In talking about her new album, Rainbow, Kesha describes making the impossible possible with boundless optimism — like ending up with collaborators from her "wildest of dreams," from the kinds of secret aspirations you're too scared to say aloud. (This includes a duet with Dolly Parton, guitar solos from Eagles Of Death Metal and a horn section courtesy of the Dap-Kings). Or getting locked in a recording booth and having to crawl out through a window — something Kesha refers to as "one of the greatest writing sessions ever."
Of course, it's a little disingenuous to see Rainbow (which was released Friday) only in the light of dreams come true. Kesha remains in a years-long lawsuit with producer Dr. Luke, whom Kesha has accused of sexually and emotionally abusing her. (Dr. Luke, aka Lukasz Gottwald, has counter-sued for defamation.) For a while, it was unclear how — or if — Kesha would release music again. The shadow of this experience hangs over Rainbow, but not in ways you'd expect; it's an album full of hope, one that celebrates love and exhorts the listener to believe in herself.
"This whole album, for me, really is a healing album," she says. "It's healing from so many things from my past and just trying to get back to the most childlike, naive, purest version of myself that I can find — the most free-spirited, un-jaded version of myself."
When we asked Kesha to take us through Rainbow track by track, it was clear she didn't want to rehash the deeply personal issues that have plagued her over the last few years. Instead, she wanted to talk about the music. She told us about her love for Brian Wilson ("I've been obsessively listening to Pet Sounds for a long time," she says) and her desire to uncover emotional truths in her songs ("I was just letting myself be honest with how I felt every day," she explains). She also told us, via email, how her country roots, love of outer space and belief in pursuing kindness all made their way into her Rainbow.
"Bastards" is a song that I wrote by myself on a guitar at about 4 in the morning. I wrote that one because I don't understand why people are so f****** mean to each other, but I can't change it and writing is how I cope with everything. I wrote this song for people who have a hard time understanding that, too. I just don't like bullies, and kindness is not overrated. When I talk about this to my friends, they laugh at me and tell me I sound like I'm 5 years old — but it's true, it's so nice to be nice.
"Let 'Em Talk"
"Let 'Em Talk" is one of my favorite songs on the album. It's kind of part of a running theme: basically it's about those same bastards that try to bring you down, but it's about not caring, letting go of control and letting them do whatever they're gonna do. You can't stop them from talking about you, so just let them talk and while they're talking about you, just dance through it and laugh about it.
"Woman" is another of my favorite songs. This song is about being a woman, a huma, and proud of the confidence I have found. I finally feel like I have earned the right to say "I'm a motherf****** woman." And I've always had that right, but I just feel like a woman now more than ever.
I got to write this song with two amazing men [Drew Pearson and Wrabel] who are so wonderful, and so fabulous, and have really strong feminine sides, and who really loved writing this song with me. I was a really beautiful experience to write this song with two men.
I also remember thinking in one of my wild dreams that I would love to have the Dap-Kings play horns. But then they did and then Saundra Williams, who sang with Sharon Jones, sang background vocals on it too. I hope you can hear how fun it is when you listen to it.
"Hymn" is a song that is for people who feel like they don't have a hymn. Growing up I never felt like I fit in anywhere. The lyrics are "this is a hymn for the hymnless, kids with no religion" --- and religion, for me in this song, doesn't mean religion as in your spiritual belief. But it's more kids with no set exact ways or rules of life that you have decided, or you don't know your absolute truth — you're still trying to figure out what you believe, and what is the connection with the universe and life.
"Praying" is a song that is really special to me. I feel like it shows my voice in a way that it has never been showcased before in my entire life. And it's the first time I've worked with Ryan Lewis, which is really exciting. I'm a huge fan of his work with Macklemore. He came to me with this idea, and I thought it was just so beautiful because I think it's really important to find healing.
Praying for me is meditation; it's also really energetic, it's really introspective, it's very personal. The song itself is also kind of all those same thoughts — It's me talking about going through hard things and coming out the other side and being okay. There's a lyric that says "Sometimes I pray for you at night," and that's just something that I've adopted as a healing mantra for myself. Ex-boyfriends, presidents that I don't like — I actually pray for them, because it brings me relief and it helps me heal.
"Learn To Let Go"
"Learn To Let Go" is a song a I wrote with my mom and Stewart Creighton. The first day, we had written this amazing melody, but then we got stuck, and I was so frustrated. The next day we had breakfast with a friend of mine. And just by talking to her, I was just so inspired to be around someone who has had the past that she's had, but still is this ball of light.
Stuart always tells me that I was in the pool and came running in with a wild idea for the verse and pre-chorus and chorus, dripping wet in an old swim suit — and that is still the vocal that is in the finished song.
