Kesha has a very sober side
Here’s something about dealing with criticism that they don’t tell you on the way to becoming one of America’s biggest pop singers. All the tequila shooters, glitter lipsticks, sold-out world tours and slavish affection from boys in spirit animal hoods can’t balm a vicious review. And no one learned this lesson better in the last year and a half than 24-year-old Kesha Sebert, known to pop fans the world over as, simply, Kesha.
“I never expected negativity like this,” Sebert said, regarding the meteoric rise and stratospheric loathing she’s attracted as a tart-mouthed, hook-drunk singer and songwriter since the January 2010 release of her debut dancepop album “Animal.” If she could go back and give advice to herself then, “I’d want to warn myself of all the hate I’d have to endure. I’m an artist and a sensitive person. Hate like that was shocking. But I’d also tell myself that soon you’re going to be playing to rooms full of people who want to see you happy.”
With her sold-out “Get Sleazy” world tour (which stops in L.A. at the Hollywood Palladium on Friday), and unerring ear for chart-exploding singles (including “Tik Tok” and her ravey ode to idiosyncrasy “We R Who We R”), her dark nights of the soul come less frequently. But here’s something else that they probably haven’t told you about the young woman who scored a No. 1 chorus singing “We’re dancing like we’re dumb” — she’s gradually becoming an influential pop songwriter too.
She’s got a writing credit on Britney Spears’ sleek and insatiable new single “Till the World Ends” atop a long catalog of her self-penned album tracks and work for Miley Cyrus and others. This makes her a rarity among the hyper-specialization of today’s pop machinery: a solo female chart topper with a singular aesthetic who can capably pen for her peers. In that, she may be a hater’s true worst nightmare: a Bob Dylan for late-adolescent party nihilists.
“I still don’t understand how it’s gone over everyone’s heads that Kesha is reviving everything that was great about rock & roll: the libido, the rebelliousness, the excess and the fun,” said Marc-Edouard Leon, an L.A. director behind several of Kesha’s viral and tour videos with his directing team Skinny, and who starred as her elephant-riding lover in the video for “Your Love Is My Drug.” He calls her clandestinely witty songwriting “akin to Michael Bay directing a Jack Kerouac screenplay.”
This craft savvy isn’t wholly unexpected, given Kesha’s unique upbringing in the music-biz-brat axis. Her mother, Pebe, was a professional songwriter and helped get her demo into the hands of her producers-to-be Lukasz Gottwald and Max Martin. Kesha began her career with country ambitions, which may be where she learned to write in the voice of hard-drinking women.
But she has little recent precedent as a brash female radio presence uninterested in playing off pop’s virgin/whore complex (Katy Perry), celebrity metaphysics (Spears) or highbrow pretensions (Lady Gaga). There’s a feminism to be found in the first-personal-plural weirdo anthem “We R Who We R.” But she won’t show up at the MTV Video Music Awards in a meat dress.
“I’m not art, I’m truth,” she said. “I take a lot of [flack] for saying I drink, but I’m not embarrassed about it. I’m like a rowdy little sister, not a beauty queen or super serious, and I embrace that. My only message is being positive.”
A big part of Kesha’s endearing mythology is her reputation as a recovering Echo Park party monster. In interviews, she dog-whistles to locals about long nights at the Gold Room and scarfing from the salsa bar at Taco Zone at Alvarado and Sunset. While this has earned some unexpected goodwill from otherwise too-cool-for-school L.A. and indie crowds (seriously, ask anyone from the gothy post-punks Io Echo to the Black Keys), it also raises a maybe-unprecedented question — how does a loudmouth hipster authentically maintain that personality as a pop phenomenon?
For Kesha, that simply means adding a few decimal points to her tab at the same bars she always went to.
“Honest to god, the only difference is that now I can pay for someone to drive us around,” she said. “I still go to the same … bars, my friend still showed her … for free tacos at the same taco truck, and we all just went back to my hotel room instead of my house at 7 in the morning. All my friends here are lovely, talented people not out for social status reasons.”
And yet she has to maintain that loucheness alongside the very real expectations of a major label’s balance sheet. Although she’s got two of the most capable producers in pop at her beck and call, the next phase of her career might be to underline how little she’s dependent on them.
A recent long EP “Cannibal” and remix album nicely bookended “Animal,” but her next move is to plan what will surely be one of 2012’s most scrutinized records. She says she’s on a steady diet of ‘70s bands and pure testosterone-fueled rock lately, and early looks at this tour promise to put her musicianship upfront — she plays guitar, drums and even a touch of theremin onstage. After the success of “Till the World Ends,” she’s eager for new outside writing projects as well.
In the thick of all the hate, Kesha’s best (and harshest) critic may be herself, and her best asset as a pop star might be her own smart need to get dumb songs exactly right.
“I’ve had to learn that a song is never done until it’s perfect,” she said. “I consider myself a songwriter first, and it’s an out-of-body experience to pretend to be someone else for six hours in a session. I’ll roll my eyes and turn it off when I hear my own song on the radio. But when I hear Britney singing something I wrote, I’ll blow my speakers out.”
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