The Liberation of Kesha

Before she could make one of the year's best albums, Kesha had to save her own life

Kesha opens up about beating a life-threatening eating disorder, and how her personal struggles informed her new Number One LP, 'Rainbow.' Credit: Peggy Sirota for Rolling Stone

"Can we start again?" The tall woman in the vintage Stones T-shirt isn't happy with her scream. She's standing in a vocal booth, sweating a bit. "When I sing really high," she says, "it makes me really hot. And not in a sexy way." The stately guitar riffage of T. Rex's 1972 nugget "Children of the Revolution" kicks back in, and this time Kesha greets it with a feral "Yowww!" Way better. She carries on.

"You can bump and grind," she yelps, at the top of her range, big vibrato fluttering, "if it's
 good for your mind." As she sings, her hands weave tapestries in the air. Each of her long, manicured fingernails has a tiny, perfect rainbow painted on it; there are turquoise bracelets on both of her wrists. Out in the control room, producer Hal Willner, a white-haired, Falstaffian 61-year-old, nods along – the track is intended for a multi-artist tribute LP he's assembling for late T. Rex frontman Marc Bolan, one of Kesha's many old-rock-dude heroes (she calls him her "glitter twin," and name-checked T. Rex's Electric Warrior on the 2012 track "Wherever You Are").

This evening's session 
is at Los Angeles' the Village studios, an old-school-luxe complex that birthed albums from Aja to Tusk to Doggystyle. Kesha is currently howling her way through her sixth take of the night, after shrugging off the jacket of her custom-made shiny-striped suit, which she's complemented with cowboy boots. She sounds great, looks cool. But who even is this person? Clearly, the old Ke$ha – she of the digitally enhanced vocals and the half-rapping and the whiskey-assisted dental hygiene and the party at a rich dude's house – can't come to the phone right now. At age 30, as she recovers from an eating disorder that nearly killed her and an ugly, still-unresolved legal battle with her long-time producer, Kesha Rose Sebert wants us to meet the real her, at last.

A Nashville friend who guides her through "yoga and chanting and stuff," advising her on mantras – "hippie shit" – told her that "we all want to be seen," a piece of wisdom that resonated. "I feel like myself," says Kesha, "for the first time ever. And I made a record I'm extremely proud of, from the bottom of my guts – I excavated the most gnarly lyrics that were so difficult for me. And people still like it! It's really beautiful, and it's very healing. I feel like I'm being seen for what I actually am, and people are OK with it."

The gut excavation resulted in the eclectic Rainbow, her long-delayed third album, which turned out to be one of this year's best – raw, emotionally complex, a total surprise. If the old Kesha hits, for all their fun, had a hint of the robotic, this untamed music could be heard as a Westworld-style rebellion. She leans hard into rock & roll, especially on two bouncy tracks recorded with Eagles of Death Metal, whom she's known since she was a teen superfan, sneaking into their shows and becoming a band pal by age 14. "I was like, 'You want us to be on the record,'" says that band's frontman, Jesse Hughes, "'when there's a lot on the line?'" Hughes notes that he ended up doing some engineering on the session, because one of Kesha's producers was so deep into modern pop that he "wasn't really that sure how to mic live drums."

There's country, too, appropriately enough for an artist who spent some of her childhood in Nashville, practicing yodeling in her backyard. She duets with Dolly Parton on "Old Flames (Can't Hold a Candle to You)," an old song co-written by Kesha's mom and frequent collaborator, Pebe Sebert – it was a country smash for Parton back in 1980. On "Hunt You Down," Kesha pursues an unexpected Sun Studio rockabilly vibe, with the help of Lana Del Rey collaborator Rick Nowels. "What we did," he says, "was very, very natural for her."

Rainbow debuted at Number One in August – not bad for an album that Kesha says she wasn't sure would ever come out. "I've been through a lot," she says, "and a lot we can't talk about." She has decided not to say a further word about her war with her former producer, Dr. Luke, to not even utter his name in our time together. She sued him in 2014, accusing him of "years of unrelenting abuse" and alleging that he raped her – accusations that Luke, born Lukasz Gottwald, denied without equivocation ("I didn't rape Kesha, and I have never had sex with her," he tweeted) and countered with defamation and breach-of-contract lawsuits. He contends that Kesha manufactured the allegations to try to get out of her contracts with him.

