The name “Bonnie McKee” may not ring a bell when you hear it, but if you’ve listened to Top 40 radio at all in the last few years, you definitely know her work.
Bonnie McKee, after all, has co-written seven Billboard Hot 100 chart toppers since 2010, including Britney Spears’ “Hold It Against Me” and a slew of Katy Perry’s hits: “California Gurls,” “Teenage Dream,” “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.),” “Part of Me” and recent #1 single “Roar.” That’s leaving out her work with Kelly Clarkson, Adam Lambert, Ke$ha, Leona Lewis, Christina Aguilera and Cher. In other words: if you love pop music, you should love Bonnie McKee.
These days, McKee is making her way as a performer. Her first single in over a decade, “American Girl,” is breaking through on the Hot 100, and she’s currently working on a new album due out next year from Epic Records. Atlantans will get the chance to see McKee when she performs Saturday night, Oct. 12, at Atlanta Pride. Before her appearance, I spoke with Bonnie McKee about reemerging as a performer, working as a professional songwriter, and more.
Can you tell me a little about what we can expect with your appearance at Atlanta Pride?
Well, I’m going to be coming out and doing “American Girl,” of course, and wearing something fabulous and shaking my ass for everybody. I’m excited. I love Pride shows – they’re exciting.
Are you going to be performing any other new songs, or some of the songs you’ve written for other artists?
Yeah, I’m playing “American Girl,” and then I have a medley that I put together of all the hits that I’ve written. It’s nice that one of the songs is “Roar,” so we just added that one on to the medley. It’s fun, and people can get a taste of what I’ve done for other people too.
Now for those who aren’t aware, you’ve had a pretty long and unusual career. Your first album came out a decade ago, and it didn’t quite go as successfully as you would’ve hoped. Can you tell me a little bit about, back then, what your thoughts were like about your career, not knowing how your career would subsequently unfold?
Yeah, you know, I really felt when I was 16 and got a record deal, made an album, and really got hands-on in the whole thing, when things didn’t go the way I had planned – I was devastated, you know? It was a huge blow, because I was kind of a teenage runaway. I moved down from Seattle by myself, and thought, “Oh, I got a record deal. I’ve made it!” But there’s so much stuff between getting a record deal and having a hit, or being successful, and I didn’t know that. So I was working hard. I did everything I could, and it was a hard pill to swallow. But I kept writing and working, and I got a publishing deal with Pulse Recording, which is a little boutique company that’s taken great care of me, and they taught me the art of co-writing. I just sort of threw myself into it because I knew I wasn’t going to be able to hold down a day job. I didn’t have any other skills other than music. So I was making money to make demos, writing stuff for other people. Fortunately, I was friends with Katy Perry. I had met her at a thrift store years ago. So when she went in to start her second album, I went in with her and Dr. Luke, and it was the right place at the right time. We had magic in the studio, and we’ve been a writing team ever since.
Speaking of Katy, on her new album, you co-wrote “Roar,” which is already another #1 single for Katy, and for you as well. What else did you co-write on Prism?
I wrote on “Roar,” “Legendary Lovers,” “Birthday,” and “Ghost.”
Can you tell me a little about how that songwriting process works with Katy, Dr. Luke and Max Martin?
Basically, Dr. Luke and Max Martin are genius producers, and melodic songwriters. So they come in with a track that’s already written, so there’s sort of a vibe there, and we’ll all sit in a room and come up with melodies together, and then Katy and I will take it into another room and sit with it for a while, and kind of ping-pong back and forth. What’s she going through, and what does the track sound like? When I write, I have a book of concepts, so I’ll play the track on a loop, and look through my book of concepts and titles, and if there’s a title that looks like the way I feel the track sounds, I’ll try to match them together and weave a story around that.
In terms of songs you’ve written for other artists, are there any that you expected to either be hits, and were never released as singles, or that you expected to be bigger hits than they ended up being?
Yeah. I wrote a song that was very near to my heart called “Lovebird.” I wrote it for myself originally, and Leona Lewis cut it. I’m a big Leona Lewis fan, I heard her vocal on it and it sounded great. It’s a really beautiful ballad. I’d been holding onto it for so long, and then…something happened with the record, it got pushed back, and the release got botched. When it came out, it sold something like 600 copies in the first week. I was so bummed, because it’s a song that I love so much, and I wanted to keep it for myself. But it happens all the time. Sometimes you’ll think something’s great, and it’s going to go, and it doesn’t, and other times you don’t realize what you have and it turns out to be a hit. You just never know.
