ABOVE: BONNIE MCKEE. PHOTO BY CHRISTOPHER GABELLO, TAKEN ON LOCATION AT CO-OP FOOD & DRINK AT HOTEL ON RIVINGTON, NEW YORK CITY
With her vivid, Popsicle-colored hair, infinitely long legs, and powerful voice, Bonnie McKee doesn't seem like the sort of person who'd be willing to—or who should—stay out of the spotlight in favor of a behind-the-scenes gig. For years, though, that's exactly what she's done. After early success in the business—at age 16, she became the first artist signed to Reprise by Warner Bros. chairman Tom Whalley and released her debut album, Trouble—McKee hit some roadblocks; her singles didn't chart, and she was dropped from the label. So she turned to writing instead, with incredible results: eight of the last two years' number-one singles are McKee projects, including Taio Cruz's "Dynamite" and five Katy Perry songs.
McKee's first love, though, is still performing; and this summer, she's giving her singing career another shot—armed, this time, with the support of some of the music industry's biggest names. Her exuberant first single from the new album due this September, "American Girl," was introduced to the world two weeks ago in the form of a lip-dub video packed top to bottom with talent, from Perry and Ke$ha to Macklemore, who sings the song in a bathtub, and Tommy Lee, who appears in drag as McKee herself. It's a testament to the many friendships McKee's made in Hollywood—and the good company in which she now finds herself. ("And... my competition," Perry sighs at the end of the video.)
We're pleased today to premiere a brand-new video featuring McKee performing an acoustic medley of the hits she's written for other artists. Read on for our interview with McKee, which follows.
ALEXANDRIA SYMONDS: How long did it take you to put the "American Girl" video together? How many emails were sent? It seems like there must have been so many moving parts.
BONNIE MCKEE: It took us about a month to collect everybody. I couldn't believe how many people participated—and not only did they participate—they got really creative. When I got Tommy Lee in drag, as me, flying through the air, upside-down, playing the drums, I literally started crying. I took a reaction video and sent it to him, like, "Look at what you did to me."
SYMONDS: How many of those people were already friends, and how much was just like, "Well I hope George Takei is interested"?
MCKEE: George Takei was kind of a wild card. Kathy Griffin was kind of a wild card. Other than that, I knew everybody.
SYMONDS: Wow, you're very lucky.
MCKEE: I know. I'm very lucky. It's funny, it's probably the most important video I'll ever make, but it cost me nothing—except 10 years of struggling in the industry. [laughs] It's funny that it all kind of came together.
SYMONDS: Could you talk a little about your musical training and how you grew up?
MCKEE: I started singing real young, but the first time I remember being moved to play music was when I was watching M.A.S.H., and I heard the theme song, which is "Suicide is Painless," and I was so deeply moved by it that I went to the piano and picked it out by ear. That was the first time I realized how music could move me emotionally.
SYMONDS: How old were you?
MCKEE: About probably five or six. I was always super, super musical. So my parents recognized that and put me in choirs, piano lessons, and all that. When I moved to Seattle in fourth grade, I joined the Seattle Girls' Choir. It's a world-class choir, and we competed, toured Europe, and went and sang at the Vatican, so it was a really awesome experience to have that young. Then I started writing my own songs from the time I was a little kid. I would write my own lyrics to other people's songs that I heard on the radio and take whatever song and make it about fairies and angels—whatever little girls sing about. When I was about 12 years old, I made a demo of covers of Bette Midler, Carole King, and Fiona Apple and I played it for this guy, Jonathan Poneman from Sub Pop Records, who's done Nirvana and everything. He said, "Well, that's great that you can sing, but can you write? Lots of people can sing." So I just went home and threw myself into it and accepted the challenge. That was when I officially started writing songs.
SYMONDS: Do you have any of the material from those really early days... do you still have that demo? I can only imagine what it must be like to go back to those.
MCKEE: Yeah, my parents have them... they're really funny. They're really old-school, and they're on cassette tapes. The demo that got me signed from my own songs that I wrote was on a cassette tape.
SYMONDS: It seems like everything happened pretty fast for you. The fact that the demo that got you signed happened when you were 16—do you feel like it was a really steep learning curve?
MCKEE: I had that teenage invincibility thing, so I didn't even realize how I had really won the lottery. I always wanted to be a singer and performer, and I remember watching Tina Turner on an HBO special and just being so excited that I jumped out of my seat and was crying. I was just like, "This is what I want to do—I want to make people feel the way people feel the way I do now." So when it came along, I was just like, "Oh, yeah, this is totally normal and natural, to just randomly get a record deal and move to L.A." It wasn't until the second time around that I really appreciated it and realized how hard you really have to work to get where you want to go.
