"LET'S GO," Big Freedia commands Kesha on their new single "Raising Hell." Her order, given in that booming, ineffable voice that's become a radio fixture, refuses to be disobeyed. It cuts straight into Kesha's soulful murmuring and gentle piano chords.
While those first few notes up until Freedia's interjection recall Kesha's 2017 release Rainbow. It's a fake-out. A few seconds later the pop star's on a different planet. "I'm all fucked up in my Sunday best/ No walk of shame 'cause I love this dress," she spits gleefully over thumping bass.
The new single from Kesha's forthcoming High Road splits the difference between sweaty Animal-era EDM-pop and Rainbow's balladry, plus a bounce breakdown from Freedia. "Solo cup full of holy spirits/ Somethin' wicked/ Speakin' in tongues in my blood red lipstick," could be a line from "Tik Tok," released nearly ten years ago, if a gospel choir didn't emerge on the next verse.
The "old Kesha" isn't back (Kesha addresses this cheap line explicitly on her latest song, "My Own Dance"). Or not exactly. After Rainbow, an album that saw her exhume trauma for hooks, the 32-year-old's new single introduces us to a new kind of party girl, one with a soul and a purpose. Featuring Big Freedia, the gender-defiant New Orleans bounce legend who brought the genre to the world, certainly helps.
"Raising Hell" is the kind of party where it's fully acceptable to go cry in the bathroom, and there's someone to drive you home if you get too drunk. Everyone's welcome, but dancing till sun-up is still the name of the game.
PAPER got Kesha and Big Freedia on the phone together to learn more.
You two are friends now. What were your first impressions and how did that first meeting go?
Freedia: Well, I don't ever expect to meet a person a certain way, because you never know who's on the other side of the door. So I been got that out of my mind when I'm going to meet somebody. When Kesha and her team invited us to come on the Kesha Cruise, we had a chance to meet and hang out. We connected right off the bat. Kesha was amazing from the time that I met her and we've been moving forward and building a friendship as well as a working relationship, making things happen and making some noise.
Kesha: Wow, I love you. Thank you, that's really sweet. When putting together my dream list to come on the cruise we did together, Freedia was the top person. I like to throw things out there in the universe and I'm okay with having people say no, because if you don't ask, you never know. Freedia, you're an icon, you're a legend. I didn't really expect that you would want to come on the cruise. When you did, I was so thrilled because I'm such a fan and I just think everything you have done — you've created your sound of music, your genre, and I'm just so impressed with everything you've done.
Freedia: Aw, thank you.
Kesha: Well it's true! I had never seen you live but I was watching from the window of my room and as I was getting ready because I was playing right after Freedia. I didn't have my wig on, I had one eyelash on and I was like, "fuck, hold on everybody, I gotta go." And I just ran downstairs.
Freedia: I remember!
Kesha: [laughs] It was one of the best shows I had ever seen. To the point where, there I was, wigless, in the middle of the ocean, running down to meet Freedia. I just wanted to experience your show because it was so energetic.
Freedia: Kesha, I appreciate that so much.
Kesha: Again, it's true! You are such a hard working, amazing genre-bending human being and I've always admired you so to be able to collaborate with you is such an honor, to call you a friend –
Freedia: Likewise. It has been so amazing, just the collaboration. You know, I've collaborated with a lot of people, but the noise that ["Raising Hell"] is making, the impact it's making for people, changing their lives, there's a movement. It has been amazing, just with the response, love and support we're getting. I'm blessed to be on this song with you.
Kesha: I feel the exact same way.
The word on the street is that "Raising Hell" is the result of one particular wild night on the cruise. Can you guys tell me how that night started and ended?
Kesha: [laughs] Well it was the last night of the cruise and we just all wanted to hang out — Freedia, you can go into as much detail as you want, but we ended up getting matching tattoos and having a really wonderful time… you can tell whatever details you want [laughs].
Freedia: I mean… it was perfect.
The matching tattoos are of a dead fish. I have to ask. Why a fish and why dead?
Kesha: [laughs] 'Cuase we're about to murder the radio with a song we wrote on a boat! Actually, just kidding, I'm just making shit up, I have no idea.
You convinced me! I was like "Oh, must be an industry metaphor I don't know about."
Kesha: [laughs] No, I have no idea. I'm just making shit up every time I talk about it. Like, "anybody who fucks with Freedia will sleep with the fishes!" We made a pact!
Freedia: We were thinking about something that would resemble us all being on the boat. We were throwing out so many things out there and we were like, "You know, we're on the water, so why not a fish?" We wanted to be different so we did a dead fish. We gonna make the end of the fish be a chain, you know, to represent Kesha and so that's what we came up with and we were just like, "Let's do it, fuck it."
