Bonnie McKee Talks Starting Over, Her ‘Bombastic’ EP & The Weight Of Expectations: Idolator Interview
From Katy Perry’s “Roar” to Britney Spears’ “Hold It Against Me,” Bonnie McKee has had a hand in writing some of the biggest hits of the past decade. Expectations were sky-high then when she decided to concentrate on her own music in 2013, but “American Girl” didn’t quite click — despite being a total jam — and her (completed) album was never released by Epic Records. The singer/songwriter decided it was time to start over and reemerged this year as an independent artist.
I recently spoke with the hitmaker about her excellent Bombastic EP, the title track’s sassy video and going it alone. Bonnie also picked the best song she’s ever written, revealed her favorite artist to work with and talked about giving away her smash hits. The 31-year-old doesn’t pull any punches — addressing her triumphs and setbacks with refreshing honesty. Find out what she has to say below.
It’s so good to have you back on the pop scene. What happened after “American Girl”? We all wanted an album.
I signed to Epic and we put out “American Girl.” I think that there just wasn’t a plan. I had a whole album finished and had plenty of songs I felt were singles, but I was told to go back and keep writing. That delayed things and the more you delay things — the more momentum you lose. I went on the tour which was amazing and I started promoting a song called “S.L.A.Y.,” which I still love so much.
I was really unhappy with the label, but it’s nothing personal. Everybody’s fine, we all still love each other. I just felt like I knew what I wanted to do with my career and I thought it was time for me to step out on my own and do it myself. I’m in a weird place because I’m a new artist technically, but I’ve been in the business for a really long time and I already have a name for myself. I’m a baby artist but people’s expectations of me are so astronomical because I’ve written so many number one songs.
That’s a little unfair.
It’s very strange. It’s a weird position to be in. I’m really happy being independent and I like having control of the timeline and all the creative output, it’s really empowering.
So there was a complete album to go with “American Girl” and “Sleepwalker”?
Yeah, there’s a whole album. I toured with it, I opened up for Karmin last year. The songs are still alive, but I’m in legal limbo with Epic.
You’re not allowed to use them?
I plan on getting them back… I may have to re-record them. They came from my brain and my heart and soul so they still belong to me. I plan on releasing those eventually, but I’m always constantly changing and evolving as well so there’s plenty of other songs in me.
Let’s talk about the EP. “Bombastic” is so exciting to me because it’s a big more aggressive and gutsy than your older material. Where did that come from?
When Epic and I split ways, I was at a crossroads and I needed to sit down and look in the mirror and ask myself, “Who are you as an artist? If you’re in control, who are you going to be?”, and “What didn’t work before?”. It seemed like with “American Girl,” as much as I love that song, I did the most obvious thing. I did what had been working for me in the past, what made me so successful with other artists.
But I’m a little more rock and roll than that, I was a teenage drug addict runaway and I came out to Hollywood and made my own way. I have a darker story than some of the other girls and I needed to express that. I was also very frustrated and I needed to write a song to remind myself that I’m the boss, I’m in charge and I can be whoever I want to be. I hope I can encourage other people to do the same with that song.
I love the video with all the ’80s fashion.
Thank you. I went through a couple different ideas for the video. I knew I wanted to do something outrageous. A couple of people who heard the song said, “Oh it’s something I want to work out to.” I was like, “Hmm”. The ’80s have always been my thing, it’s my aesthetic, but I was like, “I can’t just make a workout video… it’s gotta have a twist.” So, we threw some laser boobs in there. The rest is history.
Didn’t Charlie Puth co-write the song with you?
Yeah. Our publishers put us together and we just hit it off. We’re great friends, I love him to death. I’ve written some stuff on his new project and a few more for myself with him. He’s just a great writer, a really talented kid. I really enjoy working with him.
Who else did you work with on the EP?
I co-wrote “Bombastic” with Axident and Charlie Puth, but my boy Sean Walsh is the producer. He produced most of the EP. He is actually my little prodigy. He was my engineer for years, so he was sitting in my sessions everyday watching me write, seeing how I piece things together. He started sending me tracks, at first I was like, “Okay, kid brother, whatever”, then I was like, “These are really good.”