I worked with Ricky Reed on "Finding You," and also Justin Tranter, who used to be in this band called Semi Precious Weapons; he's been my friend forever. This song starts with a really interesting, strange — but still beautiful — guitar riff. That's where we started: trying to come up with really odd melodies.
I was like, "Yes, let's stick to that!" — and then was like, "What do we even do with this?" So we just sat on the floor and just started talking, and I remember talking about my boyfriend — about how I just really love him. And I also really, really hope that I have multiple lifetimes, because I can't stand the thought of just one lifetime with the people I love. So this song's about my belief that we have soul groups and when I die I want to find the people I love in the next lifetime. One lifetime is not enough when you love someone so deeply it hurts.
"Rainbow" was the first song I wrote for this record. I was in rehab for my eating disorder. I was sitting on the floor, and I had begged the head of the rehab to let me have a keyboard for one hour a day, and finally she relented. And for that one hour a day I played and wrote "Rainbow." "Rainbow" was just my promise, my letter to myself that things would get better. It was my mantra, because at the end of a storm comes a rainbow. It's also the eighth song on Rainbow, a nod to "God Only Knows" on Pet Sounds.
"Hunt You Down"
"Hunt You Down" is a song I did with Rick Knowles. I was listening to a lot of Dolly Parton and Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings, and other outlaw country. I wanted to get back to my country roots. I remember listening to a song where a guy was talking about how he had his revolver in his pocket, and he was going to shoot the girl because she was sleeping with his best friend or something. And I was like, "OK — Well, if a man can say that, then I'm gonna write a song about how if you cheat on me, I'm gonna kill you." So that's what "Hunt You Down" is — it's kind of my feminist, tongue-in-cheek response to all the outlaw cowboy songs from the male perspective about cheating women.
"Boogie Feet" is a really fun song that I did with my mom and Drew Pearson. We got together and we didn't know what kind of song to write — all I knew was that I just wanted to write a really fun song. I was just in the mood to write a f****** wacky song, and I said "Are you scared of these boogie feet?" I remember my mom saying, "Oh hell no," and Drew was like, "This is really just bad," and everyone was laughing at me. I said, "No, just trust me — it's bad, yes, but in a good way. There is a fine line."
I always imagine visuals for things when I write, so when I was imagining the video for "Boots," I was seeing me walking down the middle of the street in the middle of the desert with the sickest old cowboy boots on, like right out of a Quentin Tarantino film. The lyrics are talking about how I used to have boys around the world, which I thought was very cool — and then all of a sudden my stylist introduced me to this guy named Brad and now I got him on lockdown and I love him. It's a young, fun, being-naked-in-your-boots, boogie love song.
"Old Flames (Can't Hold A Candle to You)"
"Old Flames (Can't Hold a Candle To You)" is a song my mom wrote for Dolly Parton. It was released in 1980, and it has also been recorded by Johnny Cash, June Carter, Dolly Parton and Merle Haggard. It's a classic country music standard. I've played it at tons of my shows, and I've recorded it before — on my Deconstructed EP. I just love the song — it's in our family, and it has always been a dream to record it with Dolly Parton. It's always been one of those ridiculous thing to say out loud so you don't say it. I felt silly ever saying that out loud, because, I mean — it's Dolly Parton.
I have always looked up to Dolly. I always wanted to get a tattoo: "What would Dolly do?" Because I always think about that whenever I'm in a situation or when I'm in an interview. She's just been such a positive compass for me in my career as a woman. The fact that I actually got to sing "Old Flames" with her on this album is a really, really, really big deal for me — I dream really big but I wasn't sure if this one would ever actually happen. Still, every time I listen to it, it gives me full-body chills and it makes me tear up because she's a f****** legend; she's an icon. I'm just so grateful and humbled. This album is special for so many reasons but this just like tops the whole thing off.
My mom started writing it a long time ago. And she played it to me and I remember just thinking like, "This is the greatest song. I f****** love this song." And I thought someone else was going to release it. This was years ago. And I was like, "I'm so happy for you. But if someone doesn't release it, I would definitely love to do this song." It's just so whimsical. It like reminds me of Brian Wilson's "Vegetables" song. It's just so bizarre but brilliant and beautiful and strange.
"Spaceship" is about how I feel like I'm a little bit of an empath and fragile heart for this world. And there's even a line in the second verse that says, "There's too much hurt for this heart. Lord knows this planet feels like a hopeless place. Thank god I'm going back home to outer space." I hope that when we die, that I will just travel up into space and find my soul friends and we'll just float out in the ether in space together. And at the end of the record, it's like the spaceship is taking off back into space. I feel like maybe, because I feel weird down here, maybe I'll feel at home finally back up there.