Growing up in the Seattle suburb of Bellevue, McKee was a headstrong and troubled teen who got kicked out of high school. She was also a musical prodigy whose demo tape got the attention of Reprise Records, which signed her at 16. Off to Los Angeles she went, where she made a brutally honest album and a music video for her single "Somebody," which was supposed to be her first hit. It stiffed, and Reprise dropped her.
McKee signed a publishing deal and became a songwriter for hire, joining the many scribes in Southern California looking to place some songs so they could work their way up to Red Lobster. Perry, meanwhile, made a huge splash in 2008 with her first secular single, "I Kissed A Girl," a #1 hit produced by the red-hot team of Max Martin and Dr. Luke. For her second album in 2010, Perry brought in McKee to co-write. Four chart-toppers were the result:
"Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)"
"Part of Me"
McKee became a hitmaker to the stars, writing songs with many of the artists she grew up listening to: Britney Spears, Avril Lavigne, Kelly Clarkson, Christina Aguilera; and many of her contemporaries: Kesha, Adam Lambert, Ellie Goulding, Carly Rae Jepsen. Her underdog story plays out on the next #1 she wrote with Perry, "Roar," where she goes from zero to her own hero.
McKee released her own single, "American Girl," in 2013 with a saucy video that has over 36 million views. The full album is in the can, waiting for McKee, an admitted perfectionist, to set it free.
These days, McKee does a lot of EDM collaborations, writing lyrics for the likes of Kygo and Armin van Buuren, and also singing on the tracks. She recently covered the Billie Eilish song "Lovely" for the CURE8 label's disCOVERED series.
McKee is a Songfacts goldmine, with a keen understanding of how to create a hit song and how to use the medium for expression. Here, she shares lots of insights on modern songwriting, and tells the stories behind some of her biggest hits.
Bonnie McKee: Well, it depends on what year it is. I'd say that changes constantly. What was working on the radio when I first started writing songs versus what was working on the radio when I was writing a bunch of hit songs, versus what's on the radio today is completely different. But saying something unique and relatable is important, and also something that people can sing along with.
Songfacts: Is there one particular aspect of the song that has to be right for it to work?
McKee: Not necessarily. There is an overall pop formula, but there are so many surprise songs where everyone is like, Ha! I didn't see that coming. Like when Lorde came out with "Royals," that was the anti-pop song, but it was hooky and it was unique and original. It was totally and completely different from everything else that was on the radio. So, you just never know what's coming for people.
Songfacts: It seems like if you're a teenager and you're writing songs, you have the benefit of inexperience so you can come up with something that hasn't been done before. Were you able to do that when you first started?
McKee: Yeah. I try to go back to that place sometimes, but it's hard to do because you've been taught the formula, and once you've had things drilled into your brain that this is the way a song is supposed to be, it's really hard to unlearn that. An artist like Billie Eilish is a perfect example of someone who is doing music that is way outside the box, and it's not that she doesn't know any better, but she is really letting it come from a unique and natural place, rather than approaching it like a scientist, like so many professional songwriters do.
Songfacts: Can you break down from a songwriting perspective exactly what she's doing that is so different?
McKee: Billie Eilish, first of all, has a very unique voice, and an unexpected voice from the character that we know her to be. And she's telling stories that are really personal, and using lyrics that are really unusual. So, I think that her lyrics are her strong suit because she's really striking a chord with the youth of today. She's telling stories that haven't been told before.
Songfacts: You recently covered her song "Lovely." What was it like singing someone else's song?
Songfacts: Can you elaborate on the things that were important as an adolescent that are still important today?
McKee: Yeah. For example, when I hear "Lovely" it evokes the days of sneaking out of your parents' house and swearing that you were going to run away from home and then going out to the park and walking with your thoughts and being alone and feeling like a grown-up, having all these grown-up feelings and thoughts but not being able to execute them or do anything about it. The importance of just being alone and walking at night is very romantic, so I was thinking about that. And when you're a kid, you get to the park and realize you're cold and hungry, so you just go home again.