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Nice. Where is the tattoo?
Kesha: It's on both of our hands.
So after that night, you were like, "We have to collaborate." Kesha, you already had "Raising Hell" written and then Freedia took it to the next level?
Kesha: Completely took it to next level. It would not have been the same song. I had a rough version of "Raising Hell" but I knew something was missing. I also just really wanted Freedia. Honestly, I really wanted you on my first single because I have not heard enough Freedia on the radio. If I can do any part in getting more Freedia on the radio I would like to do so, because she deserves to be all over the radio and I really made it a point, to like, I wanted the first song to have Freedia on it and I wanted to make it so that made sense and hopefully it does.
Freedia: Oh my God, I can't believe this... and [the song] is on just a heavy rotation, so I am very grateful and very thankful.
Kesha: Well, I'm very thankful too, because it wouldn't be what it is without you so it's like you made it extra fucking amazing. It was good. But then we put Freedia on the song and it just took it to a whole new level.
Freedia, you've collaborated with so many pop giants. How do you approach weaving your sound around many different artists, from Kesha to Lizzo to Icona Pop to Drake?
Freedia: The main thing for me is just continuing to be myself and bringing what I have to offer. That's great energy and the hype. You know, I just go in and be myself when an artist comes to me, that's what they want me to be myself and give them Freedia and that's what I do. I love to have fun,because I love to do what I do: go in, have fun and we make magic.
The sound of "Raising Hell," — while it has these gospel and bounce notes from Freedia — sees you, Kesha, return to an older sound of pure electro-pop with hip-hop production. It also reminds you of the ethic that you embodied when most of us met you: carefree, optimistic, debaucherous. How is it feeling like to revisit those sounds and styles?
Kesha: I really view it as reclaiming a sound and an attitude that I have always had inside my soul, which is a free spirit and a love for life and living in the moment because that's all we have. On my last record, I really had to take the time to address more serious issues. But I don't feel like I'm going backwards at all. It was me, stomping my foot down in pop music saying, "I'm not just some tragic, sad bitch." Things happen. You may never recover from them. But you can certainly move on and decide to live the rest of your life full with happiness and joy and positivity, as much as I did before. So for me it was about reclaiming a sound and an attitude of positivity that I'm not going to let somebody else take away from me.
Freedia: That's amazing.
Kesha: Well it definitely helps when Freedia's encouraging you on the song. Like, when Freedia's encouraging you, you really feel like you can conquer the world.
Everything you're describing also comes through so perfectly in the visual. What was the story behind the plot? What inspired the televangelist concept?
Kesha: Something Freedia and I actually talked about when we worked on the song… and some other little secret things… is how spirituality or religion or God or whatever it is you believe in or don't believe in — it's all so personal. It shouldn't be ruled by your sexual preferences or your gender or non-gender. There shouldn't be rules about whether or not you fit with the God you believe in, because God is love. The underlying message of the song, especially heard at the end, is that: this is for anyone. We just want to come and celebrate and feel a part of something and let people feel blessed. This overwhelming positivity is for anyone who has felt like they didn't belong in a certain place for spirituality that they maybe wanted to or felt ostracized from a specific kind of church or religion. I truly believe that spirituality is a personal relationship you have with whatever you believe in. Who you love and who you are shouldn't take away from your spirituality or connection to God.
Kesha: Also, just want to say, I'm really sad Freedia, that you're not in the video. So many people have been like, "Why isn't Freedia in the video?" And trust me, I am so sad you're not in the video, but we tried, the schedules just didn't align. Just want to let everybody know that that was the circumstance, the timing.
Freedia: I know. So much has happened.
Having this single lead out your new record, and having Big Freedia in this song felt like a real "I see you" to your queer fan base. How do you approach that relationship?
Kesha: I want to create a place in my music where people feel they can completely be themselves and celebrate themselves. Not only a place where you can say, "Oh, I survived something," but "I'm fully fucking thriving in who I am." It just so happens that I have a lot of LGBTQ fans that connect with that. I think of myself as a part of that community and will be an ally till I'm six feet underground. So getting to have Freedia on the song — Freedia, especially when I hear you singing on it — it just feels so anthemic in who we are. I wanted to put you on the song because it's exactly who you are. It's a celebration of, not only you being who you are, but me being who I am after all the shit I've been through, finally being able to say "Fuck that" and be happy and not remain unhappy the rest of my life. For all of my queer fans, to just know they have a place to come and just celebrate and be completely themselves.
Freedia: I couldn't have said it better girl.
