You may not know her face yet, but you definitely know her work. Bonnie McKee is a singer and songwriter who has co-written songs for an array of A-list pop stars, including Katy Perry, Britney Spears, Ke$ha, Carly Rae Jepsen, Christina Aguilera, Kelly Clarkson, and Taio Cruz, racking up eight No. 1 singles, including Perry’s “Teenage Dream” and “California Gurls,” Spears’ “Hold It Against Me,” and Cruz’s “Dynamite” — in the process.
Now the girl whom Rolling Stone called 2011’s “Best Secret Weapon” is ready to step out as an artist in her own right with her single “American Girl,” an anthemic pop tune that showcases her powerhouse voice, knack for big choruses, and nostalgia-tinged lyrical point of view. “I really did fall in love in a 7-11 parking lot at 12 years old,” McKee says of the opening line of “American Girl.” “I remember trying to get people to buy us cigarettes and beer and sitting on his skateboard, so I’m describing my own coming of age as a teenage girl in America, and how the whole world was open to me and I could be anything. The song captures that triumphant feeling of seeing what the future holds, doing whatever you want, and making it your own.”
McKee’s ability to deploy pitch-perfect pop cultural references that are both affectionate and satirical is rooted in a childhood growing up in the ’80s. As she sings in “American Girl,” she really was “raised by a television.” “Some of my earliest memories are of watching Madonna, Michael Jackson, and Cyndi Lauper on MTV,” she says. “I loved how the artists of that era were so visual. Seeing what they could do really molded me as a musician. Even now I use a lot of colorful imagery in my writing. Every day I ask myself, ‘What would Prince do?’”
Though she fell in love with pop music from a young age, McKee was also intent on being a trained musician. Born in Vacaville, California, but raised in Seattle, McKee studied classical piano and toured North America and Europe with the Seattle Girls Choir, with whom she performed at The Vatican. When McKee was 12, her mom gave a demo of her daughter singing Better Midler and Fiona Apple songs to a friend, Sub Pop label co-founder Jonathan Poneman. “Jonathan said, ‘That’s great that you can sing, but anyone can sing. Can you write?’” McKee says of Poneman, who is known for having signed grunge stalwarts Nirvana and Soundgarden. “I had been writing, I was just too embarrassed to show people anything. So that was a big moment for me. I knew I needed to be more than just a singer.”
When McKee was 16, a demo she had made of her original songs found its way to KCRW’s Nic Harcourt, then-host of the influential Morning Becomes Eclectic radio program. Harcourt began playing her song “Somebody” and a major-label bidding war erupted, which resulted in McKee becoming incoming Warner Bros. Records’ chairman Tom Whalley’s first signing to Reprise. McKee recorded her debut album with noted producer Rob Cavallo, but when her singles failed to chart, things turned sour. “Everyone stopped returning my calls,” she says, adding that being dropped from the label was a blessing in disguise.
“I was thrown to the wolves after being the darling at the label,” she says. “After that I needed to learn humility and earn my stripes. I appreciate it so much more now that I’ve been in the trenches and had to struggle. Before it was like, ‘I got a record deal at 16, that was easy,’ like overnight magic, but it doesn’t work that way in real life. Now I know how fragile the whole thing is.”
In 2009, McKee got a major career boost when she was introduced to songwriter-producer Dr. Luke and began writing songs with him and Max Martin. The trio turned out hit after hit, including Perry’s five Hot 100 chart-toppers “California Gurls,” “Teenage Dream,” “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F),” “Part of Me,” and “Wide Awake,” which helped earn McKee consecutive BMI Pop Awards in 2011 and 2012. Impressed with her songwriting ability, as well as her vocal prowess after hearing her sing live in his office, L.A. Reid signed McKee to Epic Records, which will release her debut album for the label later this year.
“I’m really looking forward to putting out my own record,” McKee says. “I’ve learned so much over the last nine years and am grateful to have the experience of writing for other artists. I’m also excited to show people what I can do as a performer singing my own songs. The connection between the audience and the performer is so electric that you can’t replicate it anywhere else. It’s a moment in time when a group of people are experiencing something together. It’s so magical. That’s when I feel the most alive.”