(Photo: Ben Clark)
Bonnie McKee seemed to have it all when she was still in her teens: An artist deal recording original material with Reprise (the album Trouble), which led to a song in a major movie soundtrack (Win a Date With Tad Hamilton) and a gig portraying the young Janis Joplin on NBC’s American Dreams. Then, in the oldest story in the music business besides someone giving a repossessed Cadillac to a black artist, she lost her deal. But in a rare exception to the rule, McKee was able to capitalize on her talent as a songwriter to not only keep herself afloat, but to get her name in parentheses under the names of some of the 21st century’s biggest stars, co-writing hits for the likes of Britney Spears (“Hold It Against Me”), Katy Perry (“California Gurls”), Taio Cruz (“Dynamite”) and others.
While writing has become her bread and butter, McKee hasn’t given up on being a recording artist, and is currently working on her second album with producer Dr. Luke. American Songwriter caught up with McKee for a few minutes between writing and recording sessions.
You started out as a promising young artist with a major deal, and the bottom fell out of your deal due to several factors. But that deal led to a lot of contacts and exposure. Now, years later, are you disappointed that things happened the way they did, or do you find satisfaction knowing that it led you to such success as a writer?
Honestly, I am extremely grateful that it didn’t work out my first go-round. Had Trouble done what I wanted it to, I may have been caught in Hot AC land forever, which is just not my style. I was young and full of raw talent, but I wasn’t educated about the industry, and, as much as I insisted I did, I didn’t know who I really wanted to be. I knew I was young and wild and free but my music was mature and dark and sad. Now I’ve had a great opportunity to experiment in the studio with different genres writing for other people, and I really got to dig in and figure out what makes me tick artistically. Also, the industry, especially for female artists, has gotten so competitive that I have a huge advantage having come from a run of five #1 hits in a row. Now I have a story. Now I know what works and what doesn’t at radio. I’m prepared.
You’re becoming a model for 21st Century female pop songwriters. Who would you say influenced you in the first place when it comes to your own writing style, or was it just a natural outgrowth of everything you’d listened to?
I’d say it’s a good mix of things, I’ve gone through phases with music and I always kinda pull a little bit from everything. I grew up listening to Madonna, Michael Jackson, Guns n’ Roses, Paula Abdul, Prince etc. When I listened to those records it was like every title was a visual, you could see and hear the video in the lyric. “Thriller,” “Like a Prayer,” “Little Red Corvette,” “Welcome To the Jungle,” “Cold Hearted Snake,” “Paradise City,” “Lucky Star”… they were so colorful and playful and evoked a really crystal clear image of who was singing it and what they were wearing (laughs)! Then in my teens I was really into Fiona Apple, Sara McLachlan, Portishead, Carole King…and those songs were much moodier and more abstract. Very emotional. That heavily influenced my first album. But when the first album didn’t go as planned, I had to take a step back and look at why it didn’t work. What was the flaw in my songwriting? And I realized, kids these days don’t know or care about (Apple’s) “Shadow Boxer,” or (McLachlan’s) “Building a Mystery.” Those are incredible, beautiful, smart songs, but they didn’t last the way that “Like a Virgin” and “Billie Jean” did. There was a simplicity and approachability to those songs that influenced pop culture, and I wanted to learn how to do the same.
You’re a keyboard player. What role do computers play in your writing in terms of using a workstation like ProTools to lay down scratch drums and various parts, or do you just come up with melodies and progressions and leave that stuff to someone else? Do you write much on guitar?
ProTools is all I use. A lot of producers, mostly in electronic music, use Logic to build tracks, but I mainly focus on vocals, and I find that ProTools is better for organic instruments like guitar and vocals. I started out writing songs just sitting at the piano, but found that it usually led me to ballads, and I felt limited behind the keyboard. In pop music today, usually the way it works is a producer will make a track with the music mostly done, chords mapped out, beat in place, and send it to me. Then I do what is referred to as “top line,” which is just melody and lyric, and we split publishing down the middle. I much prefer it to writing on my own, because when I get a track that already has the beat and chords, there is a mood that’s already there. It narrows down option anxiety. When you write a song nearly every day, you run out of stuff to say. Having a track makes it easier. I just listen to the chords and ask myself “Is this a party song? Is it a breakup song? Is it a sexy song?” Usually the chords will tell you what to say. It’s like the statue already exists in the marble, you just have to chip away at it until it reveals itself.
Have you spent any time writing in Nashville or New York?
Yes! I love Nashville! It is very different from L.A. in its writing style. Nashville songwriters treat their craft like a job, clocking in at 10 a.m. and clocking out at 6 to make it home in time for dinner with their families. L.A. is like a free for all, starting at 3 or 4, procrastinating, gossiping, watching YouTube videos, eating at the studio, eventually getting around to writing, editing till 3 or 4 in the morning…it becomes your life. I rarely go out or have time for anything social outside of work. My co-writers have kinda become my family. People in Nashville are able to have semi-normal lives. L.A. is a more unpredictable schedule. Nashville is great because the more you tug the heartstrings, the better! In pop music, everyone’s trying to be “cool” and “edgy.” Showing vulnerability is almost avoided. Nobody wants to be cheesy. But Nashville has more heart. I love that.
I lived in New York for the better part of a year. I’ve found New York to be an incredibly inspiring city! The sights, the sounds, the people, the soul. It’s a great place to go to write to get out of the L.A. madness and experience a new kind of madness. Weather! Seasons! Subways! Sidewalks! Drunken cab rides! There’s a lot to write about!
You’re still pursuing the artist role. But, given that you now intimately understand the machinations of the songwriting business, what advice would you give to someone just arriving in L.A. who doesn’t have artist aspirations, but wants to become a successful pop songwriter?
The Internet is a powerful tool. There is a website called Taxi.com that is a great instrument for getting your music to people who need it. They have a list of guidelines of what publishers and labels are looking for at the moment, and scouts who sift through and listen to the songs to see if your songs or tracks are what they’re looking for. Also, do some homework and find out who the people you admire are, see if they have a twitter account, and hit them up. People scout for new stuff all the time. Also, pay attention to any local shows that industry people may be buzzing about online and try to be in the right place at the right time. My only advice about your approach with these people is that you don’t be pushy. E-mailing or Tweeting someone several times a week, or sometimes a day, will only irritate people and make them think you’re desperate and unstable. Play it cool. And – if you do catch someone’s attention, don’t play more than three songs. People get bored. Pick your absolute best two or three or even just one song and play that. Don’t play something if it’s not done. You don’t want to play a demo for someone and have to start with a disclaimer. Put your best work forward, and be open to constructive criticism.
You’ve been able to co-write with some pretty influential people – Max Martin, Benny Bianco, Katy Perry – but you’re really still just getting started. Who’s out there that you haven’t met yet that you really want to sit down and write with?
There are so many, I couldn’t name them all! But off the top of my head I would love to write with Jack White, Lady Gaga, Justice, Cee-Lo, and Linda Perry, even though she publicly stated she thinks my songs are crap! (laughs) There’s that constructive criticism I was talking about!