You’ve heard “Hold It Against Me” by the legendary Miss Britney Spears and the GRAMMY-nominated “Roar” by pop chameleon Katy Perry blasting over the radio airwaves. However, while famous pop stars such as Spears and Perry are the pretty faces attached to some of the catchiest single releases of the past decade, they are not solely responsible for the successful chart toppers.
Enter Bonnie McKee, the talented 31-year-old singer/songwriter who has worked alongside the likes of pop heavyweights including Spears, Perry, Christina Aguilera (“Let There Be Love”), Adam Lambert (“Cuckoo”, “Chokehold”), Kelly Clarkson (“Alone”, “Nostalgic”), Cher (“I Don’t Have to Sleep to Dream”) – the list goes on and on – to help these established artists achieve their full vision on many album highlights.
From the rocky release of her debut album Trouble to penning six Billboard number one hits to date and her most recent and unfortunately ineffective record deal with Epic Records, the artist has experienced the ups and downs of the unpredictable music industry. The experiences have reignited her creative spark, leading to the release of her latest Bombastic extended play in late June.
Born in Vacaville, CA, McKee fell in love with music at a young age. At age 16 she had written & recorded a collection of tracks which received attention from music industry executives in Los Angeles. In 2004, at the age of 19, she released Trouble on Reprise Records supported by lead single “Somebody”, which she had the opportunity to perform on Live with Jimmy Kimmel. However, the album experienced a disappointing commercial run and McKee was eventually dropped from the label.
“Those were some of the first songs I had ever written, it was basically my teenage diary on an album,” McKee says of Trouble. “It was a pretty dark, sad album actually. I really got to learn about the pitfalls of the music industry and how everything could go terribly wrong.”
With there being many steps between securing a promising record deal and actually achieving a hit single and becoming a successful artist, McKee says the first album experience came with its share of pros and cons.
“I was devastated. I was a mess,” she says of the aftermath of her Reprise departure. “I just learned about the songwriting world and what it was all about it after that. I’m really glad I had that experience. I really needed that time. I think I needed to fail on Trouble to become the artist I needed to be. ”
The failure allowed her to focus on perfecting her songwriting skills. McKee admits to there being a pop writing formula, saying that certain language works in the pop genre, and some does not. The artist treats the songwriting process as a type of word puzzle, injecting her own personal experiences along the way to craft a catchy tune that still has heart. A quality she says allows her music to stand out from the crowd.
The formula appears to be working wonders for McKee as she is responsible for six songs that have reached the peak of the Billboard Hot 100 including “California Gurls” and “Part Of Me” by Katy Perry and two others that have peaked at the number two position, as well as securing a GRAMMY nomination for Song of the Year in 2014.
“It’s like having a secret superpower or something. I can kind of live my life and go about my days and hear the songs on the radio, or at the grocery store, and look around and everyone is singing along and they don’t know I’m the person responsible for it,” McKee says. “But I’m an artist first, I was always an artist, so there were definitely certain songs that were hard for me to give up and it’s hard to be the unsung hero in some of the situations. But I do love writing for other people, I’m full of songs that are not for me. It’s a great outlet. I love working with other artists and helping them see their vision through, it’s therapeutic for me.”
Meeting Katy Perry before she was the chart dominating Katy Perry we know today was a turning point in McKee’s career. The two met at Wasteland in Los Angeles, a clothes-for-money vintage store where the artists bonded over current financial issues and label rejection.
Eventually, the early friendship with Perry created an opportunity for McKee to work on the hugely successful Teenage Dream album which launched the artist’s songwriting career and highlighted her as one of the go-to pop writers of the past decade.
“She’s a very talented songwriter in her own right. When I met her she was a struggling songwriter and artist, and so was I. I had just been dropped from Warner Bros., and I was down and out,” McKee says. “We are really similar, we have a similar palette. It made a lot of sense to me that we would be a good team because we bring out the best in each other. And of course, you throw in Dr. Luke and Max Martin who are some of the greatest songwriters of all time, and it’s this magic combination.”