I’m just taking a chance on a new kid and I think he’s super, super talented and I think he’s the Next Big Thing. I think after the Bombastic EP comes out, people are going to be scrambling to work with him.
Which song is the most personal on the EP?
I mean they’re all very personal, but probably “Wasted Youth.” I really love that one. It’s really fun to do live, it’s a big vocal showcase for me, so I get to show off a little bit. It’s got that classic, dare I speak in third person [laughs], Bonnie McKee lyric. It’s just my classic style. I feel like “Bombastic” was a bit of a departure, and this kind of brings it back to my sound. It’s more intimate and still very visual.
It’s about, it sounds very cliché, but it’s much deeper than it sounds. We’re all as young as we’re ever going to be, right this second, right in this moment and right now I’m older than I was five seconds ago. It’s just about really taking advantage of the moment and enjoying your youth and not wasting it. There’s a celebratory party vibe about it.
In some ways, “Bombastic” takes me back to the raw sound of your debut LP from 2004.
You know, my first album is so painful for me to listen to.
Why is that?
I really can’t even handle it. It just came from a really dark time in my life. It was also before I had been touched by any of the industry songwriting rules — I hadn’t worked with Max Martin or Dr. Luke yet, so I didn’t know the songwriting rules. It was just my raw teenage instinct, so there are a lot of mistakes on it. When I listen to it I’m like, “Why did I do it that way?”, if I’d written now I would have done it so differently.
I actually like it…
Thank you. I’m proud of it — some of those songs were the first songs I ever wrote.
Tell me about (EP highlight) “I Want It All.”
It’s very rock and roll. It’s very throwback rock and roll. It’s actually a song to my fans and how I would have done anything to get to them. The first lyric is, “I would make a deal with the devil, turn my heart into metal, just to get to you,” and then “I would cut like a razor, sign in blood on the paper.” It’s basically about selling my soul for rock and roll. It sounds like a love song, but it’s really about my co-dependent relationship with fans.
I know the EP just dropped, but is an album coming?
I would like to know that too! I left Epic and, of course, there was always an option for me to sign with another major. I know everybody and I have a lot of friends. I’m Indie by choice because I knew if I signed with another label right away, it would be another year before I could put anything out. With all the legality and all the red tape and all the opinions. I just had stuff I wanted to put out right now.
It’s like, “I’m tired of waiting. I want to get a batch of songs to my fans.” I have 100 songs and I want all of them to come out. Of course, I have to pick my babies and kill my darlings and stuff. I really am looking forward to doing a full length, but I’m just putting this EP to see what happens, see what opportunities come my way. I have a whole album’s worth of material that I wrote when I was on Epic ready to go.
There will be a full length, or you know what, there’s a possibility I may just do EPs and be like, “Here’s a batch, here’s a batch, here’s a batch.” They could all be totally different, there are no rules.
Would you rule out signing with another major?
No. It was important for me to build a foundation on my own and just get something off the ground. It seems like every time I get involved with a major label years go by and I can’t fucking get an album out. I don’t understand it. Again, I think people’s expectations of me are so astronomically high that its like, “where’s your ‘Roar,’ where’s your ‘Teenage Dream’?” Why aren’t you asking other new artists, “Where’s your Like A Prayer?, Where’s your Thriller?”. I’m a new artist and I’m just trying to get the ball rolling.
Apart from Charlie, who else are you writing for at the moment?
I’ve been doing the Charlie Puth stuff, I just worked with Akon the other day. I’m constantly writing for other people but you never know if they’re going to take it. I’ve submitted songs for Demi Lovato and Selena Gomez, but you never know what’s going to happen. What else have I been working on? I’ve just really been focused on myself.
Are you working on Katy Perry’s next album?
I don’t think she has started yet. She just finished a tour and I think she’s taking a break for a second. She needs a break. I know she never stays out of the studio for long though, so I’m sure it won’t be long.
What is the best song you ever wrote?
Best song I wrote… I think “Teenage Dream” takes the cake. That was just a song that everyone, from the obvious 15-year-old girls crying in the audience to their dad, was like “This song spoke to me.” I was actually just listening to Fall Out Boy’s song “Centuries.” I actually met the lead singer at a CAA party last year and he was like, “Hey, I’m a big fan of your writing, ‘Teenage Dream’ is one of my favorite songs.” He quotes it in the song and every time I hear it — I’m like, “Hey I wrote that!”
