Fitting the bill

By Elizabeth Day

Ke$ha. Photo / Supplied
Ke$ha. Photo / Supplied

How do you pronounce a name that is written with a dollar sign? I ask because I am about to meet Ke$ha, this season's hottest pop poppet, a 22-year-old tousled blonde who is so volcanically trendy that she has already been compared to Madonna and the Beastie Boys, despite only just having released her debut single.

But who cares when she acts the part of wild-eyed rock star so effectively? Today, she is wearing tiny cut-off denim shorts. Her feet are bare, her thin brown arms weighed down by heavy metallic bracelets and her fingernails slicked with black polish. Her mascara is mussed-up and she speaks with a throatiness that hints at a life of parties on the tour bus.

"I could drink a pirate under the table," she admits. "But last night wasn't that late. It was only, like, 2am."

Ke$ha's first album, Animal, out early next year, is filled with what one critic calls "turbo-charged attitudinal electro-shock". People are already calling her the new Lady Gaga.

Yes, Ke$ha is cool; so hip, in fact, that she feels no need to be constrained by boringly conventional things like the alphabet. Is the dollar sign meant to be taken as an ironic comment on the greed of the music industry? I wonder.

"The dollar sign, to be honest, was me taking the piss out of being broke," she says in the Tennessee twang of her native Nashville. Earlier this year, when Ke$ha (pronounced Keh-sha) was an aspiring singer-songwriter, scraping a living in Los Angeles by waitressing and writing songs for other artists, a producer suggested she provide vocals for the Flo Rida cover of Right Round.

The song became a worldwide hit, reaching No1 in five countries, but Ke$ha never saw a cent. "I would hear my voice everywhere - I'd walk into a movie and it would be playing. I'd walk into Walgreens, the grocery store, and it was playing, at a time when I didn't even have enough money to buy my groceries in, like, the dollar store.

"My friends and I would go to this bar where if you bought one shot of tequila, you got free tacos. We were sitting there, my song was playing, and my friend said, 'Whatever. You don't have any money. This is as good as it's going to get'. And she was right. One of my favourite memories in my entire life is sitting in that crappy bar with my friends eating free tacos. There is no correlation between happiness and amounts of money."

Financial security is not something Ke$ha will have to worry about for much longer. TiK ToK, her brazenly irreverent first single, is at No5 in the US charts and has already been No1 in Australia, Canada and New Zealand. It tells the story of "an epic night out, just tearing it down with my best friends" (sample lyric: "Before I leave, I brush my teeth with a bottle of Jack"). Has she actually used Jack Daniel's as a mouthwash? "I absolutely have," she says with a grin. "My music is fun, kind of cheeky."

But there is something of a message in there, too, albeit buried deep beneath the layers of bubblegum electro-pop. And, in person, Ke$ha is smarter than her music might lead you to believe. In Boots and Boys, for instance, she makes a point of singing about the opposite sex in the same way that male performers have traditionally done about women - namely about how their "junk" might look once divested of clothes. "It's time they got a taste of their own medicine," she says, sipping from a mug of tea.

"People are shocked by it, but if I were Guns N' Roses or Van Halen, no one would be surprised. Or a rapper - look at all those songs on the radio that are, like, 'girl go up and down the pole'." She curls her lip contemptuously. "I mean, dance for me dudes!"

Does she get frustrated by the double standard? "Totally. But it's life. I understand I'm supposed to be feminine and dainty, but I'm not.

"People are more impressed with things that I do because they almost treat you as if you're handicapped if you're a woman ... people can be impressed that I can play a few chords on the guitar."

Ke$ha can do substantially more than that. She has written hits for Miley Cyrus and Australian girl-band the Veronicas, and she continues to write all her own material. Raised in Nashville, she was influenced by country music..

Her single mother, Pebe Sebert ("It's pronounced Pee-Bee, like peanut butter,") was a songwriter for country artists including Dolly Parton and would often take her children (Ke$ha has two brothers, Lagan, 28, and Louis, 10) to the recording studio while she worked.

It was a happy but impoverished upbringing. For a while, the family relied on welfare and food stamps. "One of my first memories was of my mother saying, 'If you want something at Target [the budget American chainstore], you have to take it,"' she says. "It was a Kitty Cat stuffed animal. I don't remember if I took it or not. I was about 3 or 4 at the time but I was happy."

At 17, she was set to go to the prestigious Barnard College, to study psychology and comparative religion, when the music producer Dr Luke (who had worked with Kelis and Britney Spears) rang wanting to sign her up after having heard her material.

"I quit school and moved to LA, and since then I've forgotten everything about Pythagorean theorem."

Her mother backed her decision.

"The most amazing part of her parenting was allowing me to do what I needed to do. She would say, 'You can drink. Don't drive. You can have sex. Wear a condom'. That's why I have stayed in check so much."

Does she ever wish her upbringing had been more conventional? "No way. She cared about the right stuff."

Her mother gave her "a very strong sense of who and what I am. Before I make any decision, I make sure it's with the right intention. They wanted to use one of my songs for a fast-food commercial and I didn't think it was appropriate, so I said no, and it was for a lot of money."

Was it McDonald's? "I can't say," she replies with an impish smile.

"My mum's a badass ... she has balls. You need that in this industry, in this world, to stand up for what you believe in. She taught me that you don't need anybody else to validate anything."

Ke$ha says she did not miss having a father around and is not bothered that she does not know who he is. When Ke$ha first moved to LA, her mother sent her off with an introduction to a man whom Pebe said was "probably" her father. "He said I could stay with him and have this father/daughter thing. Then I met him at the airport and I instantly knew, 'There's no way you're my dad'. I mean, you just know if someone is your contributor to your being of life."

She pauses. "But I moved in with him anyway because I didn't know anyone else in LA." Apparently, he spent most of his time sitting in an armchair playing video games.

With fortuitous timing, Ke$ha met a boy - "it was love at first sight" - and moved in with him for the next four years, during which time she wrote songs for other artists, worked on her album and got fired from her a waitressing jobs from several restaurants. "I'm too emotional," she explains.

"People would be rude and I would start crying. Weird energy freaks me out."

She also found the time to meet her idol, Prince - by breaking into his house. "I'd been in LA about a year and it was three in the afternoon on a Tuesday. I remember it was a very random day."

Ke$ha drove to Prince's house, only to be confronted by a security gate. "I decided to wedge my body under the gate but I didn't quite fit." She had to bribe a passing gardener $5 to pull her through. Then she walked up the driveway - "which was laced with purple velvet" - before discovering that his front door had been left unlocked. "What would you do?" she shrieks. "You would go in! It's like a personal invitation from fate."

Once inside, she took the elevator upstairs to discover Prince playing his guitar down the corridor. "I called my mum and said, 'What do I do?' She said, 'I guess give him your CD."'

So she did. And then a security guard threw her out. "Prince was totally nice. He's short, yeah, but he's amazing." Has she ever heard back from him? Ke$ha grins. "Not yet," she says, and the emphasis is placed firmly on the second word.

Lowdown

Who: Ke$ha, born Kesha Rose Sebert
What: Hit single TiK ToK and debut album Animals (due for release 2010)

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