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Ben Folds Talks Performing With Kesha at Billboard Music Awards: 'It Is a Declaration of Independence'

Jeff Kravitz/BBMA2016/FilmMagic
Ben Folds, Kesha and Rob Moose perform onstage during the 2016 Billboard Music Awards at T-Mobile Arena on May 22, 2016 in Las Vegas.

When Kesha took the stage at the 2016 Billboard Music Awards on Sunday night, thousands held their breath, waiting to hear what kind of statement she would make.

Kesha Slays Bob Dylan's 'It Ain't Me, Babe' at 2016 Billboard Music Awards

After all, the singer has been embroiled in a legal battle with former mentor Dr. Luke in which she claims that he raped and psychologically abused her. She was slated to perform a cover of Bob Dylan’s 1964 song “It Ain’t Me, Babe” during the show, but then Luke -- whose contract with the singer gives him veto power over certain performances -- barred her from appearing for fear that she would use it as an opportunity to speak out against him. Then, after receiving assurances that she would not do that, he relented and allowed her to perform. 

That complicated situation formed the backdrop for Sunday night's performance, but Kesha played it straight. Accompanied by pianist Ben Folds and a violinist Rob Moose, she delivering the song in a slow and stately manner, carefully enunciating the song's kiss-off lyrics, showing off her vocal chops without overdoing it. The slow tempo allowed her to play gently and unostentatiously with the song's melody and phrasing, putting a lift here, a pause there. (The three had performed the song at a Folds concert at the Orpheum in Los Angeles on May 19.) She smiled gently at the end, raising her hands together in thanks for the standing ovation that followed.

See the 2016 Billboard Music Awards Photos

Kesha has declined all interviews in recent weeks, but Billboard caught up with Folds the morning after the show. 

Judging by the great reaction to Kesha’s performance last night, do you feel like she'd gotten the chance to show what a good singer she is in the past?

She's been playing a character, to some extent, which she sort of co-authored, and that [character] didn't require [great] singing. And that is not tolerable for her any longer because she's experiencing this idea of personal and artistic growth. She knows what she can do -- to her, it's not like, “World, hear me sing!” I think she's so good it doesn't really occur to her that people really don't understand that she can sing. She's an incredible singer. 

She took a lot of liberties with Dylan’s melody, and with the tempo, without overdoing it. Was that all her?

Yes. We gave her a radical amount of space and she didn't buckle underneath it. There's always some collaboration there, and I wrote one pause into the arrangement, but I didn't write the others and we didn't even rehearse them that way. We were flying without a net -- everything you see on those [awards] shows is computers, and all of sudden we’re in the middle of the stage with a couple of mics. And she took this giant pause that we never even discussed. I mean, I like danger like that -- “Okay, where are we going?” That's real! I love that. So yeah, she's dangerous. She's a badass. 

How long have you known her?

I think we met not long after her first single came out in 2009 or 2010 through a mutual friend. She was a kid and was trying to figure out even then how to navigate all the insanity of her new career with some grace. She was like, “How do you do this and that” and I was like “F--- if I know, Kesha! I never sold 2 million records before, I have no idea what you're going through.” I was supposed to be the old wise man, but she's done shit that I haven’t. She can tell me!

How did she feel about her performance last night?

I think she felt really good. She is a perfectionist, and so her mind immediately ... she came with me like, "Okay, wasn't there a note or two [wrong]? What about this? What about this?" And I was like, “Shhhh -- you did great.” But that's a real musician.

How did it come together?

We were slated to do it for weeks, and [last week] she was heading over to my house and we were getting ready to practice and I got the word that it was in fact canceled. Rob Moose [of yMusic], who played violin [at the BBMAs], and I had arranged it for a small chamber ensemble. And [during the Orpheum performance last week], it went over really well. But then we got the call: “Actually, you're on [for the BBMAs], bring the ensemble.” “Oh, we can't because they're all on airplanes now,” so Rob and I just pared it down.

Were you personally hearing from lawyers that you couldn’t perform at the awards?

No, [her staff] was like “It’s on. It’s off. It’s on.” And everybody in the music business has had legal troubles -- I've had plenty of mine. I don't ask. One of the things I love about her is that her focus was on the music and not on the shit. Like, think of all the shit she could have done with that show! And it would have made for good TV if she wore a shirt that said some bullshit on it, but the fact that she just went inside and made intensely expressive music -- that's class. 

Do you think that was her intention -- just let the music do the talking and leave out all the other noise?

Yeah, I do. She's got venues in which to express herself in all different ways. And I don't think she really saw it as “Now people are really going to hear the way I sing.” She just really wanted to make the song sound great. She was very pure about it. But I think the other consideration for her is the symbolism of what she's doing: standing up for herself personally and artistically. I think she's very aware of her responsibility as a symbol -- she could take the easy road. But she's standing up for her artistic growth and we can see that. When you see someone walking through a little bit of the fire and being on the side of following their heart and instincts, that's great. 

Why did she choose that song?

Well, she just had a list of her favorite songs, and that was one of them. I don't know why she picked it, but I have musical reasons for being very interested in it. Certainly, there was never any meaning discussed behind it that would play into some sort of drama outside the stage. 

She must have known people would be puzzling over, “Why that Dylan song?”

Well, of course, she's got good instincts. That's artistic license -- [some] pop musicians and pop writers are effective at playing with what's biography and what's bullshit. And she's ridden that line really aggressively in being the girl who brushes her teeth with a bottle of Jack [in the lyrics of “Tik Tok”], and people believed that's completely her. And yeah, there's her in that, I see it. But there's also her character. I think Bob Dylan knew that [practice]. I've never connected with Dylan as much as I did last night. To play that song and see it work in the way that it did for Kesha was a powerful connection to Bob Dylan as a songwriter. 

Can you say more about that?

Some of it is the lyrics. [People] want to hear, "I'll be yours forever, everything I do is for you," and this song is the opposite. And if you wanted to make a stretch, it is a declaration of independence of some sort. It's like, “I'm not going to be this for you.” I don't think we're talking about literal things as much as it's a metaphor for a giant -- not just the music business, but people's expectations. And that's not even speaking about all that legal shit -- it’s more about the right of an artist or person to grow. People think they know you, and two, three years later, they want to keep sticking you in that same box because they don't realize that you've grown. And we need symbols, moments like hers, to [explain] that. 

Do you find that the legal mess is constantly consuming her, or is she able to just hang out and have a good time?

Well, oddly, she's more relaxed than I would think. I think she goes back and forth. It’s horrible, I think she's in a hard position. But she’ll talk shit for a while and just be Kesha -- and she’s funny as hell, she has me in stitches. And at the same time I've seen it get the best of her a few times where it's like her nervous system shuts down and it's tears time. But that's to be expected. I can't imagine what that feels like in her position. I've met a lot of rock stars in my day and I haven't heard any of them talk about their responsibility to others, the people that work for them, as much as she does. “Well, I've got people who depend on me, that have kids and have a life and this is all based around this business that we have and I feel very responsible for them.” That's kind of cool. 

Did you guys have plans to play together again soon?

We don't have any plans, but we'll do stuff when the time is right. We've become pretty good buds so I'm sure we'll get together sometime.

Billboard Music Awards 2016