More than 35 years ago, Nashville-based songwriter Pebe Sebert was set to become the next big pop star, with a major-label deal in the works. But when she was blindsided by the news that her then-husband, country artist Hugh Moffatt, was leaving her for another woman, she suffered a breakdown, never showing up for her debut album’s big recording session and instead going on a drug bender that literally lasted for years.
Eventually, Sebert kicked drugs, rebuilt her career from scratch, and had her daughter Kesha, who grew up become a pop superstar in her own right. Sebert went on to co-write 16 songs for her daughter (including “Animal,” “Cannibal,” “Warrior,” “Your Love Is My Drug,” and the Pitbull collaboration “Timber”) as well as tracks for the likes Miley Cyrus and Miranda Cosgrove, — but she always considered her shelved 1985 album to be one of “truly tragic things that happened to me in my life” and “the one thing that I regretted the most.”
However, in early 2021, after searching through “10 garbage cans full of cassette tapes in my basement,” Sebert finally found the original half-inch tapes from the 1984 demo sessions she’d done with a then-unknown producer, Guy Roche (who later worked with Christina Aguilera, Brandy, Selena, Aaliyah, Gladys Knight, Natasha Bedingfield, Cher, and Celine Dion). “I spent probably six months or a year trying to find these tapes and couldn’t, and then one day I thought, ‘Maybe I would have put these in the place where I would put photographs, because these were such special tapes to me, so sentimental. They’re like my unborn children,’” Sebert tells Yahoo Entertainment/SiriusXM Volume. “And sure enough, they were in a box with the photos.” She then reconnected with Roche, who was able to salvage and digitize the dusty recordings, and now her favorite song from that era, the spooky synthpop bop “Vampire,” is finally being released.
While Sebert did do a new “Vampire” remix featuring Kesha, in the end, she “opted to go ahead and just put the version up with just me on it right now … I feel like I hide behind my kids too a little bit.” However, while she did uncover six other old songs that she hopes to release in the future, Sebert has no desire to record any new music under her own name and pick up where she left off in 1985. “I’ve definitely gotten to live the life of a rock star without being one, because I’ve gotten to be with my daughter,” she chuckles.
Below, Sebert speaks candidly about the extramarital affair that shattered her world, her lost ‘80s years, the near-death experience that convinced her to get sober, the bizarre cult movie Kesha doesn’t want to you see, how going to rehab with Kesha in 2014 caused a rift between them, the state of her self-admittedly dysfunctional relationship with Kesha today, and how releasing “Vampire” gave her the closure she craved.
Yahoo Entertainment: So, you just dropped a new single — but it’s not really a new single. I feel we should just dive into the whole history of how this “Vampire” project came to be.
Pebe Sebert: Well, basically what happened is I wrote this song… I think it was 1984. I was working on an artist project and I ended up trying to record it with live musicians and it didn’t come out right. So, I had met this guy in a basement who was a tape-copy guy who was also sweeping the floors, a little French guy named Guy Roche, who later went on to become a super-famous producer. And he had the first DX7 synthesizer I’d ever seen. So, we would go in and work on stuff, him and I, on the weekends when nobody was there. I realized he was more talented than any of the other people who were supposedly running this place — like, he was the true, hidden gem of talent there. And so we recorded it in probably 1985.
During this time I was living in Nashville but I was working in L.A. all the time, working on my record, and I had a failing marriage. Eventually at some point in 1985, I had this package of music together that Guy and I had worked on and I had several big record companies interested, and one of the record companies set up a big session for me with one of their big producers and managers and lawyers — the whole nine yards. And then my ex-husband called me up and said he’d fallen in love with my son’s Montessori school teacher, and he was basically leaving me. So, this was on Friday, and the sessions were the following Monday. And I was very immature, emotionally; I was not a complete drug addict, but definitely I was using more than I should have, and definitely drinking way too much. So, I just really lost it and disappeared.
I don’t think you should be so hard on yourself about being “emotionally immature” at that time. I don’t think most women would handle the news that their husband was having an affair with their kid’s teacher very well.
