Singles Lady: Bonnie McKee Is Looking Out for Number One

Jatnna Nunez
Bonnie McKee

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

"Welcome to Casa de Bambi!" Bonnie Mc­Kee exclaims as she makes her way through her mid-century modern home in the Hollywood Hills, which she's transformed into a retro-mod explosion she calls "my fantasy of the 'Brady Bunch' house." Pop-culture iconography covers every spare inch-a framed "Lolita" poster and old magazines with Miss Piggy and Michael Jackson on the cover share space with a collection of vintage telephones and TVs in a variety of crazy colors and shapes. Casually shoved into a corner is a stack of framed BMI Citations of Achievement honoring McKee for her songwriting contributions to some of pop's most recent (and biggest) hits: Taio Cruz's "Dynamite," Britney Spears' "Hold It Against Me" and her quintet of smashes for Katy Perry, "California Gurls," "Teenage Dream," "Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)," "Part of Me," and "Wide Awake."

Bonnie's Hot 100 No. 1s

Five of those seven tracks hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100-"Hold It Against Me" and all the Perry songs except "Wide Awake," which peaked at No. 2-and collectively all seven have sold 27.5 million copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. "Those songs allowed me to have all this," she says, sweeping her hands across the expansive view of Lake Hollywood visible from her pool. She's poolside now to chill before a writing session at the studio of her mentor, Lukasz Gottwald, better-known as Dr. Luke.

In person, McKee, 29, dresses like the pop stars she's helped bring into being, and whose ranks she now hopes to join: five-inch electric-teal Christian Louboutin stilettos, Daisy Dukes, popsicle-pink hair, baseball cap with "Loser" scrawled on the bill, eyes hidden behind cat-eyed Prada sunglasses. A half shirt emblazoned with the phrase "As If" bares serious midriff. McKee's fingernails, meanwhile, are resplendent with images of hot dogs and cheeseburgers. Bambi, she explains, is the pseudonym she wanted to take on for the release of her own music, which is arriving through Kemosabe Records, the label Dr. Luke has set up with Epic. "Bambi is the character I play in my videos, like Sasha Fierce," McKee says. "I wanted to change my name that for this ­album, but no one would let me."

Positioning McKee as a solo artist in the pop marketplace, in fact, is proving to be both the project's greatest challenge and benefit. "She's the most familiar voice in pop music you've never heard," says Scott Seviour, Epic executive VP of marketing and artist development. "This is an artist that's been in the making for a long time, with a long track record: That's our marketing hook. She works with Katy, Adam Lambert, Ke$ha, Britney. She'll tie into those artists' thematic fans, like the Katy Kats-they'll make that connection immediately."

"We want to let people know, 'You've already been listening to Bonnie McKee. You already like her. You're already a fan,'" Dr. Luke says. "Now here's a chance to really get to know her. That's what we need to translate."

"When she plays live, Bonnie's been playing a medley of all the songs she's written," says Josh Abraham, founder of Pulse Recordings, the boutique umbrella firm housing Pulse Management (which counts McKee as a client) and Songs of Pulse, which co-publishes McKee's songwriting in a joint venture with Dr. Luke's Prescription Songs. "After you hear her play hit after hit, people make that connection."

McKee and her team are hoping that "American Girl"-her first Kemosabe/Epic single-joins her platinum-plated pantheon. With its relentless club groove, soaring melodic lines, nostalgic lyrics ("I fell in love in a 7-11 parking lot/Drinking Slurpees we mixed with alcohol") and a pop-art confection of a chorus ("Hot blooded, all-American girl ... I was raised by a television"), "American Girl" certainly sounds of a piece with, well, "Teenage Dream."

"'American Girl' felt like a summer hit to me," Abraham says, "and the label felt it stood out, so much that they wanted to put it out first to represent the album."

"'American Girl' captures my entire American childhood in three-and-a-half minutes," McKee says. "I was a skate betty sitting with the boy I liked in a 7-11 parking lot, trying to get people to buy us beer and cigarettes. And I literally feel like I was raised by television. I've learned so many life lessons from sitcoms and music videos."

To launch "American Girl," McKee's team worked to engineer a viral pop-culture event, starting with a clip for the song that features a head-scratching armada of celebrity cameos lip-syncing to the track: Ke$ha, Macklemore, Carly Rae Jepsen, Tommy Lee and Adam Lambert appear alongside Jewel, Joan Rivers, Jenny McCarthy, Jane Lynch, George Takei and the members of Kiss in full makeup (and that's a partial list). Perry climaxes the video on an ironic note, saying, "And my competition ..."

The "American Girl" lip-sync clip hit YouTube on June 26, which Seviour calls "our detonation point-what was a soft launch became an explosion." Within a week, with little promotion, "American Girl" had garnered half a million views and currently stands at 1.5 million. "Radio suddenly jumped on it-they wanted the record, and we hadn't even serviced it yet," Seviour says.

All parties agreed to hold back "American Girl" from commercial release for a month after the video launched, to let the virus take hold. "There have been debates: 'Do we put "American Girl" soft on iTunes?'" Dr. Luke recalls. "'If we do, and it sells only 4,000 copies, does it hurt when we try to go to radio?' Strategy for Bonnie changes daily; everything is a calculation." In fact, the track moved 15,000 copies in its first week (and another 10,000 in its second). It moves 37-33 on Billboard's Mainstream Top 40 airplay chart and continues to build at radio, garnering 20 adds this week.

"Right now, we're trying to create a hit song and deliver a new artist via a true 360 campaign, creating temples with radio, television and press into fall," Seviour says. "Then we'll start to look at international-various markets are already having a big reaction, accelerating the album's release date."

What that exact date is, however, remains in flux. As with many projects recently-from McKee to Beyonce-there's no fixed album date at present. "When you're a new artist-and as far as the general public's awareness, Bonnie is essentially a new artist-there's no such thing as a release date, really," Dr. Luke says. "Any plans you make are totally arbitrary. The truth is, you have to react to the marketplace and adapt, so the idea of having a strict release date for a new artist doesn't make any sense."

And for an artist like McKee who's directly targeting the top 40 listener, an album release makes even less sense before she's forged a bond with those listeners. "The question is, What's the best way to build an artist?" asks Paul Kremen, a consultant to Kemosabe. "Is it by asking the consumer to spend $10 on something they usually don't? Or by establishing a dialogue with the consumer in a vernacular they understand, and asking them to participate in a process they're used to, which is buying a track for $1.29?"

For now, as McKee's team fights the ground war of breaking her at radio, it's about building her profile track by track. "It makes sense for Bruno Mars to have a cohesive worldwide campaign where the music comes out the same time everywhere," Dr. Luke says. "But here, we're looking for a story anywhere."

McKee's story, however, is becoming increasingly familiar. After an original label deal went sour, she stepped out of the spotlight to write songs for other artists-with the resulting hits drumming up interest in her as a performer all over again. Perry, Mars, Lady Gaga and Frank Ocean have all followed some version of this trajectory. "It's almost become the new artist development," Perry says. "I see a lot of songwriters dipping their fingers in, thinking they can be writers and artists, too-but Bonnie has true star quality."

NEXT PAGE: "Such an important part of my journey was being dropped and forced to step back"

"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 Pone­man, 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."