In 2020, after the release of her album High Road, Kesha lost herself.
It was deep into lockdown and the record she dropped at the end of January was sitting like an unfinished house. The music was out but she didn’t get to promote it; she’d only released four music videos, and a tour was out of the question. At the same time, now forced to be still, a strong internal reckoning was raging within her.
“If an artist creates a piece that no one knows exists, are they still an artist?” Kesha wrote this in an artist statement published exclusively on NYLON about the questions she began asking herself at that time. Was she an artist? And if she was, what kind of artist was she? Was she still the one the world got to know as the constantly happy, frivolous, and escapist pop maker of her “Tik Tok” days? Was that ever who she was?
Laying on her bed applying a face mask, Kesha remembers the terrifying unraveling that was happening in her mind during that period. “I saw a lot of these illusions of what I had thought of as absolutes about myself and the world, and I saw them all kind of falling away, and that was really scary,” she says. “It's hard to just be happy all the time. It's not realistic, it's not sustainable, and at a point, it becomes toxic when you pretend to be happy all the time.”
It was under these conditions the singer spawned her fifth studio album Gag Order, whose cover shows her being suffocated by a plastic bag and is perhaps her darkest record to date. Written in a period dotted by anxiety and panic attacks, as well as one colossal mind-shifting ego death moment now memorialized on the project as the song “Eat The Acid” (except she wasn’t on acid), the 13-track project obliterates the idea that Kesha, the pop artist, only makes party bangers.
Produced by Rick Rubin, Gag Order is the most adventurous Kesha has ever sounded. Spare, 808-washed soundscapes bolster electronic ballads about talking to God; stripped-down guitar accompanies voice-breaking belts about the demons living inside her head. A disintegrating interlude from spiritual self-help guru Ram Dass about external validation severs the album in two halves, which ends on a plaintive folk note about just wanting to be happy. Released in May, it’s already being heralded by critics as one of Kesha’s strongest artistic efforts to date. And in some ways, since the singer became wrapped up in her now years-long legal battle with disgraced producer Dr. Luke, whom she sued for sexual assault, battery, emotional abuse, and more — it feels like the most honest music we’ve heard from her.
“I definitely sonically took a risk doing something that was different to what the majority of the world probably associates me with,” she says. “A completely different sound, a completely different look.”
Calling from her home in Los Angeles, Kesha, despite the darker subject matter she’s discussing, is bubbly and relaxed. She’s just gotten back home after a two-week-long vacation in Paris, a small indulgence she allowed herself after spending the last three years hammering out the album. She treated herself to cheese, bread, and wine, mountain biked to Versailles, caught Beyoncé’s Renaissance tour stop, and then went to a drag show that featured all Beyoncé impersonators. “I wanted to give Gag Order its honeymoon,” she says.
It’s on this high when we connected for a deep conversation about the record, one that Kesha says was a highly calculated effort — down to every harmony, key, and note. “When I was doing the last song on the album with Rick, we searched and searched for the saddest key, and I believe it's D minor,” she says. “We specifically went with the saddest key because there's something in our brains that correlates that key to melancholy. I guess I just want people to know that every nanosecond of this record, every harmony, I've poured every fiber of my being into it.”
This interview was edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Three years is a long time to direct your energy into one thing. How are you feeling with how your fans have been embracing these songs?
I’m so indescribably grateful to my fans every day. Of course, I try to interact with them on social media as much as possible, but just the support — I feel like I have this family and allyship and little army that really understands and sees me for who I am. I think, in life, one of the things we crave and need is to be seen and heard.
Do you go online and read about your record?
Honestly, I haven't done it in 10 years. Pre-TikTok, I found social media super overwhelming and I always loved the connection it brought, but it also brought this unfiltered amount of hatred and animosity. I feel like it's a place where people can say whatever they want, to whomever they want, with reckless abandon. Weeding through that came really hard to me so I had to remove myself entirely from it about 10 years ago, but it's been really fun to go on and connect with my fans.
I have a song called “Hate Me Harder,” and that is a love song to my haters because I'm like, b*tch, that's all you got? I do go online and read stuff and I'm questioning whether or not that's necessarily the healthiest thing to do, but if I don’t go and look, then I don’t get to see all my fans making all these videos and re-creating photo shoots and doing dances. I don't want to miss that.
Since you brought up “Hate Me Harder,” I would love to talk about it. I love that you called it a love song to your haters, because that's such a nice way to put it. Was there a specific incident that prompted you to write it?
I’ve been doing music since I was able to talk and I've been putting it out publicly since 2008. So you can imagine I’ve read lots of gnarly, heartbreaking, mean things about myself. It used to become my higher power in a way where I would take one person’s comment as God’s truth about who I am, and I’m so happy to finally be in a place where I can sit back and laugh and not earn my self-worth from external validation, and I just, I f*cking love that song.
That was one of the first songs I wrote when I really seriously started making this album and I went to [songwriter] Justin Tranter and he hosted a tiny little writing camp and we all were sitting in the basement of his house. I was sitting on the floor and I was like, “I just have one part but it goes, hate me harder,” and then everybody in the room starts singing it together. So it's eight people in a room screaming, “Hate me harder.” It just felt so powerful and I thought about how playing that on tour would feel and how that would translate to each and every person, especially the community that is so important to me, the queer community, the LGBTQ+. I just thought of how many people could benefit from taking the pain we've endured from other people's mouths and turning it into power.