As an adult going through my own heavy things in life, it's still very important for me to get out and be alone and reflect, and just taking a walk can do so much for me. I know that sounds little and minute, but it really is such an evocative experience when you can be alone with yourself and like it.
Songfacts: Like Billie Eilish, you were also a teenage songwriter with all these feelings and your songs were probably expressing a lot of the same things that hers are, but yours were packaged very differently because it was 2004.
Songfacts: So, what is the big difference between the way music is packaged now versus the way it was back then?
McKee: Well, when I was a teenager and came into the industry on my own, I didn't have parents that were in the industry. I didn't know anything about anything, and I was really just going off of raw instinct. So, I was writing these songs that were very Carole King, singer-songwriter - that was just what I did naturally. But who I wanted to be was Madonna or Britney Spears - I wanted to be a pop star. So there was a big disconnect for me as far as being able to execute what I wanted to as an artist.
Back then, the things that were all the rage were Michelle Branch and Vanessa Carlton, so I kind of got lumped in with that when I felt like I was a different artist. At the time, "girl with an instrument" was the move, and if you were singing something that was soft and pretty and sad, that meant you belonged in that group of artists. But the thing that's really exciting about Billie Eilish is that her voice is so angelic and the music that she's making is so introspective. A lot of it is almost like a lullaby. Pairing that kind of music with this exciting visual and this exciting character and production is really exciting - it's really different.
It's cool to see that the industry and the labels and whoever is behind it is able to package it differently with an aesthetic that the kids these days can relate to. Just because you're singing soft stuff doesn't mean you're going to wear a long flowy dress. I think the internet has a window into all kinds of different styles and aesthetics, and these days, the artists have a lot more control over what things look like and what things feel like. Back then you'd sign a record deal and it was like, "Alright, you're the girl behind the piano. Put on this pretty little dress and sing your song and go home." Now you can be a lot more hands-on, be whoever you want to be and choose your own adventure.
Songfacts: One of the things you do is go to a songwriting session with an artist, listen to that artist, and turn their experience into a song. Has an artist ever taken one of your experiences and turned that into the song?
McKee: Yes, all the time. It's really a back and forth when you're sitting with an artist. If they are going through something and you say, "Oh, I had a similar experience," and then you tell your story, maybe something comes out of your mouth that sounds like a title or something like that.
But I wrote a song with Charlie Puth on his first album. I just came in and I was like, "Here's what's going on with me," and he was like, "Oh my God, that's great." He had never done that before where we take someone else's experience and weave it into a story. He was so young when I was working with him - he's obviously come a long way. It was fun to be a part of that experience with someone for the first time, just helping with somebody else's story.
Songfacts: That was the song "Up All Night"?
Songfacts: That song is all about these mind games. Can you talk about the experience that lead you to write that?
McKee: I had literally been up all night the night before dealing with a boyfriend that was giving me the run-around. We were in a grey area if I remember correctly. It was just driving me crazy - it was that "are we or aren't we" kind of moment. Charlie was young and inexperienced at the time, but he's very empathetic and he knows how to tell a story, so when I told him what was going on, he was able to help me spin that into a song.
It's funny, working with Charlie, when they first had me go in with him, I was already a very established songwriter and he was very green and coming into the industry. I was like, "Oh God, I don't want to work with a rookie today." Then I went in with Charlie and was so blown away by his raw talent and instincts and also his willingness to learn and listen. It was a really eye-opening experience for me about taking a chance on rookies - on people that are just coming in - because you never know who is going to be the next Charlie Puth. I wrote two of my singles with him. The first song I ever wrote with him was my Christmas song, "California Winter," which we wrote in the middle of summer. And then he co-wrote my song "Bombastic," which was placed in the Charlie's Angels trailer. So we have good chemistry.
McKee: Katy Perry is also an incredible storyteller, and we have so many things in common that it's creepy. We'll come in and simultaneously say the same thing at the same time. We'll have the same titles written in our notebooks. We'll be going through the same experience - we're like mirror images of one another. So, we're very in sync on like a cosmic level.
