Photography by Ward Robinson
As a pop songwriter, LA artist Bonnie Mckee has been wildly successful, co-penning massive, radio-breaking hits from Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream” to Britney Spears’ “Hold It Against Me.” As a solo artist, however, Mckee’s yet to make the musical stamp she deserves; her first record deal with Warner Bros. ended after releasing only one album, Trouble, and her more recent Epic Records contract quietly dissolved after the singer debuted “American Girl” off a now shelved LP. Repeatedly torn down and forced to rebuild, Mckee’s back again, only this time she’s hungrier (and happier) than ever.
After months of redefining her sound without a corporate label’s influence, Mckee’s made the brave decision to roll out her new EP, Bombastic, as an independent artist. The result is an 80s-inspired, four-track effort from its strong opener, “I Want It All,” which sounds like an “Eye Of The Tiger” for 2015, to “Easy,” which recalls Cyndi Lauper’s debut album, She’s So Unusual. The EP’s lead single, “Bombastic,” is a confident declaration of Mckee’s newfound DGAF attitude; “I’m feeling fucking fantastic,” she squeals over thrashing, guitar-driven production. A far cry from the cutesy sheen of her sun-soaked work with Ms. Perry, Bombastic is a fresh shift for the singer.
We caught up with Mckee to talk about her award-winning songwriting process, newfound independence and the competitive music industry. Listen to Bombastic in full, below.
Tell me about the long break between releasing your 2013 summer smash, “American Girl,” and this new EP, Bombastic.
“Record labels are tricky. We put out ‘American Girl’ and when it came time to pick out a second single, I wasn’t really seeing eye-to-eye with the label. I did a tour and was feeling like I was being creatively stifled, so we agreed to go our separate ways. I needed a minute to step back and take a look at who I was as an artist and who I wanted to be—really reevaluate my sound without having a label as a filter. So Bombastic is really the result of me being unfiltered—doing what I want to do and saying what I want to say.”
Without “having a label as a filter,” who are you as an artist, right now?
“As much as I love ‘American Girl’ and I always will—it’s true to who I am—but it was a few years ago and there were different trends musically. Things have changed, the atmosphere has changed in the pop world. I think I was doing what seemed like the obvious thing to do; I did I what I was known for doing, which is light sparkly pop stuff. That’s really where my heart is; that’s my favorite kind of music, but I really wanted to try and do something different. I feel like I’ve always had Rock ‘N’ Roll roots; I grew up listening to Blondie and the Ramones, so I think this EP has a little bit more of that flavor in it. I think the work matches the sound a lot better than it ever did, so I had a lot of fun with it aesthetically.”
Your first album was incredibly raw and brutally honest. How do you find a balance between complex lyricism and a shiny pop finish?
“It’s a delicate balance, like for instance, ‘Bombastic’ is big, fun and crazy; it’s a party song, but it really came from a raw place. I was in-between record deals; I was frustrated; I was down; I was feeling defeated and I just really needed to remind myself that I’m a boss and I can do what I want, say what I want, and I can be who I want to be. It was about taking back my identity and taking back the power. I hope this project will inspire people to do the same—to not really give a shit what people think, you know? It’s really easy to live and die by other people’s validation and worry so much about what people think of me, so this was me just really breaking away from that.”
Do you think a lot of that has to do with the fact that you’re in the pop industry or do you think its something that plagues the music industry as a whole?
“I think pop is definitely one of the more difficult genres to be a part of. It’s ever changing; it moves so fast, so it’s easy to get left behind. But that’s also what I really love about it. I love the challenge of constantly having to reinvent myself and seeing what’s next.”
You were dropped from Warner Bros. after almost six years and only one album release. How did this experience shape you into becoming a better artist today?