Besides Perry, McKee has assisted in crafting memorable pop gems for the likes of Taio Cruz (“Dynamite”), Kesha (“C’Mon”, “Supernatural) and Leona Lewis (“Un Love Me”, “Lovebird”) throughout the years, but singles out her relationship with glam rocker Adam Lambert as her favorite to work with in the recording studio.
McKee worked with Lambert on his sophomore album Trespassing, which peaked at number one on the Billboard charts in 2012. Credited with co-writing standout tracks “Chokehold” and “Cuckoo”, McKee says it makes her really happy to see that those songs have gained a sort of cult following.
“I really love Adam Lambert, I have so much fun with him. He’s such a smart, hilarious person and also an incredibly gifted singer, one of my favorite singers I’ve ever worked with as far as vocal production goes,” she says. “He’s a very talented, technical singer and has a lot of emotion behind what he is singing. Anyone who can takeover Queen obviously is special. He’s a really gifted artist.”
After spending a few years writing for other artists, McKee thought the time was right to pick up where she left her own solo career back in 2004. With a new recording deal under the guidance of Epic Records, plans for a new full length album were underway with a tentative 2013 release date.
To kick off promotion for the planned sophomore album, McKee and Epic Records decided on releasing summer anthem “American Girl” as the project’s lead single. The track was McKee telling her story of growing up in the suburbs of Seattle as well as celebrating the good that comes with being a woman in America.
“I was raised by a television, every day is a competition, put the key into my ignition,” she belts on the track, which saw moderate success in the summer of 2013, becoming her first solo song to chart on the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at #87 and selling over 300,000 copies to date.
“That is one of my favorite lyrics I’ve ever written because I’m just a product of pop culture,” McKee says. “I’ve learned so many life lessons from sitcoms and I became who I wanted to be from watching MTV and Madonna crawl around on the floor. All of those things are important to me and really shaped me as an artist.”
She quickly followed her 2013 single with “Sleepwalker”, an “inbetweengle” that was released for the fans with a “Thriller”-like music video and originally intended to be the first taste of the then-new album. Other tracks such as “S.L.A.Y”, a synth-driven anthem of empowerment were to be featured on the album under Epic Records as well, but after a few delays, McKee decided to take matters into my own hands because she was not happy with the way that her label was handling things.
McKee says that it feels empowering to gain creative control over her own career again. Being an independent artist is a fun experience because the artist can release music whenever she wants. After dealing with countless miles of red tape and the politics of a record label, McKee decided to depart from Epic Records to cut the middleman out of the connection with her fans. Unfortunately the songs recorded for the Epic Records album remain in legal limbo.
“There was a lack of planning. I had a whole album done, there were options for the next single and I landed a tour on my own. I felt like I was doing all the work. They didn’t want to give me tour support, they didn’t want to help me at radio, they didn’t think I had a second single,” she says. “It’s fine, there’s no bad blood or anything, it was just not working for me. I know how this works and I know when a label doesn’t know what to do with an artist and I recognized that was the case with me.”
Once McKee finalized her departure with Epic Records, she took some time off to sit back and think about who she really was as an artist. With over 75 songs written for her next project and several offers from other major labels to sign again, the artist hesitated since she knew signing another major deal would force her to wait at least a year before she could release any new material.
Wanting to get the ball on her solo career rolling, the artist decided to remain an independent artist for now. Instead of dealing with the major undertaking of making another full-length album, it made more sense to give fans a teaser of what was to come.
Bombastic, a four-track extended play, was released last month. McKee says the collection of songs is what her art sounds like without the filter of a “corporate overload” hovering over her. The artist decided to release the explosive, tongue-in-cheek title track as the effort’s lead single with the support of an 80s workout video-inspired visual which has already racked up more than a million views on YouTube.