Well, maybe not. But I mean, I just felt like I had all the ducks in a row. It was the perfect storm: Monday was the big day, I got the news on Friday, and then he flew out and brought my son Lagan out to me in the middle of all that. And I just completely lost it and disappeared. I went and rented a duplex in the Valley, and the only person who knew where I was for six months was the drug dealer. I just lost it so completely that I didn’t really know what to do. And a lot of the people that I was working with — not Guy, but some of the other people in my musical circles — were all friends of both Hugh and I, so certain people maybe said, “Oh, what do you expect? Of course he would leave you, because you were always in L.A. working on your career!” I do have to say, it wasn’t a great marriage and it wasn’t really his fault. I mean, he’s still happily married to that woman. In retrospect, it was the best thing that could’ve ever happened.
OK, but how uncool was it that your supposed friends were blaming the marriage’s failure on you, because you were pursuing your own career goals in music? What an antiquated, patriarchal thing to say!
Well, this was the ‘80s! Anyway, I fell apart and cut contact with pretty much almost everybody I was working with. … I was just a mess for several years. I walked away from my publishing deal because they had said something that pissed me off, and I was living on welfare, and nobody knew where I was. All those lawyers and managers, all those record company people — I just didn’t show up for the sessions the next week.
So, to be clear, at the time that you recorded “Vampire,” you were supposed to be working on your debut album, and you literally just ghosted?
Yeah. I just didn’t show up.
Well, eventually you became a successful songwriter, with a big career behind the scenes. But at that time, were you just persona non grata in the industry? I imagine people might have like, “Oh, do not trust Pebe, she’s unreliable.”
Well, I didn’t really raise my head again within the industry until around ‘91. Fast-forward: At the end of this period, I ended up getting pregnant with Kesha, having her, and I was still not completely sober then. And then eventually I did get completely sober, still living in L.A. But during that time period, we were either living on welfare, or eventually I was being a personal assistant for Steven Spielberg’s personal assistant. I did some classy things, like F.A.R.T.: The Movie, which was something that’s just recently surfaced. Kesha had this big thing that this never be made public, but for F.A.R.T.: The Movie, our band did the music. And Kesha even has a little part in a game show [scene]. I’ve hidden this from the world for many years, but it’s out now.
Well, you had to work!
Yes, I had to work, and I did all kinds of things. … Eventually we came back to Nashville and I spent two years putting together a catalog, because you can’t walk into a publishing deal without a catalog. So, I spent two years waiting tables and cleaning houses, when Kesha was 5 or 6 years old, while I put a catalog together. And then eventually I started being a staff writer again. I’d been a staff writer back in the ‘80s and even the late ‘70s, but then I just kind of removed myself from the industry because I was so ashamed.
Did you pretty much have to start over, because you’d lost any clout you’d had in the ‘80s?
Yeah, when I came back to Nashville, there were all the people who had been Hugh’s and my friends, and since I had stayed in L.A. after we split up, you know, most people assume that I was the crazy one and I was the one that it caused this. It was a big rift. A lot of my friends were people that played tennis with my ex-husband, that sort of stuff, so they were all Team Hugh. So, even though it was probably in my own mind, I perceived that I was not welcomed back in Nashville. I remember one day I waited on a guy that I had helped get one of his first jobs — it was Garth Brooks’s manager, and I’d helped him get a job at ASCAP. Now he was this huge, successful guy. It was just a very humbling time. I would end up cleaning the toilets of somebody I met back when I was a big deal. It was a very humbling experience.
I can imagine, especially since your biggest country hit, “Old Flames Can’t Hold a Candle to You,” which Dolly Parton went to No. 1 with, was co-written with Hugh. And it was about your relationship, right?
Yeah, that was a good line [laughs]. I saw an old boyfriend in town and I went home that night and told Hugh — who I had only been married to for probably a few months — “Oh, I ran into this old flame, but old flames can’t hold a candle to you!” And he said, “You should go write that.” So, I’m like, “I’m going to just sit down and write the most” — in my mind — “cliché country melody I’ve ever thought of,” kind of almost a parody of country. And lo and behold, that was one of the biggest hits of my career.
Is it bittersweet for you that one of your biggest hits is tied to a happy time with your now ex-husband — especially because things went so wrong with him later?
