She told me not to tell you, but when I called her in Los Angeles, Bonnie McKee answered the phone while sunbathing by the pool and enjoying a slice of pumpkin pie for breakfast. I commended her for knowing how to live.
You may not think you don’t know Bonnie McKee, but you do. She’s written for the likes of Kelly Clarkson, Jason Derulo, Katy Perry, and Britney Spears. “It’s definitely a strange path, to have had so much global success on a writing level and be virtually unknown as an artist.” But–like I said–you do know her. You probably even know all the words to one of her songs, like Katy Perry’s platinum-certified hit, “Roar”. McKee is on the other side of six Grammy nods and dozens of BMI awards, but getting there didn’t come without trial, error, and trial again.
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“I didn’t finish high school, I didn’t go to college, obviously, and I don’t really know how to do anything else. I always knew I was talented, I always knew I had a gift, and I really didn’t know what else to do to make money and survive. Also, there was nothing else I wanted to do. For me, that’s what I lived for, so there was really no other choice.” That desire to really live is why she ran away from Seattle to Los Angeles at just 16 years old, her lyrical prowess and pop vocal sensibilities two engines driving her down the coast. “I was a really troubled teen. I was heavily involved in drugs and alcohol and boys, you know, all of the fun stuff,” Mckee laughed. “I really felt like my life was kinda falling apart. I got kicked out of high school and my parents were on the verge of kicking me out. They were in the middle of a divorce. I was coming from a broken home and I really had nothing left in Seattle. Through all of this, I turned to my music. I was just like– fuck it, why stay? I felt my destiny was calling me in Los Angeles.”
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She was quickly signed to Reprise Records, but they parted ways shortly after. “The desire to be an artist never stopped. I got into songwriting out of necessity because I’d been dropped and felt like I was tainted. Even though most of the great icons in pop music have been signed and dropped and it’s kind of a right of passage, I felt tainted and like nobody wanted me. I was broke, I was desperate, and people were showing interest in my songwriting. I had to follow the breadcrumbs that the universe was handing out to me. I got a record deal at Epic [Records] and put out ‘American Girl’ and that was another ill-fated major deal.”
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Now, McKee is selling out venues in the town she ran off to– one more piece of mounting evidence that she’s more than capable of separating herself from the artists for whom she writes. Leaning into her own voice and vulnerability serves her well, like in her recent single “Thorns” where she explores aloof and prickly in relationships: “Warm heart, cold blood, soft touch, tough love / Burnt down, fucked up, just the way you like.” When I asked her about the motivation for the song, she replied, “I can be a little cold, a little aloof, I’m an aquarius after all. I’m very logical and there’s not a lot of room for emotional stuff. I’m a big picture person, I don’t get caught up on the minutiae of everyday romantic spats, and for people who do, that’s very difficult.”
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So what was it that drove her to the stage when she had so much success as a songwriter? “There’s something about being on stage and seeing people’s faces and seeing them sing the songs and sing them back to you that is not like any other feeling, there’s a connection between the singer and the audience that you don’t get when it’s just your words being sung by someone else. There’s a vibration that goes through your body when it’s coming out of you. I feel transcendent and brings me closer to God. There’s a connection there that I don’t get being behind the scenes. It’s electrifying and addictive, and I can’t imagine my life without it.”
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