She's great with visual lyrics, and that's what I also like, so it's really fun to ping pong with her because she's always got a great noun or picture that we can throw in and she also is dedicated to digging to get the best lyric. Not all artists are willing to do that because it can be very tedious - you can be pulling your hair out trying to get that perfect internal rhyme. But she's always down to go the distance with me.
So, I think she is an excellent lyricist and also her voice is very unique and iconic. Her delivery is also very important, because you can write a great song and give it to the wrong artist and then they don't know how to deliver it properly and it loses its magic. Katy really knows how to emote and drive the emotion home.
Songfacts: You came from Bellevue, where the sun never comes out. Katy Perry had been in California her whole life. Your outsider perspective, did that play into "California Gurls" at all?
McKee: Well, I was born in Northern California and I didn't move to Bellevue until I was 8 years old, so I spent my whole childhood barefoot with tan lines and getting used to being in sunny California. When I moved to Seattle with my parents, I remember grey after grey after grey, and just feeling like the moment that I'm old enough to get the hell outta here I'm going back to California.
So, I spent my whole childhood either being in California or fantasizing about going back. That was a big part of my narrative, and my dream world was living in LA. So, that definitely had a lot to do with that, and also growing up watching Beverly Hills, 90210. I feel like every cool TV show in the 1990s takes place in California - the MTV Beach House and all that stuff - so I was heavily influenced by California culture.
Songfacts: You were also influenced by television, which makes me think that the daisy dukes line must have come into play there. [California girls, we're unforgettable, daisy dukes, bikinis on top...]
McKee: Yeah. It's funny, my uniform is basically daisy dukes and high heels, and it always has been. Ironically, Katy wrote that line. The first line that we wrote was, "It feels like summertime" and something about melting popsicles. We went home and slept on it, and the next day she came back and said, "OK, I've got it: 'California Gurls.'" I was like, "Brilliant, I know exactly what to do with this." Then we just went back and forth.
Originally it was "cut-off shorts, bikinis on top," and then Katy came up with "daisy dukes." I was like, "Why didn't I think of that? This is something that is in my everyday vocabulary, how did I miss that?" So, that was all Katy.
Songfacts: Is there another line like that where it starts off as "cut-off shorts" and it's not quite working, and then somebody hits on the answer?
McKee: Yeah, "Wide Awake." When Max Martin sings demos, he sings nonsensical stuff, just phonetically pleasing lyrics, and originally it was "No Matter What," which is super universal and also would have probably been a hit song, but I heard it with his accent and there were a bunch of effects on his voice, so I heard it as "I'm Wide Awake," even though that didn't rhyme or anything. I came back in and I had written this whole thing that was "I'm wide awake, I'm born again," and Max was like, "No, no, it's 'No Matter What.'" But then Max was like, "This is cool," and I was like, "Alright!" Happy accident I guess.
Songfacts: It seems really hard when you're trying to write to a universal title like that. I was thinking of that with a song you wrote with Christina Aguilera called "Let There Be Love," which is very universal. Can you talk about how you made that one work?
McKee: Yeah. I love that song. Originally that one was going to be for Miley Cyrus. She had come in and Max and I had written the song already. She came in and heard it, and she wanted to rewrite some things and change a bunch of stuff. Miley wasn't as established as she is today, so Max was like, "No, we're not going to change this lyric. We think it's perfect and we love it." So, it didn't end up working out with Miley, but then when we got Christina on it, I was really thrilled because I grew up listening to Christina, and she really did it justice. I think Miley could have absolutely done it justice too, but it was just exciting to have Christina on my resumé.
Again, the singer does so much for a song - the way that she emotes on that song really brings it to life. I wish it would've been a single. I thought it would be - it seems like such a no-brainer song, but that was one of the ones that got away I guess.
Songfacts: What writing session was your best learning experience?