SYMONDS: If you could tell me in general terms, what can we expect from the album?
MCKEE: It's not even completely finished yet. I describe it as very bright, colorful, and visual lyrics, with big choruses. It's a nice marriage between digital and analog, so there are a lot of nostalgic sounds, phonically as far as the music and tracks go, and a lot of nostalgic themes as well. That's been an ongoing thread throughout my career—the teenage experience. When I wrote "Teenage Dream," that was the beginning of that, and so I think that kind of bleeds into my own work as well.
SYMONDS: Did you approach writing songs that you knew you'd be singing differently than you would for Katy, Ke$ha, or any of the other artists you write for?
MCKEE: When I started writing with Katy, I was just broke. I didn't have a cell phone or hot water, so I was really down and out. So I really gave it my all and pulled out all the stops, and all my bells and whistles and tricks up my sleeve, for that, because I was hungry and needed it so badly. As it progressed and as I became a more established songwriter, I started saving all those little tidbits for myself. Of course when I still write with Katy and Ke$ha, I still insert some of that. There are some ideas and themes I keep for myself.
SYMONDS: I'm curious about what you think of your own star persona.
MCKEE: I like to think of myself as the people's pop star a little bit. I respect Lady Gaga so much, and I love what she does, but she has this kind of mysterious, out-of-reach thing. I'm just not that—as much as I'd love to have that sort of mystique, I think I'm kind of an open book.
SYMONDS: Having written eight number-ones in the last year, do you ever feel like you once you leave the house you can't escape your own writing? You turn on the radio, and you wrote that. You're waiting to get your teeth cleaned, and a song comes on and you wrote it.
MCKEE: [laughs] It never gets old, though. After struggling for so long in the industry and writing so many failed songs and hearing no for so long—I'm so grateful every time I hear a song that I was a part of on the radio.
SYMONDS: Are you pretty good at predicting which songs you write for other people are going to end up being super successful?
MCKEE: Sometimes. It's funny—I work a lot with Max Martin and Dr. Luke. I remember the first time it happened was with "Teenage Dream," after we finished the song and vocals and listened back to it and Max Martin turned to me and said, "I wish I could bottle that feeling," and I was like, "What feeling?" because I've never had that feeling before. And he said, "When you know you wrote a hit." So I said, "Oh, is that what this feeling is?" [laughs] I have those feelings occasionally, but then there are other times where I write a song I'm so crazy about and love so much and it does nothing. I don't know if I have a great barometer for that, but the ones that are big, you feel when they happen.
SYMONDS: You've been working with Max Martin and Dr. Luke for four years. What are some of the best lessons you've learned from them?
MCKEE: Every time I write with them I learn something new. They are melody geniuses. I know this may sound like it becomes formulaic—in a lot of ways, pop music is formulaic, but they're like mad scientists. They've got it down to a mathematical equation, but they still somehow manage to write heartfelt, artistic pieces of music. It doesn't feel canned to me—it never does to me. There's something about their songs that always still strikes a cord and plucks at the heart's strings. It's very Warholian in a way, where it's mass-produced but it still makes people feel something.
SYMONDS: We're premiering the acoustic medley video you made, and the way you put all of the songs together flows so well. I'm inclined to think that maybe that's just intuitive for you because you wrote these songs, and you know them inside out. Was it easy to make that arrangement or was it harder than it might seem?
MCKEE: Surprisingly it was. The biggest challenge was when I wanted to try and break up all the Katy songs, because there are so many and it turns into a Katy Perry medley. So I tried to put "Dynamite," Britney Spears, and Ke$ha in between. I have a Rita Ora song that went number one in Europe, but I left it out because it was getting too long and I felt like enough people didn't know it, and I had to rework it several times. I do a portion of the "Last Friday Night" chorus; and with "Teenage Dream," I did the pre-chorus. So because I feel like those are iconic pieces of the song, I didn't want to leave them out so I cut the choruses in half. It flowed pretty easy, actually.
SYMONDS: The release of "American Girl" was well timed—what are you doing for the Fourth of July?
MCKEE: I'm kinda famous for my barbecues—I'm always hosting parties. I'm throwing a pool party at my house, and it's going to double as a single release party, as well. We're gonna get patriotic. I got some hamburger-shaped cupcakes.
BONNIE MCKEE'S NEW ALBUM IS DUE OUT IN SEPTEMBER. FOR MORE ON THE ARTIST, PLEASE VISIT HER FACEBOOK PAGE.