Saturday 24 February 2018

'The shitstorm is over... this is the beginning of the good stuff'

After a long legal battle with a producer she accused of abuse, an emotional Kesha unveiled her first album in five years to a small group of journalists in an intimate playback. Shilpa Ganatra was there to hear how her darkest days have added mettle to her dancefloor beats

Kesha
Kesha

Shilpa Ganatra

Now her darkest days are over, it's fitting that it's searingly sunny when Kesha Rose Sebert, the pop princess turned feminist case in point, announces her comeback in London. Finally.

Nervous, fragile and relieved, she introduces Rainbow slowly: trying but failing to keep her composure as she speaks of its fraught creation.

"You're going to write 'she just wept the whole time'," she tells the small gathering of media in a basement bar. "It's just that I didn't know if this day was actually going to come.

"There was a very long, long… long period of time when I wasn't sure if I was able to put out music again, and that's all I ever wanted to do since I can remember being a person. So when I couldn't, that was really difficult.

"That's why I'm so grateful for it to be real. But now, the floodgates have opened with my emotions, so I'm probably going to cry for the next seven days straight."

As it is, the first public taster of her new songs, 'Praying', has been heralded as a bold and brave return, with more gravitas than previous work like 'TiK ToK' and 'Die Young'.

In her first incarnation, Ke$ha, as she was then known, was defined by her dancefloor beats and tongue-in-cheek lyrics that earned her over 87 million sales and streams, two MTV reality series and the fame she sought when she moved to LA aged 18.

But only now, she explains, is she fulfilling her potential.

"I've never felt like I've written anything close to this," she explains. "I've never been in touch with a huge part of who I am and who I've become.

"This is the project I've always dreamt of making. There was part of me that was maybe scared to make it, I don't know. The stars didn't quite align until now, but they finally have. This album is truly from the inside of my guts."

The five-year wait for the release might not sound like a troubling hiatus, but it's a lifetime given the breakneck speed of pop. Five years ago, One Direction were working on their second album, Ed Sheeran's first album + was one of the year's bestsellers, and 'Call Me Maybe' was hogging the airwaves. The conclusion: it's not an ideal length of time to take out.

The pause was made all the more distressing by its reason: Kesha was unable to terminate her contract with her mentor and chief executive of Sony subsidiary Kemosabe Records, Dr Luke, who she alleged had emotionally, physically and sexually abused her.

The resulting outrage was evident on Twitter, where the #FreeKesha hashtag drew support from female artists familiar with an industry inherently biased towards svengalis. Lorde, Lily Allen and Lady Gaga were just a few who lent their support; squad leader Taylor Swift sent Kesha $250,000 for court costs.

But public opinion and the resultant discussions over gender politics in the music business hasn't swayed the courts; the legal battle has continued since 2014, becoming messier with more litigation and counterclaims by Dr Luke, who denies wrongdoing.

The terms under which she releases her new material aren't clear, other than the news Dr Luke has left his position at Kemosabe, moving to parent company Sony in an unknown capacity. Rainbow, due out on August 11, is released by Kemosabe/RCA as per Kesha's contract, but presumably the only times their paths are likely to cross is at Sony's Grammy afterparty.

In the intervening years - it's been four since her last Irish performance in Cork as part of the Live at the Marquee shows - the 30-year-old has matured musically as well as personally. The elegant piano in 'Praying' shows that Rainbow uses a full palette of colours, and the lyrical translucence means there's no second-guessing the subject matter. The opening lines are: "You almost had me fooled/Told me that I was nothing without you/And after everything you've done/I can thank you for how strong I have become."

Judging by the six songs played at its launch last week, it's possible to file some of Rainbow's gutsy and glossy songs alongside Katy Perry and Miley Cyrus in keeping with her previous work, and some of the hooks are a little lost in overthought. But the level at which she's expanded and the emotive power in her vocal performance are the elements that shine brightest.

Both are evident in the title track, the first song written for the album.

"I wrote 'Rainbow' for myself when I was in a really sad, lonely, dark place - I was in rehab for an eating disorder," she explains (part of her lawsuit alleges that the bulimia was due to Dr Luke's pressure over her weight).

"I remember sitting on the floor not knowing what to do with my emotions, and I decided what to do was to write a song. [It] is a promise letter to myself that we were going to make it."

For us, it's a lesson in never underestimating a pop star. Flanked by Ben Folds' luscious orchestral arrangement, her vocal performance is magical, and its message impressively strong for the difficult circumstance in which she wrote it.

Along with Mr Folds, collaborators for the album include the Dap-Kings, Dolly Parton on a joint version of 'Old Flame Can't Hold a Candle To You' (co-written by Kesha's mother, who also contributed to other tracks on the album), and, curiously, scuzzy rock outfit Eagles of Death Metal.

Not all the tracks relate directly to her personal ordeal; 'Learn to Let Go' was written after seeing a friend who'd overcome a troubled childhood; 'Hymn for the Hymnless' is a lighter, wave-your-hands-in-the-air track ("even though I've gone through dark times, a side of myself is so light… so I didn't want the album to be a bunch of downer songs") and 'Woman', with its many expletives, was inspired by the sitting American president.

"I know everyone is feeling Donald Trump around the world and his… ewness," she says. "['Woman'] was prompted by his 'grabbing a woman by the pussy' which infuriated me as a hardcore feminist. So I wrote this about being a badass mother**king woman who you don't want to f**k with."

The Grammy Award-winning Ricky Reed, producer on a number of tracks, has said that Rainbow is "heart-stopping; I think it's gonna change the world".

While that prediction remains to be seen, it's at least made a strong statement about gender politics, about creative freedom, and about inner strength. And as Kesha says, there's more to come.

"This is the rainbow - the shitstorm's over," she smiles. "This is the beginning of the good stuff."

Single 'Praying' is out now and Rainbow is released on August 11 on Kemosabe Records/RCA

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