K esha was on the verge of a panic attack in the spring of 2020 when her aging cat Mr. Peeps brought over her headphones. She’d been spiraling a lot back then, like so many people, her anxiety mounting as the pandemic shut down the music industry — but she took her cat’s gesture as a sign that it was time to meditate. And in the midst of a guided meditation she’d done many times before, something shook loose.
“I had this really beautiful, scary, and intense spiritual awakening where it felt like I was talking to my highest self, or God, whatever word you want to say,” she recalls. Three years later, she’s reclining on pristine white sheets with Mr. Peeps beside her at her L.A. home, dressed in simple white leisurewear with her hair in a messy topknot. “I fully thought I was having a mental breakdown. I called my therapist and my doctor. They all were like, ‘Oh, you had a spiritual awakening. Yay! Good job.’ ”
The next day, she wrote a song titled “Eat the Acid,” in which she recounted that night, plus some clutch advice from her mother: “Do whatever you want in your life, but don’t eat acid, because when you eat acid, you see things that you’ll never be able to unsee.”
At the time, she didn’t think the song would ever see the light of day, but in the end, that track became the genesis of her fifth studio album, Gag Order, out on May 19. The album was produced by Rick Rubin, a fellow Pisces who bonded with Kesha over the spirituality that she’d tapped into while not dropping acid.
“I feel like I’m giving birth to the most intimate thing I’ve ever created,” the singer says, sounding as jittery as a high school student at her first recital. It’s a stark contrast to the Ke$ha of 2012, who cheekily extolled the virtues of the “lady-wang” to Rolling Stone (sample sentence: “My lady-wang is becoming increasingly moist by the minute”). Gone is the bravado, the “fuck it” attitude; Kesha is laying it all bare, and she seems genuinely nervous about the world seeing this side of her. “I really dug into some of my uglier emotions and sides of myself that are less fun,” she adds. “It’s scary being vulnerable. The fact that I have compiled an entire record of these emotions, of anger, of insecurity, of anxiety, of grief, of pain, of regret, all of that is so nerve-racking — but it’s also so healing.”
You probably think you know Kesha by now. Whether it’s Ke$ha, the 22-year-old who boasted about brushing her teeth with a bottle of Jack back in 2009, or Kesha at 30, who ostensibly grew up and found herself on 2017’s Rainbow, which came a few years after she checked into a treatment center for mental-health issues and an eating disorder. Thirty-six-year-old Kesha is yet another evolution — which makes sense, because as she says, her twenties were “strange and interesting,” while her thirties have been about self-exploration. “I wrote ‘TiK ToK,’ and ‘the party don’t start ’til I walk in,’ so I almost felt like I was becoming a caricature of this toxic positivity,” she says. “We live in a culture where I feel like we always show our best side. But Rick Rubin created the most beautiful, safe space for me to really dive into these emotions.”
While Rainbow and its follow-up, 2020’s High Road, feature both introspective songs and tracks perfect for getting amped before going out, Gag Order is a true about-face. There’s not much to dance to here, but there’s plenty to chew on. “Living in My Head,” which Kesha says she wrote in the middle of another panic attack, is a painful listen in the tradition of John Lennon’s “Cold Turkey.” “Every time I listen to ‘Living in My Head’ I just want to curl up in a ball and hide,” she says.
Then there’s “Eat the Acid,” which she and Rubin wrote over Zoom early on in the pandemic, her vocals lagging behind the music like her hero Captain Beefheart yelling the lyrics to Trout Mask Replica through the glass of the recording booth. Rubin chose that take — which she recorded on her phone next to her cats’ litter box — for the album. Although they’d go on to record most of the album in professional studios, Rubin kept a lot of Kesha’s iPhone scratch vocals in the mix. “Rick Rubin has access to the nicest microphones known to mankind,” she says. “But the purity and genuine nature of just recording something with what you are holding in your hand on the fly, in the moment, it just captures the magic that was not re-creatable.”
