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WHEN MUSIC POPS, WE TURN IT UP

Exclusive: Bonnie McKee talks with PopBytes!

Exclusive: Bonnie McKee talks with PopBytes!
September 18, 2013 ALEX NAGORSKI

Bonnie McKee

Bonnie McKee is no stranger to the top of the Billboard charts.

Over the past three years, McKee has been responsible for penning nine No. 1 pop anthems and has sold more than 28 million records worldwide. She’s worked with the likes of Kelly Clarkson, Christina Aguilera, Ke$ha, Adam Lambert, and Kylie Minogue, and her biggest smashes to date include Britney Spears’ “Hold It Against Me,” Taio Cruz’ “Dynamite,” and a whole slew of Katy Perry’s greatest hits – including “California Gurls,” “Teenage Dream,” “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.),” “Part of Me,” and the current #1 single in the country, “Roar.”

But earlier this summer, McKee decided to step out from behind the scenes and revisit her dreams of becoming a performing artist. Thus, with the release of “American Girl,” the debut single (available on iTunes) from her upcoming album, the California-born singer/songwriter made the transition from just being the voice behind the lyrics to actually being the voice singing them.

As she prepares for the release of her as-of-yet-untitled album (slated to be released by Epic Records in 2014), McKee chatted with me about the release of “American Girl,” her creative process, her secret recipe for songwriting success, how she plans to balance her performing and songwriting career, and much more!

Congratulations on the success of “American Girl” so far!

Thank you so much! We’re still in the grind so I won’t be happy until it’s gone all the way.

You’re responsible for writing nine of the biggest pop songs of the past few years. Which one would you say is your favorite and which one would you say is your crowning achievement?

Let’s see. Well, I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for “Teenage Dream.” That’s a big one for me. But I think my favorite right now is “Roar,” the new one that I wrote for Katy Perry.

You started out as a performer then switched to exclusively songwriting for a little while. Why did you decide that now was the perfect time for you to re-emerge as a performer again?

Well, after I released my first album, I got dropped from my label, and I kind of had to start writing out of necessity. It was always my secret plan to be an artist again, so I just knew that I had to come back ripe with ammunition. I needed to have a story and I needed to catch people’s attention. I was good at songwriting and I hoped that through that, I could get back to being my own artist again.

How indicative is “American Girl” of the sound of your upcoming album?

Very. It’s all very colorful and full of pop anthems. I’m pulling a lot from my influences like Madonna, Prince, and Michael Jackson. It’s definitely going to be really big and fun!

Do you have a title and/or release date planned yet?

Not yet. I’m still writing. Most of it’s done, but I like to write up until the last minute. You never know, it could be that last song you write that’s a spark of genius and could be the title of the album. So I’m going to wait until I decide what I’m going to call it.

Why did you choose “American Girl” as your re-introduction to the pop world?

Well I felt like “American Girl” was the quintessential Bonnie McKee song. I’m known for my lyrics and big melodies, so I felt like it was very me. I pulled from my own real life experiences and it just seemed like the most obvious choice.

The video for “American Girl” is filled with so many familiar faces. How did you get all of these celebrities to participate?

Most of them are friends of mine. I just sent out a mass text and e-mail. I wasn’t expecting that many people to participate! It was really moving actually. When I got the Tommy Lee video back of him in drag as me flying upside down in the air and playing the drums, I literally was bawling. I was crying. I filmed a reaction video and sent it to him and was like, “look what you’ve done to me, Tommy!” It was just so overwhelming because that song had been on my hard drive forever and no one had really heard it. So for the first people to be hearing it to be these people, and then for them to get so creative with it, was really over the top and overwhelming.

How is your creative process different when writing for yourself versus writing for other artists?

When I’m writing with other artists, most of the time, I have that artist in the room. It’s like a therapy session in a way because I’m picking their brains about what they’re going through and what they want to say. So they share their feelings and I take that and I turn it into a pop song. When it comes to myself, I have to dig a little deeper. I’ve written so many songs in my life that I really have to push myself. There really are so many things to write about in a pop song, so I like to get really creative with my lyrics and try to say something kinda quirky that I don’t think a lot of artists would want to say. So yeah, I’d say I get a little quirkier with my own lyrics.

For the fans that have been following you from the start of your career, will the songs you had featured on your MySpace in between your first album and now ever be available to download or buy?

Yes! There was one song called “Thunder” that got remixed by Rusko – he’s a really awesome DJ. I sent him the acapella and he did this whole thing to breathe new life into it, so that one got kind of a life again. “Stars In Your Heart” may actually make the album. I’m actually planning on making a video for that one either way, even if it’s just for online release. And then I think “Love Spell” will have a new life too. That’s a song that a lot of big names have recorded. A lot of people have wanted that song and I’ve heard so many great, famous voices on it. But I don’t want to give it up! It’s a song that I wrote for myself and is very personal to me, so I’m excited to sing it.

You’ve also written a lot with Max Martin and Dr. Luke, who are pop songwriting legends in their own rights. What’s the best piece of advice they’ve ever given you?

Literally every time I write with them, I learn something new. I always try and let the professionals do their thing and I try to pick up as much as I can. But I think the most important thing I’ve learned is simplicity. It’s easy to try to get overly clever, but I think it’s important to instead just pick and choose the moments where you want to be clever and let the record just be accessible. So yeah, I’d say simplicity is definitely the most important thing I’ve learned from Max Martin and Dr. Luke.