There is no end in sight to the conflict, but Kesha at least got her album out, on Kemosabe, the Sony-owned label Dr. Luke founded but no longer runs, after his deal with Sony expired earlier this year. (Dr. Luke's reps argued that there was actually never anything stopping her from releasing the album – his lawyer, Christine Lepera, said that "she exiled herself." Kesha's reps have contended that the option of recording without Dr. Luke wasn't offered until after she sued, and that Luke is suing her under a clause in her contract that requires him to produce at least six songs on her albums.) Now, Kesha seems to be itching to move past the whole thing. "I could fight forever," she sings on the new album, "but life's too short." And there is, it turns out, so much else to talk about.

(Hughes is less discreet on the subject. "When she was going through her shit," he says, unprompted, "we were like her big brothers. I was like, 'Who do I fuck up? You want me to go to his place right now? You want me to beat that fucking contract out of him right now? I will.' That's how strongly I felt about it. That's not even a lie, man.")

Kesha strolls into the control room and listens to her voice glide over a backing track recorded earlier by Elvis Costello's band the Imposters, with Wayne Kramer of the MC5 on guitar. Anticipating this collaboration the other night, Kesha was "playing MC5 records and crying," she says. "'Kick Out the Jams' is one of the greatest songs. The first time I heard that song, I went down a rabbit hole, with MC5 and then Iggy Pop. It was basically the beginning of my life. I was 10 years old!" It would be foolish to underestimate Kesha's music geekery, which in her teenage years extended to stuff as obscure as Captain Beefheart's Safe as Milk: "I figured that, if anything, she'd try to be the next PJ Harvey or something," says Hughes. But instead, she signed her deal with Dr. Luke at age 18, plunging into the great American pop machinery of the past decade.

As her version of "Children of the Revolution" plays on, Kesha wrinkles her freckled, gold-ring-adorned nose in suspicion. Does it sound too good? "Is there anything on it?" she asks, wondering what studio magic might be at work. Just a little reverb, she's told. "It sounds like you're live with that band," says Willner, employing a bedside manner honed over decades.

"That's how I want it to sound," she says. She raises an admonishing finger, eyes narrowed: "Do not even touch a button of Auto-Tune!"

"We wouldn't even know how to use it," Willner replies. She laughs, relieved. An hour later, she gets to hear a near-final version of the song, comped from several of her takes. "That sounds fucking good," she says, and gives an exultant pelvic thrust, directed at no one in particular, or at least no one in the room. What was that, someone asks, amid general laughter. "Y'know, it's not a motion for anyone to suck my dick," she says unconvincingly, and giggles.

Her first two albums, especially the debut, are rife with digitally manipulated vocals, a stylistic choice that was too easy to mistake for a crutch. A lyric to a Rainbow outtake called "Emotional," released as a Japanese bonus track, suggests how deep this issue goes: "When they say I can't sing/I just want to die." But it's not just the Auto-Tune she's over. It's the idea of "perfect," the whole glossy, airbrushed, starved, impossible nightmare of it. "Perfect" made her sick, quite literally. "I don't know how to deal with that word," she says. "'Perfect' is a tricky word. Because it's like, 'What the fuck is perfect? And who gets to decide?' Like, they can shove it up their ass." Instead, she wants to be human, to be vulnerable, to let her life veer off-pitch once in a while, so that "maybe some kid out there" – in a society that offers a selfie-tweaking app called Facetune – "would be like, 'Oh, that's OK, to be just a person.'" 

Kesha is crying. Not sobbing or anything, but her already sparkly blue-gray eyes are getting shiny with tears. She's adjourned to a break room covered in dark wood that evokes the studio's long-ago past as a Masonic temple, and also looks not unlike the creepy basement in Get Out. Kesha has choked herself up thinking about her fans, how "unwavering" they've been. She doesn't mention it, but some of them went as far as holding public protests to try to get her out of her record contract: "Free Kesha," their signs and hashtags read. "I don't know what I did," she says, voice catching, "to deserve such wonderful people in my life."

In a New York court last February, Kesha burst into tears as a judge ruled against her request for a quick injunction that would allow her to record for a different label. (The same judge later dismissed the bulk of her case, in a decision Kesha is appealing even as Dr. Luke's defamation lawsuit continues, with no trial date in sight.) As photos of that moment and word of the judgment spread, her cause became an international sensation, with many of music's most famous women (and some men) expressing solidarity: Adele did so onstage at the Brit Awards, and Taylor Swift went as far as to donate $250,000 toward Kesha's expenses. Swift, Kesha says, "is a fucking sweetheart. Very, very sweet, very, very genuine, extremely generous, picks up the phone every time I call her. My mom doesn't even always pick up the phone!" And, as for Swift's latest controversies: "I'm not really up on my pop culture. Should I know something about it? I live in my record player."