I know one that came to my mind was Christina Aguilera’s “Let There Be Love,” which I expected to be a single, and I think if it had been, it would’ve been a big one.
Yeah. I saw recently that she made a video for it, so I don’t know if it is going to have a second life? That’s another one, actually, that I was really proud of. “Let There Be Love” was such a cool song. When she cut it, I was like, “Oh my God!” I’ve always wanted to write for Christina Aguilera. I’m such a huge fan. I grew up idolizing her, and then when it was released, it was just an album track, and I was like, “Really? It felt like a big song to me.” But there may be a life for that one.
As you’ve mentioned, you sometimes have to give up songs that you love and may want to record yourself to another artist. What’s it like, giving up these songs for other people to record?
Sometimes it’s hard to give up concepts and such that I feel like really fit me, and that I’d be happy to sing for the rest of my life, but the fact is, there are plenty of ideas, and I’m full of good ideas, and I feel like I can always come up with a new one, and in the moment, if it feels like the right thing for the artist, there’s more that can come.
Of course, you’re recording again as an artist. What’s different this time around?
Well, you know, I have a lot more experience in the middle, more behind-the-scenes and studio experience. I’ve learned how to use ProTools, and I’ve written. You know, somebody said you have to spend something like 10,000 hours doing something before you are an expert at what you do, and I definitely put my time in. I think I’m a better songwriter now than I was. My first album was really just straight-up entries out of my diary, very brutally honest and personal. And also, it was much more introspective. This time around, I’m more interested in making people dance with me and making people feel good. On the first album, I did a tour, and I was the girl behind a piano, and it was a rough tour. I wanted to make people feel good. The first album was really sad and dark, and I want to make this one a lot happier, and I’m putting on more of a show. I dance – I have choreography, I have costumes now, so it’s more of what I had envisioned for myself. So I’m really happy that I’m finally getting to do what I always saw for myself in my head.
Let’s talk a little bit about “American Girl.” What inspired the song lyrically?
It’s inspired by true-life events, actually. I did actually fall in love in a 7-Eleven parking lot, and I did feel like I was raised by a television. I learned so many life lessons from watching sitcoms and music videos, and all that. So I did filter my own experiences of what it’s like to grow up in America as a teenager. And on the one hand, it’s a celebration of the freedoms we have here in America, and also kind of a wink and a nod to the frivolousness of the American teenager. So there’s a little bit of satire in there. (Laughs) But it’s mostly a celebration, you know. Kind of a reminder not to take for granted the things we have in this country. There are a lot of comments on my YouTube video saying, “Oh, this is everything that’s wrong with America!” I’m just like, “Oh, if this is the worst problem we have, we’re in pretty good shape.”
Now the initial promo video for the song featured a lot of other musicians, including many you’ve worked with. How did you get everyone on board for that?
I just kind of threw out a net, and caught a lot of fish. I wasn’t expecting so many people to respond. When I was first putting together a list of the people that I knew that could potentially do this, I was like, “Wow, I have a lot of famous friends.” I didn’t really realize it, because you don’t think of them like that, you know, when you just make friends with people. But seeing them back-to-back, it’s pretty incredible. So I just emailed and texted people, and was like, “If you have time, can you send me three seconds?” I could not believe the stuff I got back. Like Tommy Lee in drag as me, playing the drums upside down, it was overwhelming. That was all his idea. Macklemore in the bathtub, Katy with the teddy bear, Jewel with the horse – it just went on and on. It was very moving to get all that back, and to feel that love and goodwill from people I’ve worked with over the years.
So what’s next for your recording career?
I’m going on tour with the Jonas Brothers. That starts in October, and then I’m finishing up the album. I’d say it’s 80% done, but I read somewhere that albums are never really finished, and that’s how I feel. I’m going to keep writing until the very last minute. We get the album next year, and I’ll continue to write until I feel that it’s perfect. In the meantime, I’m putting out a video that I made earlier this year for a song I wrote called “Sleepwalker.” I collaborated with Boys Noize and Oliver, two of my favorite DJs, on the song, and we made a full zombie video, so we’re putting that out as a warm-up for Halloween.