“It was the most ear-catching of the songs, and the video turned out really crazy and fun, it just made the most sense. It was the song that everyone reacted to, it was polarizing and it got people’s attention,” she says. “It really represented me well as an artist better than some of super squeaky clean pop stuff I’ve done in the past. It was the message that I wanted to portray. It’s kind of like my ‘fuck you’ song to the industry and anyone who never believed in me. It may not ever go anywhere, it may completely flop, it doesn’t matter. The point is that I was able to say what I needed to say and get it off my chest and write a song that reminded me that I’m the boss. I don’t need to live and die by the opinions of other people.”
The electronic rock-driven “I Want It All” is a strong indicator of McKee’s fearless and fierce attitude as she wraps a solid, radio-friendly hook in unexpected yet infectious and glistening production. “I want your touch, I want your kiss, I want tough love, I want it all,” she demands on the track’s chorus as the beat only amps up the power and seductive nature of the artist’s underrated vocal abilities.
“It’s basically about selling my soul for rock n roll and how I would sacrifice everything, and risk everything, to get to my audience. It’s a love song to my fans,” McKee explains. “It sounds like a sexy love song, but it’s really about my codependent relationship with the fans and how I need them. I need them as much as they need me and I would do anything to get to them. And I have. I have sacrificed everything. I do it for them.”
Other tracks such as “Wasted Youth”, an inspiring mid-tempo ballad about “celebrating right now” and the tender, emotionally-charged “Easy” comprise the rest of the EP’s track list which debuted at number 13 on Billboard’s Top Heatseekers Albums. McKee shares that all songs are to be accompanied with their own music video in the near future.
While McKee is staying busy promoting the new EP with hopes for a few tour dates in the fall, she’s also moving forward with her songwriting career. The artist continues to pursue her long-awaited second album and recently submitted songs for consideration on upcoming projects from Selena Gomez and Demi Lovato.
“I have a lot of irons in the fire,” she says. “You never really know what’s going to happen, you could go from having the first single to having that song not make the album. It’s hard to predict. I’ve been working with Charlie Puth and writing stuff for all your favorite pop stars. I’m always writing because you never know what’s going to happen. It’s important to create every day.”
While McKee has worked with almost every artist under the pop genre umbrella, there are a few dream collaborations that have escaped her clutches thus far.
“I love Bruno Mars. I respect him so much as a songwriter and a performer. I love his voice and would love to work with him. I love The Weeknd too. I think because I’m a huge Michael Jackson fan those are the two of the closest things we have today. I love their vocal styling, I think it really is what sells the song,” she says. “And also, Lady Gaga. All three of these artists are not super huge on collaborating. They are very elusive and I would love to get inside their brain and see their process and help them see their vision. They are all super talented though, they don’t need someone like me.”
It can be difficult for a songwriter to see others succeed with the words they have written, but McKee says that things always happen for a reason. Taking into account the success of “Teenage Dream” by Katy Perry, a track she considers to be the best song she has ever written, McKee says the number one hit may have gone completely unnoticed had she released it as a first single as a new artist.
After coming off the success she experienced with Perry’s Teenage Dream album, having three songs within the Billboard top five at once, McKee admits to expectations being high for all of her follow up material. She expected everything to go the way she wanted, but it does not always work out as originally planned.
“I’ve been trying to prove people wrong since high school. I think I will always have a little underdog story, and that’s okay, I think it keeps me driven, it keeps a fire under my ass,” McKee says. “I like a challenge, it is one of the hardest jobs in the world, the odds are against me, but I know I can write songs, I’ve proven that. I don’t need to prove myself in that arena anymore. I’m ready for the next phase in my career.”
After the devastating experiences of multiple failed record deals, the highs and lows of her chart record and pushed by the desire to make people happy by encouraging them to be themselves, McKee continues to move forward as an innovative and unique independent artist.
“My mantra is to keep going. Failure is part of the process. I want to encourage people to not be discouraged and not give up because I have seen a lot of people give up in this town, it happens all the time, and I wonder if they had persevered and tried one more time it might have been that magic moment. I will try until the day I die,” she says.