So is keeping it simple your secret formula for writing so many #1 hits?

I guess so. It also helps working with all of these amazing artists and songwriters, so it’s always a collaborative effort. But yes, I think that’s the key – writing a song that people can relate to, even if they don’t speak English. As long as you can sing along to it and still feel something, that’s what works. So phonetics are also really important.

I know you yourself weren’t present at the VMA’s this year, but what were your thoughts on the mob of redheads who were all chanting your name on camera?

I thought it was amazing! It was so cute. I didn’t even know that was coming, so when I saw it, I was like, “Oh my god!” It was quite a surprise. It was really cool. It’s awesome to know that you can have a Bonnie McKee costume – and the fact that it’s recognizable is really awesome. It really warmed my heart.

That must have been a really big moment for you!

Yeah! It was a big moment for me. It was one of those moments that I was like, “oh my god, this is really real,” so it was pretty cool.

Speaking of the VMAs, what was your favorite performance of the night?

There were some really good ones! It was a really exciting year this year. I feel like the past couple years have been pretty dull. I really enjoyed Lady Gaga’s performance because she always brings 110%. And of course, Katy. She’s always great. It’s always exciting to hear the songs that I wrote being performed. Every time I’ve seen someone perform a song live that we wrote together, I cry. Every single time. I’m a big cry-baby. So that’s always exciting. And of course, Bruno Mars.

It must be really interesting to see all the visual narratives and choreography and production value added to the performances of these songs that you wrote and seeing how all those things play out on stage together.

Yeah, it’s really cool! I’m always excited to see the music videos too because I feel like every time I write a song, I have a video for it in my head. I’m always imagining what the video for the song would look like. That’s kind of how I write, so it’s always fun to see how they turn out.

As a co-writer of “Roar,” what is your response to the allegations that the song sounds too similar to Sara Bareilles’ “Brave”?

Yeah, I heard about that. It’s funny because people forget that we wrote this song months ago. We wrote the song before “Brave” came out and I had never actually heard it. Then when I listened to it, I was like, “oh yeah, I guess that is kind of reminiscent,” but it’s a total coincidence. I had never heard the song before and I think it’s a great song, by the way. I love Sara. I think she’s so talented. And it happens all the time. I hear stuff on the radio that I’m like, “what?! I just wrote something like that!” but there’s no way that anyone could have copied that because nobody in the world’s ever heard it. But it’s just kind of something that happens and I think it happens all the time.

Will we be hearing more of your songs on Katy and/or Britney’s upcoming albums?

Yeah, I wrote 4 songs on the new Katy album, Prism. I’m really excited about those. We really had a lot of fun writing them together. They’re really different and fun. She likes to get experimental so they’re kind of a departure from her last album that I worked on with her. As far as Britney, I don’t know. If they call me, I’ll definitely do it. It’s always so exciting to hear an iconic voice like Britney’s singing the words that I’ve written.

That actually leads in nicely to my next question —  Do you ever get nervous or star-struck when collaborating with artists of that caliber? For instance, I heard you wrote a song on Cher’s upcoming album. That must have been quite an experience!

I know that Cher recorded a song that I wrote and that was really exciting, but I don’t know if it made the final cut of her album or not. That happens a lot – where the artist will record like 45 songs and they’ll pick the best from those, so I have no idea if she’ll be using it or not. But either way, it’s an honor to have her voice singing my song. She’s just an idol of mine. But yes, absolutely, I get nervous. Britney Spears is someone I grew up listening to and idolizing and watching and studying, so to see her in the flesh and to hear her voice was just really surreal. I’ve gotten to meet all kinds of people – like Steven Tyler was a big one for me. I got to sing for him and he got to sing for me, just me and him and a piano, so I’ve had tons of amazing experiences. It’s been very rewarding being behind the scenes.

What’s one song from the past year that you didn’t write but wish you had?

Hmm … “Call Me Maybe” is maybe 2-years-old now, but I wish I wrote that one. From top to bottom, it’s just a perfect pop song. There are no holes, no questions about it. It’s just a perfect pop song. And Carly Rae is a total sweetheart.

After your album is released, how do you plan on balancing your career as a songwriter and your career as a popstar?

Well I’m fortunate in that I’m able to pick and choose who I want to write for and what I want to do. But I think for now, I’m an artist. It was always my #1 goal to be on stage and to be able to move people with my own voice and have that experience of sharing my music with people. There’s just nothing like that. So I think I’m going to focus more on my own artist project. As far as songwriting stuff – I’ll do things that I can’t say no to. If Katy calls, I’m not going to say no. If Britney calls, I’m not going to say no. If Cher calls, I’m definitely not going to say no.

Is there anything else you’d like to add about your album or any of your upcoming plans that we didn’t talk about?

I don’t think so! I guess just buy the “American Girl” single on iTunes!

Bonnie McKee "American Girl"

Alex has been writing for PopBytes since 2011. As the Theater Editor, he primarily focuses on all aspects of Broadway, Off-Broadway, Regional Theater, and beyond. After growing up in Poland, Germany, and Russia, Alex spent several years living in New York before moving full-time to the Berkshires in Massachusetts. To read more from Alex, check out his blog, Headphone Infatuation, and follow him on Twitter @AlexNagorski.