Bonnie McKee is the American Dream: she’s a California girl who pushed her way up to the top with nothing but raw talent and determination in her back pocket. This fiery combination ultimately helped her etch a mark on some of the biggest Hot 100 hits of the decade, with writing credits on chartoppers by Katy Perry and Britney Spears.
McKee’s latest single “Thorns” proves slightly more brooding than her earlier material, honing in on a sound that’s clearly evolved from the foot of her shimmery bubblegum pop roots, and into a more polished self-aware form of alternative pop.
To celebrate the release, we caught up with McKee to talk about the meaning behind thorns “Thorns,” the lack of women on the charts and how her sexuality informs her songwriting process: “As I got older I tried to write gender neutral songs because the gender is irrelevant.” Check out our interview below.
You released your debut album, Trouble, in 2004. In what ways have your goals both as a songwriter and artist evolved?
I wrote most of Trouble when I was between 14 and 16 years old, so I think it’s safe to say things have changed quite a bit for me! They were my first attempts at songwriting, so they were pretty sloppy and all over the place- cryptic. I was confused back then. I was writing kind of classic singer songwriter style songs, but in my head I wanted to be Madonna, so it took me a while to figure out how to write the music that matched the visual in my head, and that matched my personality. I am a lot feistier than that first album! My writing evolved immensely having the privilege of working with [producer] Max Martin and the like, his influence changed the way I thought about songwriting forever.
The first time I heard “Thorns” I interpreted it as a non-liability warning for someone who may be much more invested in the beginnings of a relationship. Am I on the right track?
For the most part, yes. “Thorns” is kind of an unapologetic proclamation that I’m not always a ray of sunshine, and that my sometimes aloof demeanor can be misinterpreted as rejection or being cold. On the contrary, I’m quite vulnerable, but I am a complicated, multidimensional woman and that can sometimes be intimidating for people.
Where did the inspiration for “Thorns” come from?
I have always been told that I can be a bit, how should I say… prickly? [Laughs] I think of myself as generally warm and generous with my love, but I am guarded on a deep level and that can make people feel uncomfortable and uneasy. I’m more logic driven and less emotional, which can sometimes throw people off. It’s not on purpose, I genuinely can’t help it.
When you write a song, is it usually with yourself or someone else specifically in mind?
When I go into a room to write a song, I usually go in knowing who I’m writing for. If it’s for another artist, I am trying to tell their story, but if it’s my own project, I take a different approach and tend to take more risks lyrically.
Is it important to you that the music you release as an artist reflect what’s going on in your personal life?
Yes and no. Sometimes I write songs that I just need to hear. Like “Bombastic” from my last EP, though it was loud and fun and outrageous, was a message I really needed to hear. It was about saying “fuck the haters” and having permission to be myself and believe I can do anything.
There’s been a surge in artists such as Aaron Carter and Lil Peep coming out as bisexual. In a world where bisexuality is often dismissed as confusion, visibility is paramount. What role has your sexual identity played in your music, if any?
I think it’s beautiful that bisexuality is becoming more of an open discussion, especially amongst men. Often you hear people say if a guy hooks up with another guy then he’s automatically gay, but when girls hook up with girls it’s all just fun and games. I’ve had boyfriends in my life who experimented on both sides and genuinely loved both. I think that stigma is a myth, and that it is absolutely possible to just be attracted to another human, regardless of their gender or what sexual identity you have labeled yourself.
For some people, it’s just about taboo, something different that’s exciting and new, and for some it’s just having an emotional connection to a person who happens to be the same gender. I have explored my complicated relationships with other women in my writing from way back on my first album, but as I got older I tried to write gender neutral songs because the gender is irrelevant. It’s really just about human beings interacting and all the complicated feelings that come along with that.
Are there any current Hot 100 hits you’d wish you’d written? Or anyone you want to write for?
I’m currently really loving Portugal The Man’s “Feel It Still” and K.Flay’s “Blood in the Cut.” A song I wish I wrote is “Middle Fingers” by Missio. What a masterpiece. I also am obsessed with “Deadstream” by Jim-E Stack featuring Charli XCX. I’ve always wanted to write with Charli, Bruno Mars, and Lady Gaga.
There’s a lack of women in the upper echelon of the Hot 100 chart. In fact, the last time a woman topped the chart as a lead act was Sia with “Cheap Thrills,” last August. As a writer of countless charttoppers, do you have any advice for young women pursuing music who want to change this?
I hate to say it but it’s not really up to us. It’s up to the radio stations that are playing male dominated music. I’m seeing all of these amazing rising stars like Dua Lipa who are really just on the tipping point and I guess all I can say is, continue making great art and the cream will hopefully rise to the top. But it is frustrating because it’s really such an elusive thing to have a hit on American radio.
As far as records go, do you have any guilty pleasures?
The new Papa Roach album is fire front-to-back. No shame.
What can we expect for the rest of 2017 from Bonnie McKee — any collaborations?
No collaborations I am allowed to announce yet! I am currently writing more for myself, rehearsing to play some shows, and making music videos — my favorite part!