A few minutes later, Kesha begins to cry again, this time thinking about being on the cover of Rolling Stone. "It was my dream since I was a little kid," she says the next day. "I had Rolling Stone covers all over my bedroom at my mom's house. They're grateful tears. They're not sad tears."

No doubt, she's been emotional lately – cracked wide open, really. "I have nothing to hide," she says. "The beautiful, the good, the bad, the ugly, all of it." Recovery from an eating disorder, she explains, brings with it the same kind of eyes-wide-open, shivering-newborn-chick sensitivity that recovering addicts experience. One of Rainbow's co-writers and co-producers, Ricky Reed, remembers her dissolving into tears during sessions and needing some encouragement early on. "I love your ideas," he ended up telling her. "You are a good songwriter. Anybody who's ever told you otherwise is wrong."

Some of the album offers a direct window on her feelings during a three-month stay at a women's inpatient facility called Timberline Knolls, outside Chicago. She wrote a bunch of songs there, after persuading the administration to let her have a battery-operated keyboard. She wasn't allowed to use one with a cord "because you don't want to have anything that could be at all used for suicide. And I was like, 'I respect all of that, but please let me have a keyboard or my brain's going to explode. My head has all these song ideas in it, and I just really need to play an instrument.'"

As it was, she needed headphones for the keyboard, so she used it for an hour at a time, under strict supervision. But the songs came out.

Rainbow opens with "Bastards," a track that encapsulates how far Kesha has strayed from her electro roots. For the first half, all we hear is Kesha's gorgeous, unadorned voice and an acoustic guitar: "I've got too many people that I've got left to prove wrong," she begins. "All those motherfuckers been too mean for too long." The song came to her while she was in traffic one day; she sang most of it into her phone, and rushed to a guitar as soon as she got home. "It just kind of sums up how I feel about mean people," she says. "I feel like being nice is not overrated."

She felt out of place as early as middle school, where the popular kids bullied her. She was an artsy kid, from a quirky family. She had known she wanted to be a singer from the age of two, and her mom treated her impending recording career as an established fact, saying things like, "When you get to put your first record out ..." They would write songs together, "even, like, if we were in a fight about my room not being clean," Kesha says. "And all of a sudden we would leave the bullshit at the door, and we would get in a room with a piano and a guitar and write the most sincere beautiful music. You really can't front when you write with your mom."

Kesha made her own
 clothes, plotted music videos from the age of nine.
 But, again, none of that went
 over too well in school. "I re
fused to conform," Kesha
 recalls, "and they refused
 to be nice." At one point,
 some kids played an elaborate prank that ended with
 her hands tied to a cafete
ria table – a lunch lady had
 to cut her loose. She took to
eating lunch in the bathroom. Later, she would sneak out to spend lunch with a boyfriend who worked at a guitar store. Years afterward, as she sat at awards shows "next to Rihanna and Katy Perry and all that," those feelings came back: "I just felt like so the outcast, the same person sitting at the lunch table." Rainbow ends with "Spaceship," in which she imagines a return to some alien planet where she will finally feel at home.

For many years, Kesha felt that she had to "be a certain size," and took increasingly extreme measures to get there. She says that "certain people" around her would shame her for wanting to eat. (In court papers, she accused Dr. Luke of calling her a "fat fucking refrigerator" – he denies pressuring her to lose weight.) "I really just thought I wasn't supposed to eat food," she recalls. She doesn't hesitate on this topic, doesn't get emotional, even in its darkest corners. She wants people to know this story, wants to be an example of getting help and becoming healthy. "And then if I ever did, I felt very ashamed, and I would make myself throw up because I'd think, 'Oh, my God, I can't believe I actually did that horrible thing. I'm so ashamed of myself because I don't deserve to eat food." Which, on some level, means she decided she didn't deserve to live. She nods at that. "I was slowly, slowly starving myself. And the worse I got and the sicker I got, the better a lot of people around me were saying that I looked. They would just be like, 'Oh, my gosh, keep doing whatever you're doing! You look so beautiful, so stunning.'"