Kesha: And Freedia, that's obviously a big part of your fanbase as well.
Freedia: Well, most definitely. I rep the LGBTQ community very largely on every platform I can, because they need so many voices, because there's so many of us. I also want to create a free and open space when they listen to my music and when they come to my shows. It doesn't matter who you are — what race, what color, what gender — when you come to a Freedia show, you have a space to be who you are, choose what you want to do, love who you want to love. And like Kesha said, to celebrate and live life with positivity, with love, with great energy, moving forward and knocking down doors and breaking all barriers and making all people come together.
Kesha: Yes! That literally gave me chills. I couldn't have said it better myself. It's so palpable at your show.
Freedia: We both just want to keep creating, and when we leave, our legacy will show that they were a voice for a lot of different people, and helped people enjoy and celebrate life.
Kesha: Oh my God, yes, yes yes!
That message is so palpable in just the cathartic joy in the song. There's just so much energy and humor. All the lyrics are funny and so sharp ("Speaking in tongues in my blood red lipstick"!) but there was one line that made me literally spit out my coffee, which was, "Bounce it up and down where the good Lord split it." It's just a really remarkable way to describe an ass. Could you tell me about writing and singing that line?
Kesha: [laughs] I mean have you been to a Freedia show? It's an ass celebration. I mean, surface level, it's just a really fun song, and the whole song is just a celebration of shaking your ass. It sort of comes from… so Freedia brought me up on stage at her show and I ran downstairs, no wig, no lashes, no shoes on, because I just wanted to participate in the fucking amazing energy of a Freedia show. I'm usually the one playing a show — I don't usually get to enjoy that many shows, so I just couldn't help myself. So she pulled me up on stage and played a song called, "Sit on the Dick" and I'm in, like, these tight ass jeans that are not made for sitting on the dick, let me just tell you. And I was trying to hard to sit on the dick and bounce my ass up and down with like jeans that are not –
Freedia: You did it though.
Kesha: I tried [laughs].
With the power of Freedia, you sat on the dick.
Kesha: I tried, I tried.
Freedia: The fans loved it, they went crazy.
Kesha: It was fun! So with our Kimmel show as well, I just wanted it to be this ass celebration, so I got with the choreographer and I was just like, "I just need this to be an ass parade." After seeing Freedia's show, I thought you would be cool with that because you got all the booty bouncing on stage.
Freedia: It was hot.
Kesha: I wanted to make it choreography Freedia would be proud of.
Freedia: It was hot. It was very hot.
Kesha, there's a lot of unexpected collaborations coming up on your album, The Beach Boys' Brian Wilson, Sturgill Simpson. Freedia, you can speak to this as well, again, jumping from a studio with Freedia, to one with Brian Wilson.
Kesha: It's such an honor to work with people: to reach out, and be met with kindness and support. To me, collaboration me is the highest form of respect in music. For two artists to say each other, "I want to do what I do, with you. I respect you, I see you, and I want you to shine in your way." Working with Freedia was mind blowing. Then on a slower, more depressing song I worked with Sturgill and Brian, and that was totally different vibe. But hey, a different vibe, a different day, a different emotion.I love being able to collaborate with so many different people so many people of different genres of music that I respect so much, and I just feel so lucky. Freedia, I'm so grateful to have done with you. I'm so proud.
Freedia: I'm grateful to Kesha, trust me, I'm grateful, you just don't know girl.
Kesha: That's how I feel too, I could cry. I feel so lucky to have come out a place, where a lot of people have hated me so hard, and to finally be at a stage in my career people who are so epic and are so integral to the reason I make music, want to go into the studio with with me. I feel so seen by my world of music.
That's so cool to hear. In this moment sometimes collaborations can feel a little forced, like people are just trying to calculate the right demographics to sell a song.
Kesha: I've never been one to... I have a dream list and then those are the people I reach out to.
Freedia: When you connect with artists you want to collaborate with — and y'all genuinely connect and become friends before y'all even get to the studio. That's what makes the process so much fun. You get the talking you get the, you know, you get to hang out and you get the vibe, it just makes it a whole different process. You're more creative because the connection and the vibe is even more, versus something that's forced.
Kesha: Exactly. Like you said before, about our legacies when we leave, I'm so happy to have had such an amazing connection with artists that I admire so much. I'm so happy that a part of my legacy will include a song with Freedia, that's hopefully gonna bring joy to a lot of people.
Freedia: It definitely will. It's bringing joy to people right now, and it's gonna reach so many more. Girl, I've been playing it at the end of my show every night and the crowd's been going on. I've been doing it all, don't you worry.
Photography: Dana Trippe