With a string of eight number-one hits, Bonnie McKee is one of pop music’s
most sought-after songwriters. She shares openly with our STEPHEN CHRISTOPHER about her ups, her downs, and how a chance meeting with Katy Perry at an LA thrift shop may have been the key to her success.
Bonnie McKee opens the front door of her late-60s-style Hollywood Hills home wearing what any pop star would for a magazine interview—a vintage head scarf, a Unif wrap over a Mikoh bikini, and a pair of tall Charlotte Olympia platforms.
Understandable, since it’s about 97 degrees. She’s also sporting a cool pair of oversized Prada sunglasses and her nails are painted to resemble watermelons. “Come on in,” she says smiling.
The singer/songwriter walks me through her home and into a backyard that looks straight out of Lake Tahoe—the towering pines, the view of the lake below...well, the Hollywood Reservoir, actually, but from here it looks just like a mountain lake, and there’s a nice swimming pool—hence, the bikini. “This is my dream home,” she tells me as she peels off her wrap. “Found it on Westside Rentals. It gets sun all day long.”
Like her music, Bonnie is shiny and bright, optimistic and fun-loving. If you’ve seen her video for ‘American Girl,’ you know what I mean. But things weren’t always this way. Over the next hour, Bonnie would share openly about her struggles and how life has been both kind and cruel.
“When I was a teenager I was a major drug addict. I’ve been struggling with it my whole life. I was kicked out of my private high school in the 9th grade.” Even through a tumultuous home life—a cocktail of drug use and parents on the verge of divorce—Bonnie’s talent somehow withstood, and at 16 she landed a contract with Warner Brothers Records. “I was driving my parents crazy. As soon as I had this opportunity to get out of the house in Seattle, I did.”
The contract gave Bonnie the funds to venture out to LA, but deep inside, she felt sad that her parents didn’t put up a fight. “I had this feeling everyone was like, goodbye, good luck, and I felt abandoned in a way. I imagined that when you get your first apartment, your mom comes out and helps you pick out curtains and dishes and helps settle you in,” she says with sadness in her voice. “But I had to do it all myself. That had a pretty profound effect on me.”
More sadness would follow when her first album and tour failed to spawn any success. “It was such a painful time for me. The whole experience was such a dark and sad time. The album was about my adolescence, about drugs and family—it was my teenage diary.”
Warner Brothers dropped her, and Bonnie was completely broke. “I didn’t have hot water. My cell phone got turned off.” Then, with her musical life hanging by a thread, her ex-boyfriend took her to meet Josh Abraham and Scott Cutler, owners of Pulse, who signed her to a small publishing deal. As music publishers, they connect the songwriters with the producers and artists who churn out the hits. “They threw me a bone and a small advance. They definitely plucked me from obscurity.”
Then, a chance meeting that had happened years before would come roaring back. “I’d met Katy Perry at a thrift store on Melrose called Wasteland. We were both broke teenagers trying to sell our clothes, but they were so picky—so we were both being rejected in front of this whole line of people. Well, my album had just come out and she was like, ‘Hey, you’re Bonnie McKee, and I’m a songwriter too, and we should hang out.’ It’s amazing that this girl I met at a thrift store would be forever intertwined with me as my destiny, and would ultimately define my career.”
As luck would have it, Katy Perry would sign her own record deal and later introduce Bonnie to Dr. Luke, the biggest producer in the pop world today. When he was working with Katy on her second album, he asked Bonnie to come in to write songs on a co-publishing deal. The alchemy resulted in ‘California Gurls,’ ‘Teenage Dream,’ ‘Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.),’ ‘Part of Me,’ Wide Awake,’ and ‘Roar’—all number-one smash hits. Then Bonnie wrote ‘Dynamite’ with Taio Cruz that also went to number one. “The strongest feeling I had was one of relief. I was like ‘Whheeeew!’ I was struggling for so long, and now, I thought, I’ve cemented my place in pop history. There were so many ‘almosts’ in my life, I felt I could die knowing I’d accomplished something that I could be proud of.”
So far, Bonnie’s eight number-one singles have combined to sell more than 30 million copies worldwide, and her career as a songwriter has reached the stratosphere. She’s written for Britney Spears, Miranda Cosgrove, Christina Aguilera, Lea Michele, Ke$ha, Avril Lavigne, Kelly Clarkson, Carly Rae Jepsen, Leona Lewis, and Adam Lambert. And now, she’s writing for No Doubt, the band led by her style and musical idol, Gwen Stefani.
Back to this dream home that she once rented. Well, with number-one hits comes cash, lots of it, so she bought it…along with a few mega-horsepower cars too. “Yeah, I like to go fast.”
Bonnie also gives back in a big way. She supports Music Cares, the charity that helps musicians with medical expenses, and OMG Camera, a summer camp for inner-city kids that encourages them to get into the creative film process. Last summer, she opened for Katy Perry for a breast cancer benefit at the Hollywood Bowl. “One of the most exciting moments. I remember stepping out on that stage and feeling like it was such an honor to play there.”
Many of the songs Bonnie’s co-written have been nominated for Grammys, and this year, she received a Song of the Year nomination for ‘Roar.’ “I was in the second row right behind Katy. I wore a long navy blue mermaid dress.”
I ask about her first experience hearing one of her songs on the radio. “I was in my car, and had just pulled up to the studio, and I started screaming, “Oh my God! Oh my God! The song…my song, it’s on the radio! I wrote that!”
Now two and a half years sober, Bonnie counts her blessings. “It’s really changed my perspective on life and given me a lot of clarity. I’m so grateful for my sobriety. I’m also incredibly grateful for my team at Pulse who took a chance on me. They’ve been like a family. I’m also grateful for my friends who have been with me through thick and thin, like my friend Risa.”
Bonnie’s also grateful to have felt the pain she’s endured, though she’s moving toward the light now. “I believe in a higher power. If you give to the Universe it will give back to you. It’s all about karma and the Law of Attraction. It’s all about energy.” Energy. Something Bonnie McKee’s got no shortage of.
Art Direction: Stephen Kamifuji
Styling: Amy Astar
Makeup: Anthony Nguyen / DLMLA using MAKEUP FOR EVER
Hair: Aaron Light / Celestine Agency
Manicure: Kimmee / Celestine Agency