reflection and recovery, it was clear the pop star was out of the woods after a troubled five-year hiatus. But for all Rainbow's triumphs, it left one question hanging: What comes after the comeback?

With the Friday (Jan. 31) release of High Road, the pop star's next chapter arrives, and it shows us the fullest emotional spectrum of Kesha Rose Sebert we've seen on a single album thus far. Neither divorced from nor defined by her struggles, High Road is wise and wild in equal measure, allowing the party girl of "Tik Tok" to comfortably co-exist with the sagacious survivor of "Praying."

The bass-bumping "Tonight" is ready-made for raging, but "Resentment" (which features the dizzying cast of Brian Wilson, Sturgill Simpson and Wrabel) casts a careful eye on wounded love. Meanwhile, a song like "Cowboy Blues" brilliantly blends both, bringing Kesha's sardonic self-effacement to a painfully relatable tale of romantic regret in the social media era.

"It’s not like just because I’ve gone through something hard I have to lose all sense of my humor and self," Kesha tells Billboard. "I didn’t want to have any boundaries."

Ahead of hopping on the phone with Billboard, Kesha provided us with an eclectic list of albums that inspired High Road: Beastie Boys' Licensed to Ill, Cardi B's Invasion of Privacy, Lizzo's Cuz I Love You, Queen's Jazz, Iggy Pop's Lust for Life and Peaches' The Teaches of Peaches. "My brain is a wild place," she admits with a laugh.

After a brief struggle with her escape artist cat Mr. Peeps ("He is always trying to get outside -- he can open doors, so I had to change all the doorknobs in my house," she explains), here's what Kesha had to say about the genre-defying list of albums that inspired her fourth.

Let's start with Iggy Pop's Lust for Life. You've been a longtime fan and even worked with him. What is it about that album that impacts you?

Whenever I think about my career or accomplishments or goals or life, I’m always comforted thinking about Iggy Pop. Some people pray to Jesus, I kind of pray to Iggy Pop and Bob Dylan and Dolly Parton and Beyonce and let them guide me. Just people I admire and look up to. I’ve seen all the crazy things he’s done in his life and the sonic evolution and the sound he invented just by being himself and embracing the fact that he was a real wild child. He had the same nihilist ideas and outlook on life that I do, but he’s also the godfather of punk. So many different things about him are inspiring. Like him being androgynous -- there’s a quote where he says, "I’m not ashamed of dressing like a woman because there’s nothing shameful about being a woman." The first time we got to meet in real life was when I was working with the Humane Society and PETA for an anti-baby seal fur hunting campaign, and his lust for life -- as a saying, as a song, as an album -- embodies how I feel. I feel like it would be shocking because we make such different genres of music, but I feel like we’re kindred spirits.

The first time I heard the song “Funtime" on The Idiot -- I was young, so I had never taken drugs -- but it was the first time I heard what drugs sounded like. I was living vicariously through him and it was the first time I realized there was so much of my life I could put into my music. You don’t have to be this picture-perfect thing: you can be yourself, put it into your art, and people will like it -- or they won’t. He did crazy shit and he always was pushing boundaries and buttons and he’s iconic. In a world of cancel culture, where everyone’s on the verge of getting cancelled, or the party is over culture, you get a little nervous to say or do what you want to. Then I think about someone like Iggy Pop, and think, 'who do I want to be remembered like? Do I want to be a boundary pusher, or safe?' And I think of all my idols and it returns me to who I am and always being unapologetically honest. 

You also named a couple contemporary albums as influences on High Road: Lizzo's Cuz I Love You and Cardi B's Invasion of Privacy. What draws you to them?

Lizzo is everything that is good and fun and happy and joyful. I met her a couple years ago and I remember thinking, “She’s going to win Grammys before I ever do,” as she should. Just watching her stand behind what she says and be unapologetically herself. Also she’s fucking hilarious, and remembering that’s a side of my personality I like and showing that through my music has always been something that worked in my favor. After putting out Rainbow and “Praying,” I didn’t want to feel like I had to be anything in particular -- especially safe. I’m not one thing.

Lizzo and Cardi B are unapologetically themselves and they have a sense of humor in their life and in their music. They let that shine through their lyrics and performances. What I’ve been through in my past -- some of those things are not the most pleasant, and they’ve been very public -- it doesn’t mean I have to be a tragedy or play it safe. I can still be funny with my life and have fun with music and get fucked up occasionally and be honest about it, and that’s not mutually exclusive. I can do all those things and still have gone through what I’ve gone through and be a happy, joyous person; but also, I’ve gone through some hard things in life. They can all be part of my story. It’s not like just because I’ve gone through something hard I have to lose all sense of my humor and self. 

Sometimes it's hard for the public to see stars as layered humans containing an array of emotions.

