She's helped write some of the biggest multimillion-selling hits in recent history -- including four Hot 100 No. 1s for Katy Perry. But now Bonnie McKee wants to sell a few more for someone else: herself
"Not everybody's an artist, and not every artist is a songwriter, and not every songwriter is a great dancer," Dr. Luke says. "Bonnie kept saying she wanted to be an artist. I wasn't sure she did, but she committed herself."
"I wasn't fully realized when I started," McKee says. "Such an important part of my journey was being dropped and forced to step back, work on my craft in shitty, rat-infested Hollywood studios and ask myself, 'Who do I want to be?'"
Growing up in a Seattle suburb, McKee proved a musical prodigy at an early age, touring with a choral group all over Europe, including a performance before the Pope. "The choir moms hated me," McKee says. "I was a bad influence. I grew up sneaking out to raves. And I was randomly in a hip-hop group with Macklemore called Elevated Elements when I was 15 years old. I was like the Fergie of the band-the girl that sang the hook. We'd just sit in his bedroom at his parents' house and make weird trip-hop."
Performing and songwriting have been crosswired in McKee's career almost from the very start. When she was still a teenager, she got the chance to play a demo of covers (Fiona Apple, Carole King, Bette Midler) for Sub Pop co-founder Jonathan PoneÂman, who'd studied Transcendental Meditation with McKee's mother. "Jonathan said, 'That's great that you can sing, but a lot of people can sing-can you write?'" McKee recalls. "So I went home and tried my hand at it." McKee eventually made a demo of original compositions as a high school project. "Via a long, complicated story that had to do with someone's babysitter who knew someone in L.A. it ended up in the hands of Nic Harcourt," she says.
At the time, Harcourt was PD of Los Angeles noncommercial radio station KCRW and host of its influential "Morning Becomes Eclectic" show. "I have no idea how I got my hands on Bonnie's demo, but I remember playing it," says Harcourt, who currently hosts the morning show on KCSN Los Angeles as well "Guitar Center Sessions" for DirecTV. "It's one of those anthemic, slow-build songs that had this universal longing in the lyrics. We might've played 'Somebody' half a dozen times. Back then, if we played something on 'Morning Becomes Eclectic,' someone might get a placement in a Volkswagen commercial or actually get a deal."
For McKee, it was the latter: After signing with Warner Bros. at age 16, she "moved to L.A. all by myself and lived in a shitty Hollywood apartment building full of weirdos," she says. Current Warner Bros. chairman Rob Cavallo went on to produce McKee's debut for the label, Trouble, which, despite expectations, came out in 2004 to absolutely zero fanfare. "'Trouble' was my middle name," McKee says. "It was such a hard time for me. Before I got the deal, I had a very difficult teen life as a drug addict and a runaway. When I got signed, I thought, 'Everything's going to be OK.' But I was a teenage rebel rock star-but writing these heartfelt singer/songwriter songs. I was given a dress code because everyone thought I was 'too sexy.' No one knew what to do with me."
Despite Trouble's underwhelming performance, McKee assumed she'd get another chance. "I kept writing songs for my second album, not realizing everyone had given up on me," she says. "I'd started out being the darling of [Warner's then-chairman] Tom Whalley, but by the end, no one was returning my phone calls. I downward-spiraled, got really into meth and just became a mess. I got so frustrated, I drove to the label CEO's house in the middle of the night, took a CD of my best songs and stabbed it onto a tree right in front of his door with a dagger that I got from a smoke shop on Hollywood Boulevard. I then wrote 'Platinum Baby!' in lipstick on his car. When he walked out the next day, it was the first thing he saw. It was also his kids' first day of school. Everyone was screaming and crying, thinking that a maniac came in the middle of the night-which wasn't wrong. Needless to say, I got dropped."
Broke and desperate, McKee finally got the wakeup call she needed. "When I was at Warner Bros., I kept waiting for my knight to ride up on a white horse and save the day," she says. "Once I got dropped, I realized no one was going to do it for me: I needed to get my shit together and work." Her second break came when she played a song she'd written, "Fireflies," to the Pulse Recording principals-a connection through McKee's boyfriend and longtime collaborator, Oliver "Oligee" Goldstein. Goldstein and McKee would prove to be Pulse's first publishing signings. McKee worked on projects for Elliott Yamin and Leighton Meester, and eventually connected with Dr. Luke on sessions for Perry's Teenage Dream.
