If there’s one thing Kesha knows how to do, it’s tell stories. Here’s a pretty good one: Two years ago, the aspiring pop singer and songwriter decided she wanted Prince to produce her first album. So, she found out his address and drove to his Beverly Hills home, where she paid the gardener five dollars to let her squeeze herself under his front gate. Then she hiked up the driveway (which was lined in purple velvet), let herself in through an unlocked side door, and rode the mirrored elevator up to the third floor where the Purple One himself was jamming with his band. “It was kind of awkward,” she recalls, “but who cares, right? So I sat on one of the purple thrones in the room until he noticed me, which he finally did. He was like, ‘How the hell did you get in here?’” she says with a laugh. “His security kicked me out, but not before I left him my demo CD wrapped in a giant purple bow.”
Kesha never did hear from Prince, but the incident speaks volumes about this 22-year-old newcomer’s firecracker personality and determination. “I’ve always known I wanted to be a performer,” she says. “There’s video of me at age five, naked and covered in body paint, saying, ‘I’m going to be a rock star and there’s no way anyone is going to stop me!’ It’s my calling. If I don’t go for it, I’m going to feel like a tool when I’m 50.”
Luckily, Kesha won’t have to find out what regret feels like. She is currently at work writing and recording her debut album with executive producer Dr. Luke, who has scored No. 1 smashes for Britney Spears, Katy Perry, Kelly Clarkson, Avril Lavigne, and Flo Rida. After falling for her playful half-sung/half-rapped vocal delivery on a rough demo, Luke brought Kesha to RCA Records, which signed her in February 2009. The album — which will also feature Kesha’s collaborations with veteran hitmaker Max Martin (Pink, Kelly Clarkson, Britney Spears) and in-demand songwriter/producer Benny Blanco (Katy Perry, 3OH!3, Spank Rock) — is shaping up to be an edgy collection of hard-hitting electro-pop songs, made all the more irresistible by their high-octane punk energy and Kesha’s irreverent lyrics and attitude. “I want my music to be fun, unapologetic, rowdy, quirky, humorous, and interesting,” she says, “but with substance behind it. I’m an emotional person underneath all my fronting. I want people to listen to it and feel like they can relate.”
Not surprisingly, the songs showcase Kesha’s flair for storytelling, though her choice of subject matter isn’t exactly conventional. There’s a song about the time Kesha threw up in a closet during a party at Paris Hilton’s pad (“Party at a Rich Dude’s House”), and one she says is about the time “some dumb bitch fronted like she was my friend but then secretly tried to bring me down” (“Backstabber”), and another about finding out her boyfriend was cheating on her with a famous pop starlet who shall remain nameless (“Kiss & Tell”). Oh, and the one she wrote about beginning to see the universe as a cyclical chain of connected events after meeting a guy in a club (“Chain Reaction,” which has been featured on MTV’s The Hills).
Kesha credits her love for story-songs to spending her formative years hanging out with veteran songwriters in Nashville. Her mom Pebe, a former punk-rock singer, is a songwriter whose career took off in Music City in the late ’70s when a song she co-wrote, called “Old Flames Can’t Hold A Candle To You,” became a hit for Joe Sun in 1978 and a country chart-topper for Dolly Parton in 1980. But by the time Kesha was born in 1987 (during a party in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley), Pebe was going through a bad patch, struggling to support Ke$ha and her older brother through her music. “We were on welfare and food stamps,” Kesha says. “One of my first memories is my mom telling me, ‘If you want something, just take it.’”
In 1991, Pebe moved the family back to Nashville, where she had landed a new publishing deal. Kesha saw the inside of a lot of recording studios. “I thought everyone grew up in a recording studio,” she says. She attended a music school in the Tennessee countryside (“where some of the kids didn’t have any shoes,” she recalls), took songwriting classes, and fell in love with country music greats Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, and Patsy Cline. “I’d listen to these beautiful songs and they all told stories,” she says. “Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline is one of my all-time favorite records.” From time to time, Pebe let Kesha sing on tracks she was working on. “My mom always told me, ‘You have a good voice, practice singing,’ so I’d sing everything all the time,” Kesha says.
When Kesha was 17, she quit high school, “which was crazy because I was enrolled in an International Baccalaureate program and was going to go to Columbia University and study psychology,” she says, “but I wanted to move back to L.A. and pursue my music.” That’s when she met Dr. Luke. “I had been looking for a female artist with an incredible, distinctive voice who had her own style,” Luke says. “Kesha didn’t sound like anybody else.” Dr. Luke was also working with red-hot hip-hop artist Flo Rida on a track for his second album. One night, Kesha was hanging out with them and the rapper told her he wanted a female voice on a track and asked if she wanted to lay down a vocal. Naturally, she obliged. In February, that track, “Right Round,” soared to No. 1, selling more than 636,000 downloads its first week out, and shattering the all-time one-week digital single sales record. (Kesha also contributes her sassy vocal stylings to “Touch Me,” another track from Flo Rida’s 2009 album R.O.O.T.S.)
“When I first heard my voice on ‘Right Round’ on the radio, I started screaming and crying,” Kesha says. “I may seem kind of crazy, but behind it all I have my shit together. I’m working really hard to make this happen and it’s nice to see that hard work pay off. I mean, three years ago I was stealing canned vegetables from the dollar store to survive. Now I’m on a No. 1 song, working on my album, and have a little change in my pocket. To be able to take my mom out to dinner is the best feeling in the world.”