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She’s been through hell and back, but on “Praying,” Kesha’s first single in four years, she’s never sounded stronger. The powerful pop anthem marks the singer’s first new release following her ugly, still-ongoing legal battle with Dr. Luke, which began in 2014 after Kesha sued her longtime producer for sexual, physical, and emotional abuse; stuck in her contract with his label, Kemosabe Records, and with the court ruling in his favor again and again, she’s been unable to produce new music ever since. And while parent company Sony has since begun to distance itself from Dr. Luke, it remains to be seen how that will help (or simply complicate) Kesha’s situation.
“Praying” is the first track from Kesha’s upcoming album Rainbow, which comes out on August 11th. And both its lyrics (“You brought the flames and you put me through hell / I had to learn how to fight for myself”) and its accompanying Jonas Åkerlund-directed video — which features Kesha rising from her own coffin, kneeling at a candlelit altar, and walking on water — paint the picture of a woman reborn.
Adding to the religious iconography are the clip’s stunning costumes, which include a silver crown of thorns, a sparkling sacred heart pendant, and not one but two pairs of angel wings. Here, Kesha’s stylist, Samantha Burkhart (who also works with Sia), discusses how “Praying” came together from a fashion standpoint, and the interesting parallels between the video’s standout rainbow gown and another iconic ruffled music-video look. (Lemonade, anyone?)
There’s so much color and sparkle in these costumes. Where did you start, inspiration-wise?
We were very much inspired by the location. We shot out at the Salton Sea and at East Jesus in this town called Niland [California] — it’s very Mad Max — and at Salvation Mountain, which has an amazing history. This guy [Leonard Knight] came back from the Korean War and built the whole structure from scratch! So that was where most of the inspiration for the fashion came; we wanted to do these amazing fashion vignettes in this really beautiful place.
Kesha also really likes vintage, and the late ’60s and ’70s really resonate with her. She grew up in Nashville, so I think she connects with that little-bit-rock-n-roll, little-bit-country moment in history. And there’s a couple of designers who have really embraced that ’70s look.
She really loves what Gucci’s been doing these last couple seasons. The coat and hat in the [funeral] scene, the blue denim suit look, and the lime-green jacket she wears with the butterfly veil are all Gucci. The veil itself is by an artist named Shannon, who designs under the label Gasoline Glamour; she did the heart necklace and the crucifixes, too. She makes really eclectic, interesting pieces.
In addition to those crucifixes, Kesha also wears angel wings several times throughout the video. How did you find them?
The white wings are vintage, from Palace Costume — they have the best vintage in the world. Jonas [Åkerlund] had this idea of a “fucked-up angelic” moment, and he actually really wanted those wings to be black. But I fought for them to be white, because she’s this fallen angel but still very pure and beautiful. The silver jumpsuit is by a new designer, a recent Parsons MFA graduate named Queenie Cao.
With a lot of the artists I work with, it feels right to use up-and-coming designers, so I’m always looking for new ones. I’d seen [Cao’s] MFA show and loved her stuff, and she was able to do some custom pieces for us; she also did the star jumpsuit and cape. I’m so glad we got to use them, because they’re really beautiful.
The gold wings are by a Middle Eastern designer, Amato — a great LA showroom find. [Kesha’s] got another video coming out where we used another gold cape look by them; Jonas actually wanted to use it for this video, but I pushed for the angel wings. It’s just such an iconic moment, her in the angel wings going up that mountain.
I think all the iconography just sort of naturally came together, though. Kesha does love crucifixes, and it seemed to make sense with the story.
In addition to the religious imagery, there are also a lot of rainbow references throughout the video, from Kesha’s nail art to that amazing tiered gown.
I mean, she loves rainbows. That’s kind of what she identifies with on a core level — literally being a rainbow. Anytime we can incorporate anything with rainbows [into her clothing], we do. But that rainbow dress was one of the hardest elements of the video to get right.
There was a Cavalli dress we loved from the resort collection that was sort of our reference, and she really wanted that specific dress. But Jonas was like, “just as long as it doesn’t veer into, you know, the yellow Cavalli dress I recently used in another music video...” Obviously, I didn’t want that either; [Lemonade] was such an iconic moment. So we were like, “Okay, how can we change this?”
There was a lot of back-and-forth about that dress. It was made by an LA designer, Olima, and it was so much work; I don’t think he stopped for three days! I literally had to have an assistant wait in LA the day we were shooting to drive the dress out to the Salton Sea. What’s funny is that [the Lemonade] dress actually has a similar story — it didn’t show up until an hour before they shot that video. They had another dress they were going to use, and Cavalli got it to them just in time!
Maybe that last-minute-ness is some sort of weird good luck charm?
Maybe! We also had to shoot the scene with her on the raft first, which meant the dress had to get wet — she had to go straight into the Salton Sea wearing it. When she’s running down the beach with the flag, you can probably see that the whole back of the train is sopping wet — I think it weighed about 40 pounds! Hopefully we’ll use it for a performance. The length of the train is tiered, so it looks like there’s 10 feet of rainbows behind her. It’s really beautiful.
We actually decided not to use a duplicate [dress], because — and this is something we talked about — [by the end of the video,] it’s kind of like the dress has gone through this entire experience with her. It’s a beautiful rainbow, but not a perfect rainbow. And I think that’s a big message in the song, too: When you’ve gone through a struggle, you don’t have to emerge from it looking perfect.
Did you have a personal favorite look from the video?
It was actually a look that got cut: a Marc Jacobs lace babydoll dress that we did with this amazing crown. I probably called in about 12 looks altogether for her for this video, and not all of them made it. It should’ve been a two-day shoot, but we had to do it in one day. I mean, we got a lot done, but there’s definitely a couple looks that didn’t make it in, and a few other scenes that got cut. But we’ll use [the Marc Jacobs look] for something else!
What’s it like collaborating with Kesha?
I love working with Kesha. She’s such a good person, has such a big heart, and takes care of everyone around her. She also wants to push the boundaries with fashion, and is always sending me things she’s inspired by. Her aesthetic lines up really well with my own, too; I love vintage and color. So it’s a very fluid working relationship, and always really fun.
The first time I worked with her was last year for the Billboard Music Awards, when she did that Bob Dylan tribute. I was so blown away, because I had no idea that she had such an incredible, beautiful voice. This album, and this song, is the moment for everyone — her fans, but also the rest of the world — to see how talented and dynamic she is as an artist.
It’s funny that people are calling this song her comeback. It’s not really a comeback — it’s just a different moment for her. She’s older, she’s gone through a lot of different experiences. I’ve heard a lot of the music on the album, and it’s a great album. She has an incredible voice and is an incredible musician, and I’m just really excited that people get to see that side of her. I think in the past she hasn’t really been allowed to be her authentic self, so what’s been great in working with her on this album is that this is her. This is Kesha.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.