“Fine Line,” which she’s teased on social media, comes the closest to addressing her current legal predicament, which, of course, is echoed in the title of the album. “I feel as if there has been an implied gag order for a very long time now,” she says. “With my ongoing litigation hanging over my head, I have not been able to speak freely because I know everything I say is scrutinized.” Kesha first filed suit against her producer and label owner Dr. Luke in 2014, alleging an extended period of sexual, physical, and emotional abuse and attempting to extricate herself from her contract. Luke, real name Lukasz Gottwald, countersued that same year, vehemently denying all her allegations and claiming that the singer had defamed him. A judge dismissed Kesha’s claims in 2016, largely on the grounds that they were too old, but Luke’s defamation suit continues to this day, despite several appeals. That case is set to go to trial this summer.
Kesha’s anger is palpable in “Fine Line,” in which she rants at “all the doctors and lawyers [who] cut the tongue out of my mouth,” culminating with the line: “But hey, look at all the money we made off me.” It’s a striking statement, given that this reportedly could be the last record in her contract with Dr. Luke’s Kemosabe Records. It’s also a way for her to get a word in edgewise before the trial. (Prior to the interview, RS was instructed not to ask Kesha about the trial since the case is still pending, and her team could not confirm the current status of her contract.)
There’s a lot of fight on this record, with Kesha comparing herself to a demon on more than one track — notably on “Only Love Can Save Us Now,” which kicks off with the most Ke$ha line on the record: “Tell a bitch I can’t jump this Evel Knievel.” It’s also got its share of pain and loss: She wrote “Too Far Gone,” she reveals, after ending her secret engagement to a boyfriend she won’t name, who she says is still a friend.
She says the bittersweet love song “All I Need Is You” is not about her ex, as you might expect, but Mr. Peeps, who almost died in 2022. “I had to go into ninja mode and find medication and learn how to inject him,” she says. “I wrote that song in the middle of him being really sick. It is about loving myself, and it’s also a love song to my highest form of consciousness and to some sort of God. But the seed of that song is about Mr. Peeps, the true love of my life.”
Spirituality has always been a constant in Kesha’s music, even in her wilder Warrior days. But on Gag Order, it’s woven into the fabric of every song. The late Be Here Now author and guru Ram Dass gets a whole interlude (an ex gave her a copy of the book while she was in rehab), Indian philosopher Osho is sampled on “All I Need Is You,” and Oberon Zell, an 80-year-old wizard she met while making her podcast Kesha and the Creepies, appears on the last song, “Happy,” proclaiming: “Sometimes, you think you’re doing the magic, and sometimes you realize the magic is doing you.”
Other collaborators on Gag Order include Kesha’s mom and frequent co-writer, Pebe Sebert (who tells RS she’s proud of Kesha’s burgeoning skills as an “older, wiser human”), and Kesha’s eight-year-old niece, Luna, who features on “Only Love Reprise” reciting a quote from a Fifties LSD experiment: “I wish I could talk in Technicolor.”
“When Luna sees it’s her aunt’s name calling on my phone, she often grabs it and runs off into her room to talk with her auntie for hours,” Kesha’s brother Lagan says. “That’s exactly what happened the day that Kesha was looking for Luna to record some voice-over for her new album.… Making art together is our family business, and I’m so happy to see another generation get into the mix.”
“She’s the sweetest little chicken nugget. We have a great connection,” Kesha adds. “We sit around and try to talk to animals. We meditate together. Sampling or having her feature on the album was so special because I really connect to her when I’m at my happiest and most childlike.”
Most of all, love is a constant on this album — love of her family, love of herself, love of her cats, and sheer love of music. After spending some time at a studio in Hawaii, Kesha and Rubin recorded most of the record at his studio, Shangri-La, in Malibu, where she would often hear Rubin’s friend Neil Young playing guitar across the canyon as the waves crashed below. “It was the most beautiful experience I’ve ever had in my entire life,” she says. “I would just sit and listen, legitimately having happy tears roll down my face.”
Photography Direction by Emma Reeves. Produced by Joe Rodriguez. Styling by Turner for The Wall Group. Hair Styled by Holly Mills for The Wall Group. Makeup by Sandy Ganzer for Forward Artists. Nails by Miho Okawara. Styling assistance by Joey Sigala. Production Assistance by Douglass Stuckey.