McKee: Oh boy, there have been so many. I was so lucky to work with the greats: Max Martin, Greg Kurstin, Dr. Luke. I was so fortunate to work with some of the best in the world, and Max really taught me a lot about the importance of symmetry and melody. There were some early sessions I did with him and Luke where I would write something and they would be like, "No, that's wrong," and I was like, "You can't tell me it's wrong. It's art, and there's no right and wrong in art." And they were like, "Yes, there is!"
I remember being really upset about that, literally going and crying and being like, "I can't work with these people... they're telling me I'm wrong." And then once I got the hang of it, I was like, "Oh, they're right, there is a right and wrong way to do this when it comes to hit songwriting."
I learned an important lesson while writing "Teenage Dream." We rewrote that lyric five times front to back. Same melody, same everything. It took a couple of months. I reference those sessions all the time: If I feel like there's something special, I will dig. I am willing to dig and leave no stone unturned and have pages and pages and pages of rhymes because eventually you strike gold. So, that was a very educational song for me to write.
Songfacts: What was it about "Teenage Dream" that was causing so many problems? I'm trying to figure out if it was just certain lyrics that needed to be different?
McKee: We knew the track was special, and we knew the melody was special. It was kind of an unusual rhythm in the hook, where it was like [singing] you... make... me... It's on the up. You have to be careful about putting the right emPHAsis on the right sylLABle, if you know what I mean, because you can fit anything into a melody like that, but it has to sing naturally. It has to sing the way that you would say it, where the emphasis is on the right place, on the important note in the cadence, the movement, the phrase.
We just couldn't find the right pictures, so we went through so many different versions. One of them was like "Try Me On," like a "dress you up" kind of thing, and it wasn't right. Then there was one about Peter Pan syndrome and never wanting to grow up. We finally just settled on a lackluster B-version of it because we realized we just cannot spend any more time on the song because we have a whole album to make. Then I went away, and I had my 8 Mile moment [cue "Lose Yourself"] where I looked in the mirror and was like, It's time. You are going to find this line! And then "Teenage Dream" happened. When I presented it to Katy and Max, everyone was like, Eureka! Then Katy and I finished the rest of the lyric.
It was just about painting the right picture. When you hear the track it sounds like summertime. It sounds like nostalgia. It sounds a little bittersweet. "Try Me On" was not going to do that. It had to be something evocative, and we finally hit the nail on the head.
Songfacts: You talked about how there is a right and a wrong way to do songs, but I hear a song like "Dynamite" and the lyric is "saying yaaay oohh." How do you make something like that sound totally natural and off-the-cuff when it's really not?
McKee: Well, "yaaay oohh" was in Max's phonetic bumbling, so that was already there. I just wrote the hook and then Taio Cruz did the verses.
But when I worte it, I was going through some shit, and it was actually about surrender. And for me, ironically, it was about getting sober. The sky was falling, everything was falling apart, and it was one of those things where you just sort of throw up your hands, you know: "I throw my hands up in the air sometimes saying yaay oohh, gotta let go." A let go, let God kind of thing, and then it turned into this absolute party anthem, which is really ironic. There is a much deeper meaning behind that song that people don't always know about.
"Yaay oohh" feels like a cry to the heavens. It's almost like a prayer.
Songfacts: You wrote with Ellie Goulding and you did a song with her called "Under Control." It seems like there's a key line in a lot of these songs, and this one for me was "your love was never the missing key." Can you talk about writing that song?
McKee: Writing with Ellie Goulding was an incredible experience. I was always such a big fan - she is an incredible writer and just picks up a guitar and goes. Also, her voice is like something from Middle-earth - she's really like a magical pixie singer.
There are so many songs about control, so we just took a different spin on it. I think it was a couple of days before Christmas, and she and I sat down and it sort of fell out of us. It's about co-dependency and having an epiphany about that. Realizing that all you really need is yourself and belief.
Songfacts: There is clearly a lot of you in these songs and a lot of empowerment. You were talking before about how you were getting over drugs. Has one big epiphany of a song ever come out of you to express that?
McKee: Specifically sobriety?
