Entertainment

Kesha's Mom Pebe Sebert On "Vampire" & Having No Regrets On Never Going Solo

“I don’t think I would have lived if I had been successful.”

Pebe Sebert, acclaimed songwriter and mother to Kesha, has released her first song, “Vampire,” after a 35-year wait. After initially recording it in 1984-5 for her partially-completed debut album, Sebert never formally released the song as a tumultuous period of alcohol addiction derailed the beginnings of her solo artist career. “It was very, very definitely me hitting a brick wall,” Sebert tells NYLON one recent morning on Zoom from her home just outside of Nashville, Tennessee.

At 65, Sebert, whose wavy blonde hair is still wet from the shower, doesn’t look back at that time with any regrets. Now an accomplished songwriter who’s written hits for Kesha, Miley Cyrus, Dolly Parton, and more, she’s launching Magic Mission, a fundraising platform to raise money for spay and neuter campaigns in Central America. It was in conjunction with this launch that Sebert decided to finally release some of her old songs, starting with “Vampire” — a process that involved tracking down flaking, quarter-inch tape in her basement and sending it to Guy Roche, whom she originally recorded the track with, to be enhanced digitally. Listen to the song in its sumptuous, synthy glory below — and read on as Sebert took NYLON through the 35-year journey to releasing the song, becoming a solo artist, and what she’s most proud of in her prolific career.

Well, first, how are you feeling about the release of “Vampire”?

I feel the same way I would feel if I saw my mother standing in front of me. My mother passed in 1991. It feels the same, like I'm seeing something that I long thought was gone. I didn't think there would ever be a way for this music to be shared, because at the time I made it, there was nothing other than traditional record companies; there was no other way to share music. It's pretty exciting. A lot of the motivation to put this out is to be more visual for the launch for Magic Mission. It felt like a better reason, because I'm the age where I'm not going to go out and tour. I don't want to be a rock star. It feels very satisfying to have this music come out.

Take me back to when you originally wrote this song. Do you remember when you wrote it?

I was working towards an album career and I think at that point in time, my co-writer had moved to Nashville. I was living in a farm outside of Nashville, and he actually lived in a trailer at the bottom of the hill with his wife — David Vidal and his wife Liz, who was also a great songwriter. He would come up and we would write during the day. You know, I've always been obsessed with all things supernatural and I believed that in that time period… I don't know, somehow we got onto the subject of vampires, and so ultimately we wrote a song that day about vampires. I tried to record that song with live musicians in Nashville and it didn't work out well, because the feel was really, completely wrong. Then, fast forward maybe a year or so, I discovered this brilliant, genius guy who was just a tape copy guy in a studio. He had one of the first synthesizers I'd ever worked with. This was right when synthesizers came out. And so basically, at that point in time, he was able to make this song come to life, instead of live instruments, with the synthesizer.

At that point you were still really wanting to pursue a solo artist career, right?

Yeah, I had worked with people in Tennessee and had part of a record, so I went to Los Angeles and was really shopping around some of the stuff I'd done in Tennessee and in Georgia. I'd worked with a guy, James Stroud, and we'd done some stuff in Macon, Georgia, and that music didn't really feel quite right. I didn't feel like I'd found my voice 100%. In that same time period, when I was spending most of my time in Los Angeles, I did meet Guy [Roche], and he was the one that basically I feel like brought the music to life with his production. I don't think you can be a great artist without the right production, without the right... just being with the right people when you're making the music.

Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist

When you found Guy, did you feel like you found your voice?

He was my guy, yeah. We had a lot of record companies interested. There were a lot of big executives interested because it was really way ahead of its time. I really pushed Guy with the production and we'd start working on something, and he'd pick all these really safe sounds, ‘cause you know they had everything from spaceship sounds. I mean this was brand new. This was literally the dawn of the digital age. It was like being a kid in the candy store, because nobody had ever been able to do this stuff, been able to make a sound that was a cross between a harmonica and a spaceship. [In the studio,] he picks a safe sound and I go, "No, no, no, pick this crazy sound." And he was French, and he'd go, "Pebe, you're crazy. That's a terrible sound. Nobody would ever wanna hear that sound." And I go, "No, no, please, please." And so it was a constant thing of me pushing and him pushing back against me, and most of the time, I won. We had a package of material and "Vampire" is just the first one. I think we'll release the other ones soon.

I know you lost a lot of your original recordings and then you found them again in your basement. What was your reaction when you first heard the song after so many years?

I had some really bad recordings of it that had survived, but all of the richness, the sound quality was so bad that you really couldn't get the same feeling. The original 2-inch tapes were lost, God only knows when or how. And with tapes, the information is on there, but it flakes off like old masking tape. So it has to be handled in a really specific way and baked to try and get the information off of it. Eventually I found that I had done the thing that I always do, which is take the most important things and put it in a really special place, and of course I forgot where the really special place was, so it took me about six months of looking to find these tapes in the basement in a very special container.