Hopefully High Road is a good representation of where I’m at now in my life -- I’m having a lot of fun, but there are moments that are introspective and emotional. On “Father Daughter Dance" and “BFF,” I'm being nostalgic and appreciating what I have in life. And then there are songs like “Raising Hell” and “Tonight” that are celebratory about fucking up what I have -- which is today, and that’s all I know for sure that I have. 

Speaking of "celebratory about fucking up," you listed Boys' Licensed to Ill as another influence.

Yeah! I’ve always loved it since I was, I don’t even remember, I was so young when I heard [Licensed to Ill] but that just blew my mind. It’s so funny. I’m always attracted to when it sounds like people are living their truth in their music. It captured a time in their lives and a spirit. There’s a genuine capturing of the lifestyle they were living. It's a point in time where you’re young, you’re wild, you don’t give a fuck and you’re trying things. They were rapping and taking the piss out of themselves -- and being occasionally offensive to a lot of people -- but it’s also important to remember when you put out your first record, you’re not going to do everything perfect, and that’s okay. That’s a part of what I like about the Beastie Boys’ story: you see them evolve and create different types of sounds. It sounds like they’re having fun while making music and letting people in on their lives, and that’s the kind of music I like to listen to -- it makes me want to join them in their emotional state.

Is that a getting-ready-to-go-out album for you?

Oh hell yeah! Any of these records I put on when I wake up in the morning [pauses]: finish that sentence. (laughs) When I wake up in the morning and I decide to shower that day I would put on any of these records because I know it will set the tone for a good day. I wanna get ready to have a badass day.

I loved "Cowboy Blues," where you talk about social media stalking someone and wondering if they were the one that got away. It's introspective but also very funny.

That song was such a mindfuck writing it; hopefully it is funny because life is funny and sad and fucked up, and love is beautiful and sad and fucked up and funny, and that song is -- hopefully -- sad, funny and kind of fucked up. Nostalgia is the most dangerous and beautiful drug in the world and it fuels a lot of my music. And I just love love, and I can’t help but think about people I love because it’s one of the most amazing experiences we have as human beings. 

On “BFF” you get to sing with someone you love, your co-writer Wrabel.

He’s like a ray of sunshine. That was instant true love the day we met. I’m so happy he’s so talented, he’s one of the most talented human beings I’ve met in my life and I’m lucky I got to write a good portion of this record with him. I really wanted to write a deep, true love song but for your best friend.

The Teaches of Peaches was another album you listed. Was her style a big influence on your rapping?

Definitely. Growing up, that part of my voice that people refer to as rapping -- I feel weird calling it rapping because that’s not even the intention behind it -- I call it shit talking because that’s what I’m doing. But she was one of the first women I heard doing that -- it was that and Blondie's “Rapture” and Peaches, there was this whole genre I didn’t know I was allowed to participate in. And once I tried it and “Tik Tok” came out and people responded to it well, it became part of my sound. On Rainbow, it wasn’t the time or place for that, nor was I in the right headspace for it. I love Rainbow: it’s the first part of my healing. It’s a love letter to myself, like, 'One day you’re going to find your joy.' And this is almost the yang to that. I finally feel like I’m manifesting my happiness through the help of a lot of other people and my fans and family and friends. I’m back in the place where I feel like I can utilize that part of my voice, the shit-talking part. Peaches was one of the first people I ever heard doing that. I was so inspired by it growing up. I remember I saw her playing a concert in the desert and it was one of the best nights of my life. She just does not give a fuck. She does not conform to anyone’s rules of what she should be or should wear or should sound like; she does exactly what she wants. And that’s really inspiring and important as a woman in this business, to have strong female influences that encourage people to be themselves. Because as much as people say it, it’s hard to do that. 

You also named Queen’s Jazz. That one has a lot of hits, but I feel like it's underappreciated as an album.

I listen to a lot of Queen and a lot of Queen on vinyl. But I also love listening to that in my car because it feels like you’re flying through space on a spaceship the way the harmonies pan [back and forth] and the vocal production is so brilliant and inspiring. Especially the first song on my record, “Tonight." I was in a k-hole of Queen records; they were so inventive with everything, especially the vocals. The vocals act almost as instruments, the way they affected them in post and stacked the harmonies. Also Pet Sounds with Brian Wilson and Queen, those are two bands that utilize the studio and harmonies and vocals in such a beautiful, magical way that I’m taken to another dimension when I listen to those records. They’re gorgeous and so creative that it makes you want to, as an artist, [think] 'fuck, I should just give up.' Or you can say, 'maybe I’ll never be quite as amazing as Queen, but I’ll take inspiration from all of these different corners of music.'

Especially on the new record, I didn’t want to have any boundaries with the influence or sound, which is why the influences list is so different. But when you listen to the record, it makes sense. Hopefully it sounds cohesive because my brain is a wild place. It’s not the most cohesive place in the world, but in my brain, it makes sense. 

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