“I moved to LA by myself and was like, ‘I made it—I have this huge record deal and now all my dreams are going to come true.’ But it’s hard to make a hit and even have that hit last. After I got dropped from Warner Brothers, I was feeling really down; I was really depressed, but I was also really determined. I was like, ‘Okay well, all that glitters is not gold,’ and I realized that I just had to keep my head down and grind and that’s what I did. The struggle was real—very real.
That’s when I met Katy Perry—when I was broke. We met while selling our clothes at a vintage store out here [in LA]. Ultimately, I think I really needed that experience because when you’re a kid, you have this blind confidence; you think you can do anything and take over the world. That’s good to a certain extent, but I think I needed to be humble; I needed to work hard and hone my craft. So I’m incredibly grateful to have had that experience. And then doing it again [with Epic]. I’ve been humbled again and again, and I think it’s good for me. It makes me stronger; it makes me a better artist and it makes me more able to relate to people that don’t do what I do.”
What was your songwriting process for this EP?
“I did a lot of experimentation. I wrote like 75 songs that all fit within different pockets of genres and had to narrow it down to see which ones I wanted to go with. I had to experiment with a lot of different sounds because I have so many different angles—I’m a musical chameleon in that way. This [EP] is ultimately what I wanted to come out with, but there are still so many different things I want to do moving forward. I had to unlearn the pop writing process because the things I’ve written in the past all paved the pop radio sound for a long time. It became kind of saturated, so anything I put out that sounded like what I’d done before felt like old news. I needed to do something different, so I started to take the pop writing song structure and pull it apart, turn it upside down and see what I could do different, while still maintaining that mass appeal.”
Have you felt frustrated being pop music’s silent killer for so long?
“It’s been an incredible experience—a cool place to come from to feel like I’m a secret super hero. A song I’ve written will come on the radio and no one knows I wrote it. I’m ready to let go of my past, even though it’s been very rewarding to me writing songs for other people—I’m definitely full of songs that aren’t for me, so it’s nice to have that outlet. I love being on stage and there’s nothing that compares to going out there and connecting with an audience—having my voice be the voice that gets the crowd excited. There were definitely moments in my career where it was difficult for me; especially with the global, crazy success these songs have had. I’m happy I’ve made my mark in pop writing history, but it’s been hard for me to be in the shadows because I’m a performer and that’s what I’m here to do. Whether this EP is a hit or not, I’m grateful for this opportunity to be on stage again—to be an artist again.”
Bring me through the rest of the songs on Bombastic.
“Yes, ‘I Want It All’ is on there and I wrote that a long time ago, actually. I sort of dug it out of the hard drive from years ago. This song is very Rock ‘N’ Roll—it’s kind of a throwback, love song to the fans. It sounds very aggressive and sounds like it’s after one person, but the first lyric is, ‘I’ll make a deal with the devil; turn my heart into metal just to get to you.” It’s really about how I would do anything to get to my audience and how that’s really been my life goal and how I’ve sacrificed so much and worked so hard through blood, sweat and tears to get to them, and I feel like I’m finally able to give them what I’ve been trying to give them. ‘Wasted Youth’ is a big anthem—a sort of nostalgic, classic ‘Bonnie Mckee songwriting’ song. I really love that one. And ‘Easy’ is sort of the more vulnerable moment on the EP. Everything is a thread of ’80s nostalgia running through this project.”
What’re songwriting clichés you always avoid?
“You’ll hear songs about weather and it’s full of all these weather metaphors, or fire and it’s all ‘burning’ and ‘sparks’ and ‘flames’ and cliché lyrical things. I like to avoid the angry female, ‘You oughta know’ thing. I feel like there are more creative angles to that emotion, but the thing that drives me the most crazy is just unimaginative lyrics. It doesn’t have to be complicated and flowery for it to be interesting. There are plenty of simple words that you can just rearrange to make people feel something. I’ve heard ‘up in the club’ so many times, it gets a little tiring for me. But honestly in the end, in pop music, melody is king. So if you have a hit melody, there’s no arguing with that. But I myself prefer lyrics that have a little bit more thought into it.”