"I'd known Katy since I was 18," McKee says. "After we got dropped from our labels, we used to play shows together-'Last Friday Night' was actually inspired by Katy and my wild drinking days. We were in the same circles and always kept an eye on each other. We're still competitive: We always joke about being 'frenemies,' but honestly, Katy is such a great songwriter, she doesn't really need me. I owe all of this to her, in so many ways."
"I'm very responsible for those Louboutins," Perry jokes. "We've been close friends for almost a decade. When I was going in for my second record, I wanted a co-writer I could volley with, and Bonnie and I are on the same zeitgeist tip. I brought her in with Max Martin and Luke, and now she's on everything. She'll always be a writing partner for me."
After her staggering run of hits, McKee found her artist capital rising again. "A lot of people did want to sign her," Dr. Luke says. According to Abraham, "Epic was salivating to get the deal done. We had one meeting with L.A. [Reid], and he was really excited." One final hump, however, remained: McKee had to perform for the label staff in Epic chairman/CEO Reid's office. "He called everybody into his office and said, 'OK, I just want to see how you move,'" McKee remembers. "I had a song called 'Lovebird'-a ballad that actually ended up going to Leona Lewis-so I sang along to it. I was like, 'Do I do an interpretative dance? How do I do this?' So I improvised: I got a chair and did the Whitney Houston thing, then got up and did a Celine Dion thing, did a little twirl and some hand gestures, and then ended sitting down for dramatic effect. L.A. clapped and was like, 'Sold!'"
While McKee's team lays the track-by-track groundwork to connect her to an audience, recording continues for an album that Dr. Luke says is "80% done." Collaborators include Jacknife Lee and Benny Blanco, along with production by Dr. Luke, Abraham, Goldstein and cutting-edge dance-music guru Alex Metric. "I thought a lot about what, say, Blondie would do in 2013," McKee says of her work in progress. "It's fun, bright, anthemic, colorful-a great marriage of analog and digital, mixing real instruments and modern pop sounds."
A few hours later, McKee arrives at Dr. Luke's sleek Malibu-based compound for an afternoon's work. The structure is right on the beach overlooking the Pacific Ocean. When the windows are open, one can hear the waves crashing just outside, but in the upstairs studio, it's all work. Dr. Luke and writer/producer Cirkut-a close collaborator of Luke's who's worked on tracks for Perry and Ke$ha, among others-hover over Pro Tools, obsessing over sonic details. Luke absentmindedly strums jazzy chords on a hollow-body guitar as McKee tracks vocals in a separate booth for a new song, "Right Now"-a fist-pumper designed for crowd singalong. "This could be a stadium rocker, but we need to make it modern," Dr. Luke says as McKee finishes a take. "We need to listen to some Def Leppard. And maybe Slash could play the solo."
"Get me Slash!" McKee exclaims as she enters the control room for a playback. "I'm feeling very 'Bohemian Rhapsody' with this. It has to be something that makes you feel like you're at the Olympics."
McKee's passionate vocal and uplifting lyrics-"Let's go, right now/I'm ready for whatever/Put me under pressure/I'm better-I will never surrender/Right now"-are more emotionally direct than many of the hits she's known for. She hints that her second solo effort will reveal some new dimensions. "It covers a vast scope of emotion, a wider spectrum of places I've been," she says. "It's a pretty deep album, disguised as a pop explosion: There's perseverance, falling in love, partying-and then waking up from the partying." She cites one of her favorite tracks, "Forever 21." "It's disguised as a party anthem, but it's really about addiction," says McKee, who's been sober for a year-and-a-half. "I thought I was a broken person, but it turns out I'm actually pretty sane."
"All these things had to happen to get her where she is now," Dr. Luke says. "I'm really proud of her-she's a real artist. She's learned a lot, and now it's her show."
"Bonnie's doing the artist thing, so she can't be available every time I want her," Perry says. "But she's first and foremost my friend, and I want my friends to taste success. And she fucking hustles. She knows what the record industry is like and has earned some respect. With that respect, she can make leadership calls of her own."
"Madonna begat Gaga, and now we want to see the next Gaga," Abraham says. "It's exciting. It feels like Bonnie could be next." As such, McKee's ambition knows no bounds-for her, pop stardom is just the beginning. "I'd really like to write a musical," she says. "I'd like to write a book and host a talk show. When I'm old, I'm going to grow two long white braids and learn karate. I have plans-I'm going places. I didn't understand what it really took to get there, though. Now that I've had to claw my way to the top, I appreciate it so much more."