Well, no, because I’m very happy now. … The only way I became the person I am today is because of everything that’s happened, and I’m completely grateful for everything, even the horrible things. I believe in predestined debts, and I feel like I came into this life probably with some debts to pay up. And hopefully I paid them all off. I’ve tried to do my best. But you know, he and I are friends now; I love his children and and his wife. So, it doesn’t make me sad. I’m glad that we had that together.
So, how did you get sober for good?
The big day that I decided to get sober was the day I went to score [drugs] down in Compton, and the guy that I was driving around with was supposed to be getting it for me. I stopped the car and I looked over, and here’s some guy with the machine gun pointed at my head. And I remember doing the foxhole prayer, where it’s like, “God, if you get me out of this, I swear I’ll never touch another illegal drug.” And the guy I was with got out of the car and the guy with machine gun drove down the street, and I turned around and prayed and shook all the way back to Van Nuys. and I’ve never touched an illegal drug since then. So, that was the beginning. I got into recovery… and all I can say is there’s free help out there for anybody who’s got a problem, you’ve just gotta look for it. I basically have been sober from ‘88 up until 2007, at which point I went back out until 2014 — but only on alcohol, thank goodness.
Yes, 2014 was around the time when things were kind of coming to a head with Kesha’s situation with Dr. Luke, and you two checked into rehab together. I imagine going through that together made you guys even closer, right?
Actually, it created kind of a rift between us. There’s just a lot of dysfunction, because unfortunately my children grew up in an alcoholic family. Because I’m an alcoholic. And so, that creates dysfunction and things that do have to be worked through. It’s a lifetime project, and a lot of people in those kinds of families become permanently estranged. We’ve definitely had some pretty rough years, but I think we’re good now. It’s taken a lot of work and a lot of therapy and you name it. But the one thing that’s always been amazing with Kesha and I is even when there were some years that we were barely speaking, we would both show up at a [song]writing appointment — like, not talking, not staying in the same place, nothing — and we walked in the room, and the second we got in the room, we’d start writing. Most of the stuff on the Grammy Award-nominated [Kesha] record [Rainbow] that I had six songs on, most of those were written in circumstances of us not really being friends. We were just walking in rooms and writing these incredible songs together, and then going out in the parking lot and telling each other to go F ourselves. We can be out in the parking lot fighting like a cat and a dog, but we’ll walk into a meeting and we know how to do that and how to behave.
When Kesha was going through that dark legal time with Dr. Luke, were you able to give her any advice about the business at all?
Well, nobody listens to me! The last people that are ever going to take my advice are my three children. My children are just like me. They have to go to the school of hard knocks. There’s nothing I could have ever said or done that has saved anybody. She’s had to find her own way and do her stuff. That’s one thing that I’ve learned in life, that everybody’s got to learn for themselves. … But I think she’s doing great, I really do. I think she’s in a better place today than she’s ever been in. … And we’re very close again. We’re mother and daughter, so sure, once a week we get in a fight about something stupid. But you know, I think that’s pretty typical for mothers and daughters.
Going back to “Vampire” and revisiting that song all these years later after everything that’s happened, how does it feel to hear it again? Does it trigger anything? Does it give you closure?
Oh, so many emotions. I literally would dream about this music, ever since then. From ‘85 until now, I’ve had so many dreams over the years about how this music somehow being put out and being well-received — not so much dreams about being a star, but just that people knew it and talked about it. And then I’d wake up and just cry. Even after the last time I was in rehab, I remember [the subject of] this music came up as one of the truly tragic things that happened to me in my life. Like, not putting that music out was truly like I had murdered someone — that’s what it felt like. It was something I couldn’t take back, the one thing that I regretted the most.
I’d worked my entire life, and my own mom was such a strong supporter of me and believed in me and helped me in so many ways, and I just wanted to put that music out for her. When she was alive, I always promised her I’d take her to the Grammys. And I felt like I blew it. So, the real ache of my entire life was this music. It’s kind of indescribable how it feels to actually share it. I’m a strong believer in spirits and I definitely communicate with dead people, and I definitely like feel like it’s a happy time for my mom too. She’s like, “You did it. You finally did it. You waited till you were 65, you did it.”
The above interview has been edited for length and clarity is taken from Pebe Sebert’s appearance on the SiriusXM show “Volume West.” Full audio of that conversation is available via the SiriusXM app.
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