"I was so inspired," says Folds of performing with Kesha after her set was originally canceled amid her legal battle with Dr. Luke

By Jeff Nelson
May 23, 2016 10:35 PM
Steve Granitz/WireImage

Kesha is a warrior – so says her Billboard Music Awards collaborator Ben Folds.

Sunday night, Kesha took the stage in Las Vegas with singer-songwriter Folds to perform a stripped-down, solemn cover of Bob Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me, Babe.” And while the performance went off without a hitch, it almost never happened in the first place.

Following a dramatic week, she was pulled from then reinstated to the show’s lineup after her label, Kemosabe Records, rescinded its initial approval of the performance before coming to an agreement. (When the set was first canceled, Kesha performed the Dylan song with Folds at a show in Los Angeles.)

Kesha, 29, is currently in a lawsuit with Kemosabe head and longtime producer Dr. Luke, 42, whom she alleges drugged and raped her. (Luke vehemently denies the claims.) When the opposing parties came to an agreement on the ‘Billboard” performance, the label released a statement, telling PEOPLE: “Kesha’s performance … was always approved, in good faith” and was “only suspended when Kemosabe learned Kesha was to use the performance as a platform to discuss the litigation.”

Sticking to their agreement, Kesha delivered a stunning rendition of the song, receiving a standing ovation. And while someone screamed ”Free Kesha!’ to a roar from the crowd in the middle of her set, the singer simply acknowledged the applause by waving and blowing kisses to the audience.

PEOPLE caught up with Folds, 49, who has known Kesha since before she broke out with “TiK ToK” in 2010, on Monday. Here, he opens up about their friendship, the days leading up to their performance – and how Kesha is holding up amid her lawsuit.

Ben Folds and Kesha
Jeff Kravitz/BBMA2016/FilmMagic

How did you get to know Kesha?
We met years ago through mutual friend in Nashville; she has roots in Nashville and Los Angeles. And you know, she used to sneak into my shows when she was just breaking and [would wonder], “This is what life is like?” Of course, I couldn’t help her with that – not many of us have experienced the extreme highs like she really hit [so early on in her career]. So I tried to do my best to be the older one and help her out. And as it turns out, we have a similar sense of humor, believe it or not, and just get along well. I love her to death.

How did you get involved with this performance? Why did she choose that Dylan song?
There were a few songs being batted around. And I really, I liked that we could stay really simple with that one and let her do it radically quiet and restrained: I thought that would speak the loudest.

It made it awesomely tense and allowed her to actually do what she should’ve. She’s a great singer, and I’m not sure people have known that before last night. I’ve known that – I’ve said to people for years that she’s a great singer, and she’s a great songwriter. When people hear what she finally puts out there someday, her songs she’s working on, they’re just so good. And she’s always been good. This first album [Animal], her first EP [Cannibal], that’s good songwriting.

I think what she’s done has been fantastic. Imagine if Johnny Cash had written a line about brushing his teeth with a bottle of Jack. That would’ve been huge: It would’ve been like the man in black brushed his teeth with a bottle of Jack. People would’ve been talking about that. But it’s a barely-20-year-old girl singing that, and for whatever reason, she didn’t get the respect. I think she was too good at the character. I think she’s gonna have a long career now.

Kesha
Kevin Winter/Getty

For a while we didn’t know if the performance was going to happen.
No, we didn’t either. I’d already changed my plans. Oh yeah, she came to me, I’d played the song at my show in Los Angeles, and we’d spent some time on it and wanted to play it, but [when it was canceled], it was like, “Alright, well s—.” So then I was on tour with yMusic, which is a classical, small ensemble from New York. And so we just sat down and arranged a small chamber version for her. [When the performance was back on], we just ended up bringing Rob, the violinist, just because everyone was on an airplane going somewhere, and we couldn’t get them all here in the amount of time when we found out last-minute. So Rob and I packed our backpacks and came down.

Why was it so important for her to perform and be heard?
I look at it more as a musical and career development. And I think one of the classiest things about what she did last night was that it wasn’t about drama – it was just about music and just about a beautiful song.