She remembers it all coming to a head at a dinner party with friends and family. She sat there, pretending to eat, trying to figure out how she could hide her food. "And I was like, 'Oh, my God, what if they walk outside and see this food in a bush? Or they see it in the garbage can?' And I just had all this mounting anxiety. And then finally I was like, 'Fuck. This. Shit. Fuck this shit. I'm hungry!' And I am so anxious that I feel like I'm going to explode from all the secrets. All the secret times I'm pretending to eat or other times I'm purging, and I'm trying to not let anybody know. And I'm just fucking sick of this shit. And I remember just shaking because I was so fed up, so anxious, and I was just mad that I had let myself get to that point."

Soon afterward, she pulled her car in to a gas station parking lot and asked her mom to meet her there. She needed help. "I didn't know how to even eat," she says. "At that point, I'd forgotten how to do it." Her mom flew with her to rehab, where a nutritionist taught Kesha how to keep herself alive. "I just remember crying into a carbohydrate," she says, "being like, 'I can't eat it. It's going to make me fat, and if I'm fat, I can't be a singer because pop stars can't eat food – they can't be fat.'"

But even as she started to get her health back, she felt "like a loser." At least until a friend in the music business, one she won't name, called her the day after he won several Grammys. "He was like, 'Congratulations to you,'" she says. "And I was like, 'For what?' And he was like, 'Who cares about my Grammys? You just saved your fucking life.' And I just was blown away by that, because it made me look at the whole thing totally differently." She realized, "Oh, wait. I did just take my life into my own hands and choose life over a slow, painful, shameful self-imposed death. And I need to stop just being so fucking mean to myself."

And what else did she learn in rehab? She laughs. "See album Rainbow," she says.

Kesha is touchingly protective of Ke$ha, her old self. It's almost as if she's her own big sister. You might expect her to disavow some of her old music, to dismiss it as juvenilia or to blame Dr. Luke or the industry at large for crafting a false image – especially since her lawsuit said that Dr. Luke "fully controlled the content" of her albums and that he "forced" her to record "lyrics and songs that she did not wish to include." (He denies all of this.) But instead, she maintains that "Tik Tok" and her other hits simply reflected her younger, wilder self. Sure, she worshipped Bob Dylan and Alice Cooper, but she also loved early Beastie Boys, and it was the rhyming-crunk-with-junk part of her that emerged first. Not to mention tracks like the pride anthem "We R Who We R," which means as much to her fans as "Born This Way" does to Gaga's.

"I loved what I was doing when I was doing it," she says. "It was so much fucking fun! I wouldn't change all the Worst Dressed lists, I wouldn't change the mohawk, I wouldn't change all that shit. I'm proud of myself for being that ballsy young girl that was ready to take life by the balls."

Kesha is smart, Hughes says, to stay connected to her older work. "If you renounce a part of yourself," he says, "you're throwing yourself out with the bathwater – not even the baby."

Despite rumors about the supposed real nature of her rehab, she insists she never had a drug or drinking problem – and that she can be more sure of that than most people, because her treatment program closely examined every aspect of her life. "I looked at everything," she says. "I used to drink more, and now I don't. And that's fine. Truth is, I don't really like alcohol that much."

Kesha was "always a feminist," she says, and she saw value in playfully objectifying dudes ("Turn around, boy/Let me hit that!") in her lyrics. "I was like, 'I'm going to talk about men this way and level the playing field.' And I still think that's fuckin' cool of a woman of that age. And I admire a lot of the stuff I did. Because I truly didn't give a fuck at moments, and that was very cool." But that could harden into a pose. "There were moments when I was in a lot of emotional pain," she says, switching gears. "My feelings would get hurt, and I would just pretend like I didn't give a fuck. It's a front. Put on glitter, act happy." Another shift: "And for the most part, I was really happy."

She was also, however, according to her lawsuit, "broken, damaged and traumatized," and "lived in constant 
fear" of Dr. Luke. (Again, he denies this.) As she tells it now, it was all happening too fast to take in. She wrote and recorded all of her 2010 bonus album, Cannibal, in a single month, for instance. "I just felt like I was like, 'Keep your head above the water, keep going,'" she says, before shifting metaphors: "I was just on a life treadmill, and I was sprinting." 