Who was your favorite person to work with in the studio?
I love Adam Lambert. He’s so cool. He’s so funny, he’s hilarious. He just has me in stitches. He’s also the best vocalist I’ve worked with, hands down, he’s incredible. Not only does he have a huge range and great instincts, he emotes. He’s very emotive. He was a professional musician before any of this American Idol shit happened. He’s been doing it his whole life. I really enjoy working with him.
Is there a song you gave to someone else that you wanted to keep for yourself?
It happens all the time. “Teenage Dream” was really hard for me to give up — but that was a co-write… it was just a concept I had to break up with and mourn. “Roar” as well. Of course, I would want any of those giant hit songs to be my own. I wrote a song called “I Don’t Care,” that’s not what I called it actually. Cheryl Cole cut it and it went to number one in the UK last year. That was my 10th number one, so I’m grateful for it but I didn’t want to give it up. It was a song I had written for myself. They tweaked a couple lyrics and changed the title. The original title was “Waking Up Diagonal.”
That’s a better title.
It’s the first line of the song. I just thought it was more interesting than “I Don’t Care,” which is such a boring title to me. When I hear that song it breaks my heart a little bit because it’s my story.
Do you have a least favorite song?
That I’ve written? I mean there are times when I go in, write the song and it gets passed along to the producer, or the label gets a hold of it, and they tweak it and it gets botched. It happens a lot. I don’t want to name any names. I mean the Cheryl Cole song was great, they did a good job with it, but it just wasn’t the way I would do it. It really makes my skin crawl. I’m just like, “This isn’t how it’s supposed to be.”
Is there a song that you wrote that you thought was going to be a huge hit, but didn’t quite click?
I was really surprised that [Katy Perry’s] “Birthday” didn’t happen. I don’t know what went wrong. I don’t know if the video wasn’t quite right or if the timing wasn’t right or if something else huge was happening at the time. I don’t know. Also, “American Girl.” I felt like that was… I just started playing it again because I’m starting to play shows again. I’m like, “God this song is really good, I don’t know what happened”. What else? [Christina Aguilera’s] “Let There Be Love.”
That was the best song on Lotus.
I totally agree. When we wrote it, Max and I, we had that feeling. We had that hit feeling and Christina was on The Voice and doing all right at the time. I don’t know what happened. It was such a great song. I don’t really know that it was officially released though, she made a weird video that was kind of half-assed. That was another one where I was like, “Hmm, this is weird.”
Do you ever feel a bit jaded with the industry?
Yeah. Absolutely, yeah. It’s really easy to feel that way especially. I fought and struggled for a really long time and then when I hit, I hit. I got spoiled, I had like four hit songs in one summer. I had three songs in the top five. With my first hits. I was like, “Oh, okay.” But when it starts to slow down you’re like, “Oh shit.” I don’t know, my expectations are so high. I expect everything to go that way, but it’s not the way it works.
It sounds like you’re pretty hard on yourself.
Yeah, definitely. I’ve had to do a lot of work on myself. A lot of praying and meditation and remembering that the reason I put this EP out is not to win, it’s just because I love being an artist and I want to be the voice that touches people. I want to make people happy, I want to bring them light and love and encourage them to be themselves. That’s why I do this, so whether I’m going number one or number 10 or number 100, I don’t really care. I get to do what I love.
I think that Bombastic has a lot of potential for syncs and movies. We just got this huge sync with Women’s World Cup on Fox Sports, so that’s incredible. That made me cry actually, they put together a montage of all these really powerful, incredible, inspiring women playing together. That was really awesome. I think that I would like to get my music out in the world and let people enjoy it. I don’t want to have to high of expectations because you just never know and I don’t want to be heartbroken again.
I think that with “American Girl” I was like, “Okay, I have a hit on my hands. Everything’s set up. I got the right label, I’ve got the right people behind me. Its all going to be okay”, and when it didn’t happen, it was just devastating. I can’t afford to go through that again, I can’t do that to myself. I’m just grateful to have the opportunity and to have the luxury to be able to fund my own project and do what I want.