In late January, the day before the release of her fourth full-length album, High Road, I’m on the phone with Kesha telling her about my bad father. I didn’t intend to. It sort of spilled out. High Road includes a ballad called “Father Daughter Dance,” a track I took to immediately. The song, about Kesha never knowing her father, opens with “Oh, I wish my heart wasn’t broken from the start / I never stood a chance.” I surprised myself by crying to those first lines. Because of my soft Scorpio heart, I tell Kesha this. I tell her all about it.
“Oh my goodness, I have chills,” she says slowly.
I’ve written about the estranged relationship I have with my father before. By being so public about a private pain, it’s too often a vain pursuit of mine to seek out a loose camaraderie. Maybe I’m not so alone. Maybe someone in my small corner of the Internet will relate and tell me that we’ll be okay. Kesha echoes this thought back to me with far more precise articulation.
“I really never intended on talking about that side of my life publicly just because it kind of seemed off limits.” But she pushed herself to examine why she felt compelled to, for such an honest person, leave this portion of her life untouched. “It was nothing I ever thought I would discuss publicly, especially in the form of a song. To hear somebody say that they relate to [the song] is why I put it out, even though it makes me incredibly uncomfortable and feel emotions that I haven’t even quite worked out yet.”
For more than a decade, Kesha has given us permission to feel but also to have a really good fucking time. The pop star, formerly Ke$ha, defined the 2010s with her vivacious, youthful, and trashy songs like “TiK ToK,” which spent nine weeks at number one on the Billboard Hot 100, and became one of the best selling digital singles of all time, collecting over $25 million in sales.
Her debut record, 2010’s Animal, was a revelatory, party-praising, unpretentious pop record. And despite profiles at the time that attempted to reduce her work to superficial club bangers, Kesha spoke assuredly about her future as a pop singer with enduring talent.
It feels foreign now to tap into that particular category of sizzling, temporary fun. This concept of fun seems restricted to a certain age range; that when you age out and leave your early 20s or, begin “adulting,” that fun is lost to that moment of time.
And this is what Kesha, now 33, is trying to do still for herself: reclaim a familiar, but more honest, joy that’s entirely on her own terms.
High Road is Kesha fully formed. It takes all the best parts of her career and firmly places them in her own hands, moulding a fun, thoughtful, prickly and sweet record. Kesha executive produced it — a task she enthusiastically took to. “I like being able to control the narrative of what this record is because it will live far beyond my lifespan,” she explains. “I wanted to represent myself in a really honest, authentic way.”
High Road runs through pop, hip-hop, and country. It even finds Kesha rapping again, all emphasizing her I-don’t-give-a-shit-attitude (so enviously formed on the biting “Honey”) and her propensity to fuck all the way off into whatever experience she’s in. She has both Sturgill Simpson and Beach Boys legend Brian Wilson on “Resentment,” cruisemate and legend herself Big Freedia on the single “Raising Hell.”
On “Shadow,” Kesha’s exultation is more a deft proclamation as she sings, “I’m so happy and you hate that/ I love love, I love life” and “get your shadow out of my sunshine.” Here, she sounds liberated. I asked Kesha how she managed to find happiness. It’s a daunting task for an everyday person, but for a pop star? It seems mountainous.
“To maintain your sense of self and, at the same time, entertain and provide people with what they want — I feel like I’ve earned my happiness.”
“I put a lot of work into reclaiming my voice, reclaiming the right to be happy and joyful. I have no reason to be ashamed or to shy away from talking about going out and having a wild party night or having an amazing sex life. These are all things that are realistic in my life and part of living as a human being.”
It invites a moment of pause, and an opportunity to investigate how we treat women who have been generous with us by publicly coming forward with the most difficult moments of their life. Should that trauma remain integral to their art or person and define them going forward? At what point do we say, yes, you deserve to be happy again in whatever way that takes shape?
It should go without saying that Kesha deserves to feel joy. That for everything the pop star has sung about or gone through in the most public way imaginable, at the end of the day, she has more than earned to feel normal and content with her life.
“When people see me for who I really am, I think that’s one of the things that guide me,” she says.