Earlier you talked about the importance of being seen. When NYLON published your manifesto, you wrote in your essay that after you released your last album, you were feeling a bit lost. There was a line, like: “If an artist creates a piece that no one knows exist, are they still an artist?” What was missing from the aftermath of High Road that made you feel this way?
As much as I love High Road, I feel like a portion of that album was me trying to manifest happiness in a period in my life that has been obviously publicly very difficult, not going to deny that. So a lot of High Road was me taking the celebratory side of myself back. But what I realized after I put it out, which was very closely followed by this collective trauma we all endured, I didn't get to see the project into its full completion. When I am making an album, I feel like the music is the foundation of the house, and I built this foundation that I was excited to bring to completion. I never got to do that, which was heartbreaking for me, and as I'm saying this, I'm fully aware that was the least of any of our problems in this period of time, but it just felt really sad to me to not get to share it with my fans.
I also realized in the three years since I put that out, that there were a lot of emotions that I wanted to pretend weren't there to create this world of escapism that I'm so well known for. I love escapism, we all need it. [But] to feel like I was being truly authentic and putting my authentic self out there as an artist, I had to go back and address a lot of these emotions that I just wanted to skip over and pretend didn't exist in hopes that they would disappear. I had to go through doing this exorcism of pain and grief and anger, and that's what eventually led to the strength and hopefulness of the last couple songs on the album.
“I just didn't want to keep perpetuating an idea of who I am currently that's not in sync with who I actually am.”
What do you feel like was the biggest false narrative that you were trying to dispel or break free from?
I think that in life, we're all just a culmination of our experiences. We all have a world we've built through what we've experienced in our lives, and that becomes our truth, that becomes our worldview. When I was forced to be still, I even wrote a song called “The Reckoning” because I feel like I came to a reckoning with myself. In this stillness, I had this psychedelic experience, which I've talked about a little before in other interviews, but I was sitting at my house and having so much anxiety and really questioning my worth in the world and my place and what I do and why I do it, and I felt like I had this really transformative, almost transcendent experience where I felt my mind scatter and open up to the idea of there being something greater than me and feeling held by the universe in a way where I didn't feel like I had to control everything anymore.
The first song I wrote for the album was “Eat the Acid” and I wrote that the next day because my mom had always told me, “Don't take acid, this is what alcohol makes you feel like and this is what weed makes you feel like, but just don't ever take acid because you're going to see things and you're never going to be able to unsee them,” and the irony is the divine comedy. I didn't take the acid and I still had this psychedelic [experience].
Like an ego death moment.
Totally. It was like an ego death, and it felt like an ego death and spiritual awakening at the same time. It was really scary, really intense, and really beautiful, and then it became my mission for three years to try to create the sound of what that feels like.
Things that you thought you stood for or you think people think you stand for just kind of falling away.
I just didn't want to keep perpetuating an idea of who I am currently that's not in sync with who I actually am. As an entertainer, sometimes that's scary as f*ck because when you're well known for making one kind of art that sounds like a very particular thing…
They want you to keep making that.
Yeah. And the truth is in life, we all grow, whether we want to or not.
That brings me to “The Drama,” which, for me, is kind of a standout song on the album. It's such a great example of the sonic boundaries you're pushing on this record. How did that song come about and what did it mean for you to write it?
“The Drama” is such an interesting song to me because it started as a ballad and then it became what it is, which I don't even know what to call it. I'm calling the album “post-pop.” And I feel like that song is this crescendo of madness that, to me, was a reflection of the world we live in, and sometimes when I'm on TikTok or Instagram and there's so many sounds you're scrolling through and it can go from happy to sad, and there's so many things coming at you from all angles, so much information. I wanted to make a song that kind of encapsulated the media, the perpetual media bombardment on our senses into a song. So I think of “The Drama” as the sound of TikTok.
The ending of just being about wanting to be a cat, I feel like fits in so well.
Well, in the end, it comes to this place of interpolating the Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Sedated” and I took that song because I always vacuum to the Ramones and I scream Ramones songs while I’m vacuuming in my house. So I wanted to take that, slow it down, and then add the house cat song, which I wrote with Kurt Vile, and mix them together. It really sounded like this desperation for just wanting peace in your mind, but also the very human nature of being addicted to drama.
I think we as a society, if you just look at our consumption of media, we click on things that are salacious and we are, for whatever reason, we are drawn to drama, to bad news, and I really wanted to write a song about the human nature of that because it's funny. Being a person, we want peace and we want happiness, but the drama is what we are all, I think, addicted to.
You're decades into your career and you've had huge hits and big moments in pop culture, and I think a lot of your fans (and non-fans) would agree that you really left a legacy on pop music. At this point, what more do you want from your career and making music moving forward?
I feel like the albums are chapters in the book of my life. So I think I'll always be making music, whether it's privately or publicly or just in my head. It's always there because it's my coping mechanism for life, but the first thing I hope is that people listen to my music and find that they're not alone, and that's especially why I wanted to put some songs out there that were not as overwhelmingly positive. There is no light without dark, there's no dark without light.
I think it's important to show the balance of what my humanity is. I also just want to continue creating a safe space for people to feel like they can be the most authentic version of themself with me and they feel safe. To me, the most important thing in my entire career is helping others to feel seen and helping others to feel safe. So I'm hoping to branch out into some philanthropic things. I'm in the works of opening a drag bar in Nashville, and I just want to continue making people feel seen and people feel safe.