Some collabos sound good on paper, but make no sense in your speakers. And then others, like Kesha‘s “Praying,” make zero sense on paper but are pure ecstasy for your ear buds. The dramatic ballad that helped kick off the singer’s return to the spotlight earlier this month served as the opening salvo from Kesha’s first album in nearly five years, Rainbow (Aug. 11) and it came to life thanks to a most unlikely collaboration.
“I started working on ‘Praying’ over a year ago, when I was on tour,” the song’s producer and co-writer, Ryan Lewis, tells Billboard. “I had the foundational verse piano, drums, the song’s escalation, it felt like a huge female ballad waiting to happen. My wife Jackie is the one who thought it would be perfect for Kesha.”
The other half of the multi-platinum Macklemore & Ryan Lewis says he was eager to work with the 30 year-old singer, and after meeting her for a writing session he was blown away by her powerful spirit. “She’s positive, kind, humble, creative as hell and relentless to give it her all,” he says. “Not to mention, she’s a phenomenal singer. There’s something so un-produced about a ballad track, it really shows a singer for exactly who they are. And for Kesha, that was showing her brilliance, raw and unfiltered.”
The combo actually makes perfect sense. Mack & Lewis have built a massive career by remaining fiercely independent and doing things their way, all the way, highlighted by radio-friendly anthems about empowerment, inclusion and respect.
Those qualities form a laundry list of attributes that also describe Kesha’s vibe these days, as she emerges from a dark time battling against her former mentor/producer Dr. Luke over allegations of psychological and sexual abuse, which appears to have fueled an album that promises to be full of defiant anthems.
“Working with Ryan Lewis and [co-writer] Ben Abraham on ‘Praying’ was amazing and so cathartic,” says Kesha. “Ryan initially contacted my management and asked if I was interested in working with him, and I was so excited and flattered because I’m such a fan of his production and previous work with Macklemore. I’ve always been impressed with how they could at one moment make amazing fun songs, but also then create something so progressive and politically charged. For me that’s the perfect balance for a pop song — catchy as f–k, but stands for something and helps people.”
The singer says Lewis came to her with the rough idea for the gospel-tinged ballad and over the course of two days, they formed it into a finished product that features the emotionally tugging lines: “I’m proud of who I am/ No more monsters I can breathe again/ And you said that I was done/ But you were wrong and now the best is yet to come/ Cuz I can make it on my own/ I don’t need you, I found strength I’ve never known.”
“I feel as if my voice had never been showcased like this before, and it simply came from him being super supportive and letting me try things,” she says of the “healing” track, which unleashed something primal from within, including a skyscraping note that she didn’t even know she had. “He encouraged me to try to do whatever I wanted to try, which is where the crazy high note came from. Working with him was easy, perfect and beautiful.”
Lewis is really proud of the result as well, especially because he feels the track achieved the two things he set out to do as a producer: “perfectly” represent the Kesha he met in 2017 and showcase her incredible vocal range. “In the soft verses, I wanted to feel like Kesha was sitting right next to me,” he says. “She doesn’t need to raise her voice, she’s gentle. When the song rises, I wanted to hear the power in Kesha’s voice. I wanted it to be irresistible to scream the word ‘praying’ when you’re in your car, stuck in traffic, even though you can’t hit the note. I didn’t want it absolutely perfect, I wanted it real.”
And, of course, like her he was blown away by the sky-high, Mariah Carey-esque “whistle” note, which he says came out of “f–king nowhere. I stood right up out of my chair,” he says. “It was just me, Kesha and my assistant Darin… and I was like, ‘holy f–k.’ Then she proceeded to do it at least five more times. I don’t think Kesha even knew her voice had such a range. It was one of my favorite moments in the studio, ever.”
Lewis, who is staying busy as Macklemore prepares to release his first solo album in nearly a dozen years — “that’s my brother, our break is 100% out of love and the pursuit of creative growth” — says he’s working on “a bunch of stuff right now” with some incredible artists he can’t talk about just yet, as well as a movie soundtrack song he’s very excited about.
Mostly, though, he’s just happy he could help write a song with lyrics that set out such a powerful, important message. “This song needed to sit in this delicate balance of fight, strength, compassion and hope,” he says. “And nothing felt quite as right as forcing the listener to have patience… Grow with the story, grow with Kesha’s emotion and you get the reward of her singing her heart out by the second chorus.”