Once I found them, I sent them to Guy and he did the whole process with someone — of baking them, and getting the information off — which then we were then able to get on a digital format and enhance.

Was it an emotional moment for you when you heard the enhanced version?

Very emotional. Once again, it's that whole same thing of seeing a ghost or seeing somebody that passed 40 years ago. It was just like, this is a very special moment in my life to have that and to know that people care, even. It's just kind of crazy to me that people care. So I'm just so excited and so proud.

“The people who I need to learn from are the kids or else I'm going to be that old crusty songwriter that nobody wants to write a song with.”

When did you feel that door of being a solo artist had closed for you?

Oh, it was a very specific time, because I had been doing all this work and had this partial album recorded. I felt like I had built this tower out of popsicle sticks and chewing gum, because essentially I was kind of an emotional wreck. I felt like my creativity and everything depended on doing this medication, which of course, you know, I've since learned that I don't need anything to be creative. But I was just not an emotionally together person.

So then in the middle of this, I think it was a Friday, I was supposed to go into the studio the next Monday and do a few songs with another big producer, for Capitol Records. That Friday my ex-husband called me and said, “Look, I've fallen in love with this other woman, and I'm going to bring our son to you and go be with this other woman.” At that point, because I was such an emotional wreck, my sh*t was not together on any level. I was just making it through each day. I had a complete breakdown and ran away from everything. I left the place I was staying and just had a complete breakdown that lasted for a couple years, where I just went and rented an apartment out in the Valley. I didn't let anybody know, just didn't show up for my sessions. The lawyers, the managers, nobody knew where I was. My son ended up coming with me. My ex-husband brought him to live with me and basically... he went to preschool and I drank and the dealer knew where I was and ultimately we were living on welfare.

The end of that was when I decided that I wanted another kid and got pregnant with Kesha. It was a very tumultuous, unhealthy time, and thank God we all lived through it. But that was the end of my recording career. It was very, very definitely me hitting a brick wall. I was emotionally just very immature. If I had been more mature and business-like, it wouldn't have been that way, but I wasn't. It was one of the reasons I mourned it so much because I had really destroyed my own career, single-handedly.

Courtesy of the artist

You have such a beautiful life now and a successful career as a songwriter — and hearing you talk about it now, it doesn't seem like you have many regrets right now.

No, because I feel like every single moment I've ever been through, it's taken to get me to where I am now. I feel like 100%, and I've even had a psychic tell me this, that I wouldn't have lived if I had gone on and become successful, because I was just too unstable. I probably would've been another tragic story and I more than likely wouldn't have had Kesha, or, you know, had my last child Louie. Everything would have been completely different, and I'm really happy with how my life turned out. So I don't really regret anything. I'm just thankful that we all survived it.

What are you most proud of accomplishing in your career as a songwriter? You've worked with so many big artists and Kesha, as well.

Well I guess I'm most proud of surviving. There aren’t many writers who have managed to support themselves for a lifetime, there are very few. And I'm really proud of being one of those people. We've had some very lean years at times, but in the end I've essentially supported myself most of my adult life from being a songwriter. I'm very proud of that. I'm also proud because I've worked with my daughter a lot of the time and a lot of the older writers I know, they get stuck in their ways. There are people who wrote songs 10 or 20 years ago and people who've been successful — that just because they were successful 20 years ago, the way they wrote songs then was better than the ways people are writing songs now.

I work with Kesha and my son, Sage. When I work with younger people who are writing in different ways than I used to write, rather than them going, “Oh great guru songwriter, who's been doing this for 50 years, impart your beautiful wisdom,” they’re like, “You're f*cking doing sh*t that sucks.” Kesha has looked at me and said, "Mom, we don't care what you did in the '80s. That's not what we do now, so either get with it or go away." Most people aren't going to have the benefit of having someone be that brutally honest with them. I realized, I gotta change, I have to learn from 18-year-olds. It doesn't matter if I think I'm a big pro. The people who I need to learn from are the kids or else I'm going to be that old crusty songwriter that nobody wants to write a song with [laughs].

Are there any other projects you can talk about that you're working on now?

Well, Kesha and I have written quite a few songs for their new records, which I probably can't talk about except to say that I personally think she'll get nominated for a Grammy for this one. I think it could be her best.

I don't work with other writers anymore because it's just very difficult to get songs on people's records and really, if you don't have a good working relationship with someone, it's hard to walk in and write a great song for an artist that you're not close with. One of the reasons writing with my daughter works is ‘cause I know every bit about her life, and you can write intimate stuff with somebody when you're that familiar. I feel like now more than ever, people want intimate truths kind of songs. They don't want bullsh*t pop songs anymore. Nobody's really interested in that.

Other than that, I really am working on my dog project and I've written a children's book to go along with the dog project. I feel like I'll maybe write a book or a play someday. But just taking it one day at a time.