“Why are we here?” I ask Kesha Rose Sebert as we lie down on a bubble gum-pink blanket (that reads more childhood bedroom than picnic) on a serene, secluded grassy knoll at Will Rogers State Historic Park in Los Angeles. “I like being outside in big, open spaces; it makes me feel happy and free,” she replies. “I come hiking here a lot. I thought it would be a nice place to do this.”
I first interviewed the wild child of pop in 2011 in a sterile San Francisco hotel conference room surrounded by an ambiguous team of people. Regardless of the fact that it was 10 a.m., the rock star tirelessly kept up the magic of her persona, arriving in full-on superhero regalia and a face heavily frosted with large crystals. Under bad fluorescent lighting, I asked her a slew of hard-hitting questions, like which Muppet is her favorite (Animal, naturally), and if she liked crunchy or smooth peanut butter (crunchy).
Within seconds of meeting her again, on a recent sweltering California afternoon, I knew this was going to be a vastly different experience with a vastly different girl. I arrive early to find the 27-year-old already there—a true unicorn moment when it comes to interviewing musicians, as far as this writer is concerned. She welcomes me with a giant hug, followed by a surprisingly innocent girl-next-door shrug and smile. No face paint, no futuristic costume, no exaggerated gusto in sight. She has bare feet, a mop of bed-head hair, and a freckled, makeup-free face. Clad in cutoffs and a Guns N’ Roses tee (which she literally bought off a guy’s back at a bar in Nashville, her hometown), she evokes a warmer, more ’60s, Marianne Faithfull quality than a steely, sexualized, Blade Runner mystique. I immediately see a different side of a girl who has built her multiple-multiplatinum career (seven consecutive top-10 hits, including the ubiquitous “TiK ToK,” the world’s biggest-selling digital single of 2010) with flashy parrrty anthems, a risqué style, and a take-no-prisoners attitude since she was signed at age 18. Though she is at times polarizing, you would have to be made of stone, or living under one, to not have at least bobbed your head and hummed along to a Kesha track at some point—probably at 1 a.m.
Over the last five years, music’s good-time gal has written and performed buoyant (and sometimes raunchy) YOLO-themed soundtracks fit for high school ragers and wedding reception sing-alongs without skipping a beat. Yet the singer knew she needed to take a break and face a serious personal problem. “Let’s just get the elephant out of the room,” she says, pausing. “My eating disorder is something I’ve been struggling with for a while. People will make up stories, but I went to rehab for an eating disorder—nothing more and nothing less.” In January, Kesha entered Timberline Knolls, a Chicago-area women’s inpatient facility, subsequently canceling her spring tour. “Making my last record, Warrior, was a pretty miserable process, and it wore my spirit down. I was fighting like hell to keep my whole irreverent essence and everything raw and visceral that I stand for in it, but in the end I was promoting something that wasn’t the animal I wanted it to be. I decided to face my problem head-on.”
Battling inner demons is hard for anyone, but when your job is to be a poster child of kickass confidence, continually belting out empowering, self-penned lyrics only intensifies the wake-up call. “My whole message is to love who you are and accept all your beautiful imperfections. When I felt I was slipping into unloving territory with myself, I knew I had to listen to my own advice and correct it,” Kesha explains as we turn in unison onto our stomachs, a sprinkler hissing faintly in the distance. “I have a public persona where I need to be fun all the time, and I refuse to be a hypocrite. I felt I needed to get help, not only for myself but also for my fans. My worst fear in life is to be fake.”
In today’s TMZ-dominated culture, we are no strangers to watching the almost expected, epic tabloidworthy pitfalls of pop stars, actors, and socialites in a Hunger Games kind of way. Kesha is eager to prove she’s evolving rather than unraveling. “To have a breakthrough you have to have a breakdown, and I definitely went through both of those—in hindsight, it saved my life,” she admits. “Things got worse because I’m in an industry where people photograph your body and zoom in and blow it up and put it on the cover of magazines, and other people make terrible comments.” She’s likely referring to the intense public scrutiny she received in 2011, when bikini photos of her on an Australian beach went viral. “It really messed with my head, and I realized I couldn’t do it by myself,” she reveals. “The decision to take control of it is the scariest thing I’ve ever done, and this is coming from someone who dives with sharks and jumps out of airplanes for fun.”
Kesha was able to write 14 new songs during her two months in rehab with the help of a toy Casio keyboard. “The whole process has made me so much stronger and ready to take my life by the horns and make a record that I’m going to be proud of and not care what anybody else thinks!” she exclaims.