I think that what means something to me is the symbolism, particularly from a female artist, but any kind of artist this is true for. We live in an age where the gravity pulls an artist into a product. So you start off as an artist, as a human being, and people go, “Ah, I love that first record; it’s beautiful.” Listen to their third, fourth, fifth records if they get that far: They get more programmed, more wrapped up, more money spent on it, and it just sounds like a f—ing computer with their head stuck out of it. So what you have is the, basically the tyranny of the trend of artist to product.

But what you have with her is perhaps the only one of I’ve seen of this sort in my life, which is product to artist. And that doesn’t disparage her early work because it’s fantastic, but it is incredibly produced – there’s product. And now she’s standing and delivering. And I think that’s one of the reasons [the Billboard performance] was so powerful: not the legal emancipation, but it’s a personal growth.

This has been under our nose the whole time: One of the best singers, she’s just like right there. We’ve been throwing garbage at her feet? Awesome, we love her. You know, it’s really inspiring. I was so inspired last night. I’ve been making records for damn near three decades, and I found that one of the highlights so far [has been] to be a part of someone just getting to soar like that. Again, I think it’s real important for me to keep saying that I really love her [earlier work]. But I think the people can agree that going from naughty dance music to commanding the simplest, bravest performance that we’ve seen on television, that was a trajectory that was inspiring.

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The reaction was so positive – the standing ovation, the cheers.
And it was so quiet. I think that was part of it. There’s power in quiet, and you just don’t hear quiet, ever. You never hear that dynamic. Someone can come on and say, ‘Look, bitches, I can belt.’ And they can sing and they can be dramatic and whatever, but it’s the quiet part, that’s what separates the real thing from everybody else. And you don’t see it done much. I saw Gaga do it once, and it was chilling. And that’s the way Sinead O’Connor used to roll.

Yeah, there were those moments when she belted out, but could you imagine that control where you make everyone wait? Because in that room we had been listening to (makes electronic noises) all f—ing night, and everything was so loud and spaced out, it was like a rave. And then the person who’s like the f—ing queen of the rave, the dance commander, comes out, and it got so quiet. It was so quiet; it made it chillingly tense. And as a musician, you wanna fill the gap. But she didn’t give them anything. She even put in these pauses before the chorus, which she hadn’t even done in rehearsal. It was like, “Okay gang, what are we doing?” Then, “BOOM – downbeat.” I loved that.

The crowd’s reaction was incredible. How was she feeling afterward, with all of that support?
Well she’s a perfectionist, so in our relationship, first, for me was to try and assure her that it was as good as it was, because she’ll go looking for flat notes. But I think once the evidence was in that people loved it – despite whatever it was that she felt like she could’ve done better. But that’s a good sign: That’s another way you know she’s the real deal.

Do you guys have any more collaborations in the works?
I’m sure we will. We did a bit before anyway. I did some strings for her songs, but I don’t think they really quite made the album. I think by the time they got through the cheesegrinder, they sounded like a synthesizer, which would’ve been cheaper. But yeah we’ll do some stuff, I’m sure. And if not, she’s my bud; either way it’s good.

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A lot of people are saying now, with the lawsuit, she doesn’t own her voice right now.
Even if you take out the drama out of it, being a part of anyone’s growth as an artist because you’ll shed your skin, you’ll do it again, you’ll morph over and over again.

Once she starts to own whatever next incarnation, that’s what I like about her. I’m not trying to talk her into, ‘Oh, you should make all of that kind of music.’ She should do anything she wants to. If she wants to make another dance record, she should do that, but she should do it because she wants to. Now she’s the one with the instinct and the control, and the next time she puts something out, the most important is for her to be on her terms. Because the symbolism of that, especially for female artists, is you know, she’s aware of her responsibility to other people in this, which I really admire.

That’s where she was so distraught about when we were getting canceled. The first thing out of her mouth, after tears, was: “I have all these people that I’m responsible for.” And not just business, but I think she really feels like a little girl grows up, or a little boy grows up, and they see her development and courage and trajectory, and it occurs to you when you’re 12 years old, you’re like, “Oh, okay, I can insert my own artistic will in this. I don’t have to follow everyone else’s path.” We all need that kind of symbol in our lives.

And it’s not easy on the person who is the center of it. Anyone that would think that this stuff is a walk in the park for anybody should really rethink it. And she’s doing it really gracefully, especially what she’s been through the last three years. She’s really just growing up.

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