On the afternoon following her studio session, Kesha has an appointment to get a tattoo. She already has more than 30 of them, including a huge tiger head on the back of her left hand. She got her first one, an anchor on her wrist, from a dude she met on the streets during a trip to Cuba in her late teens. The guy tried to sell her a couch – but when she said she wanted a tattoo, he brought her upstairs and gave her one. He boiled a needle while holding a baby. Thus began her habit of piling on a series of "by-choice scars."

Her current tattooist of choice is more legitimate than the rando in Cuba: one Derrick Snodgrass, a handsome, thick-bearded dude in full motorcycle leathers, an acclaimed artist who works in an upscale shop hidden in the back of a downtown L.A. storefront. "You're making me look scarier and scarier as my life goes on," Kesha tells him, settling into a red folding chair to have a preliminary stencil drawn on her fingers. "I love it."

Today, she's getting an eight-part tattoo across her fingers. She had two ideas: either "Stay free" or "Live free." Snodgrass insisted on the latter. "Stay free," he says, "is a tampon commercial."

"Live free" works for her. "I think," she says, "that it sets the tone for my life pretty well. ... This is never going to be a not-positive message for me." She's wearing a long Western-style shirt over a miniskirt and knee-high boots. She lies on her belly for some of the actual tattoo, which hurts a lot, though not as much as the ones on the palms of her hands – the planet Saturn on the left, an eyeball on the right – did. "It's like being shot over and over," she mumbles. "Aaaah, fuck my life – my finger doesn't like this very much!"

But then it's done. And for good measure, she has Snodgrass fix an adjacent, homemade smiley-face tattoo.

Kesha's boyfriend, a sweet-faced rocker dude named Brad, is jealous of her stardom-powered freedom to get hand tattoos. He kind of wants her to stop. They live together near the canal in Venice, in a house filled with musical instruments and Kesha's three cats: Charlie, Mr. Peeps and Queso.

Her stylist introduced her to Brad a few years back, and Kesha was suspicious at first due to his lack of a beard – facial hair had always been a must for her. "Then he kissed me, and it was the nicest kiss I ever had," she recalls. "I was like, 'Wow, you're such a pure soul. Holy shit.' And I knew from that moment, 'I gotta hold on to you.'" While she was in rehab, he would fly out every weekend to visit. They'd sit and color for a couple of hours – that was their courtship.

She's not sure how long she plans to stay in Venice, happy as she is there. "I don't know if I'm ever going to stay in any one place for a couple years at a time," she says. "I want to live on an island in the Caribbean, on a boat at some point, like that's a goal. But I don't know how my cats would feel about it."

After the tattoo, we stroll through the gentrified downtown streets. When a farm-to-table-y restaurant won't seat us because it's not precisely 5:30 yet, we wander over to a chicken coop that, presumably, supplies the place's eggs.

Kesha has a deep thing for animals. "When I interact with them," she says, "it's like this energy exchange." She is eager to exchange some energy with the four chickens. "I want to pet one," she says, "but I'm scared I'm going to get a hand infection." Instead, she grabs a piece of lettuce from inside their pen and tries to feed it to them through the wire. The chickens, heretofore silent, begin clucking to one another, loudly, as if discussing the weird situation – they're reacting much the way Jerry Seinfeld did on a red carpet this year when Kesha made an unsuccessful attempt to hug him. She translates for the fowl: "Should we trust this lady?"

Trying to befriend a gang of hipster chickens is one thing, but Kesha likes to swim with actual sharks. "I'm like a huge shark ambassador," she says. "I just feel like they get a bad rep. And they're so smart." But don't they, like, eat people? "It depends on the shark," she says. "And it depends on where you go, and it depends on your energy, like, how you behave towards the animal, same as how you'd behave towards a person. If you behave aggressively, usually you'll get aggression back."


Fair enough. But in a world filled with things that bite, is Kesha going to be all right in the end? To answer that, maybe allow her old friend Hughes to tell a story. Once upon a time, she was smoking weed with the guys from Eagles of Death Metal, circa age 16. Some bro – not a band member – grabbed one of her breasts. She calmly asked him if it was an accident, if he had meant to pass her the joint. No, he replied, and she didn't hesitate. "She just fuckin' popped him," Hughes recalls, with palpable admiration. "Boom! Right in the lips, kind of split his upper lip. Then, she forgave him when he apologized."

He laughs. "I admire her," he says. "She's a fuckin' hero, and she's a fighter." He adds one last salient point: "And she wins."