Songfacts: Yes. Or whatever was going on that was causing a major disruption in your life.
McKee: Yeah, definitely. A lot of the hits that I wrote with Katy were at a really fertile time in my creative life, and "Teenage Dream" had to do with me feeling like I missed out on my teenage years. I moved out to LA when I was 16 by myself. I never went to prom, never had the traditional experience. I was kicked out of high school. So, I was always fascinated by that kind of American high school culture, so that definitely was working through some stuff for me and feeling like there was some innocence lost there.
And then "Dynamite" is me surrendering and getting my shit together. And then "Roar" was a really important one for me as well, because I spent a lot of time in my life, believe it or not, taking orders. Even though I seem like I'm very strong-minded and hard-headed, I am a people pleaser, and I feel like that has gotten in my way in my life - I feel like I'm living for other people and fulfilling other people's destinies and wishes and just taking commands. So "Roar" was a very important song for me, especially at that exact moment in my career, to really come out and say what I needed to say. It was born out of an abusive professional situation, and it paid off.
So, it's nice when you have a feeling and you put it out there. It felt like literally roaring. I felt like I had something important that I needed to say, and it was a big fuck you to somebody. Then it went on to be a #1 hit forever and ever, so there's something really gratifying about that. It feels like it comes full circle emotionally when a song like that works.
Songfacts: I'm thinking about your career path and how you started off as an artist, became a songwriter, went back to being an artist and a songwriter. Is there anybody you've been able to model your career on?
McKee: I think that Sia is a great example of someone that's been through a similar path that I've been on, and Katy also, in the beginning, although now she's been an artist much longer than she was a songwriter. But she started off as an artist, and then she was kind of like, "Well, I guess this isn't working out so I'm going to write songs for other people." She did, and she had a hit with Kelly Clarkson and a couple of other people, so obviously she knew that she had that skill, and I'm sure that if she hadn't believed in herself or if she hadn't had a team of people that believed in her, she probably would have ended up more on the path that I was on, which was writing for other people and kind of staying behind the scenes.
I struggled with that my entire career - feeling like I needed permission to be an artist - and now that I'm a grown-up woman and I've made a lot of money doing what I do and giving my mojo to other artists, I'm at a place where I'm just like, "I am an artist. The end. Period." So that's been a really nice thing that has come with age and experience and wisdom.
Songfacts: The stuff you've been doing lately - more EDM-flavored stuff - has a very different feel to it than the stuff you were doing with, say, Katy Perry. Can you talk about that?
McKee: Well, EDM and pop have always been pretty different in that way. There are some crossover exceptions, but for the most part EDM has always been structurally really different than pop music. I don't think it's necessarily about the era that it came out, but more just about the genre. EDM is a really excellent tool for people like myself who are songwriters and also artists because a lot of the DJs are willing to take a chance and keep the songwriters on the tracks that they write because you have a unique voice. Sometimes they use a demo artist and don't want to hear a different voice on it.
Kygo was really great about that. I went on a world tour with Kygo last year, and there were six or seven other singers there and everyone was a songwriter, for the most part - there were only a couple of artists who were straight-up artists. So it's a really fun tool to be able to use. Armin was also very generous in keeping me on the song.
It's just a fun departure from the other stuff I'm doing. I don't feel that it has the same kind of pressure that releasing a pop song does, because it just lives in its own world and does its own thing. It's not like, "Is it charting? Is it on the radio? How's the music video doing?" Nobody cares. It's just a song that exists with this DJ that has a huge following and then you get to take it out and sing it in front of 20,000 people and watch everybody freak out and dance along. It's just a different kind of experience. Like a fun little departure.
Songfacts: Well, especially because you went through the experience of being groomed by a record label, releasing a single and an album, and then watching it kind of sit there. What was that like?
McKee: It was absolutely traumatizing. And I watched so many young artists go through the same thing. I worked with up-and-coming artists and the label sows these ideas in their heads that they're the next best thing, and it's just blowing smoke up their ass. Then when things don't work out, it's devastating. So, I always try to be really honest - kind of brutally honest - with young artists, where I'm just like, "This might be it. This may be your only shot, so don't be a diva, don't fuck it up. Understand that getting the record deal is only the first step of so many."
There are millions of people who have had record deals that literally never see the light of day. It doesn't mean shit. So, as soon as you get a record deal, that's when you have to work harder than you've ever worked before. So, yeah, it's devastating, and I've had several of those... I've had so many chapters in my career of almosts. Of getting the deal, having a single, and doing a tour and thinking it's all gonna work out, and it just really has to do with luck and the stars aligning and having the right team, which is one of the hardest pieces of the puzzle in this industry.
Songfacts: With Adam Lambert, you did a very intriguing song called "Chokehold," where he sings, "I want your chokehold." That's a metaphor you don't hear very often. I'd like to hear about that song and what it was like creating it with Adam Lambert.
McKee: Adam Lambert is one of my favorite artists to work with. First of all, he is hilarious - he is just so much fun to work with. He is so funny and just keeps me in stitches. Second of all, he has one of the most incredible voices in the industry. To be able to front Queen and not have anyone complain is amazing. You can never replace that particular frontman, but usually when you bring in a new frontman, everyone revolts. But no one complained. Everyone was like, "Yup, he's doing it justice and he's killing it." So, that really speaks to what an incredible performer and singer he is.
"Chokehold" is fun. It's kind of an S&M-tinged song about being addicted to someone and being in a sort of masochistic situation. It's funny because that's a theme that still rings true to me, and on the new album I'm working on, one of the main themes is masochism and exploring why that is a thing for me - why I like the pain, why I like to put myself into stupid situations and keep coming back for more of that. Yeah, that's kind of an ongoing theme for me.
Songfacts: Do you have a plan for getting the album out there?
McKee: I'm going to start with singles in the next probably month or six weeks, and I'm just going to keep putting singles out until I feel like there's enough interest to put out a full-length. But, I have a full-length written and recorded, it's just a matter of getting the timing right. It's just that it's a different market - it's not like, get a record deal, look at a calendar, do two singles and then the album. It's just completely different - everything is up for grabs.
I just read a quote from Katy the other day that was like, "Yeah, I'm going to put out singles and not put pressure on myself to do a whole album." I think that's a really beautiful, freeing thing for an artist, but it's also kind of scary and unstable because it could just go on forever. It's nice to have a plan to be like "OK, the album is coming at this time, we're doing this many singles," but it's kind of like you choose your own adventure and just figure it out as you go.
Songfacts: What's the song by another artist or songwriter that you've spent the most time deconstructing?
McKee: I spent my whole childhood listening to Thriller and I'm a really avid Michael Jackson fan, so I studied a lot of his rhythmic stuff, a lot of the production stuff, and also the lyrics. Early Madonna stuff - '80s and '90s Madonna stuff - and Michael Jackson, I studied a lot of that stuff in figuring out titles and how titles relate to visuals, and how visuals turn into music videos.
I started watching TV before I ever listened to the radio or bought albums, so I was watching MTV and watching all these music videos and my first instinct was, I want to do that!, meaning make a music video. So, it's almost like I got into music and writing music so that I could make music videos.
Songfacts: I'm sure someday you will be making music videos if you haven't already, but it's interesting how it all comes together for you. I understand you're even writing an autobiography, so it's all these different media that come together and you can spin it however you like, which must be kind of nice.
McKee: Yeah, definitely.
Songfacts: The last thing that I have for you, in every autobiography, there is a pivotal moment. What is the pivotal moment for you?
McKee: I'm honestly living right in the middle of it right now. I think I'm having a major epiphany in my own personal life and in my creative life that is my turning point. So, I'm living this autobiography as we speak and writing it as I go. I think it's too soon to say what the outcome is going to be, but I feel like I'm just on the verge of having my happy ending.
July 15, 2019
Bonnie's official site is bonniemckee.com
Photos 3,4,5 from her Facebook page
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