Interview: Bonnie McKee
Fri, 13 Sep 2013 15:20:50
Bonnie McKee has written countless hits for other people. However, she steps into her rightful place in the spotlight with her brand new single "American Girl". It's the kind of shimmering pop anthem that's not only instantly memorable, but it's immediately evocative. She tells a story at the heart of the song, and it's one worth hanging on to every word for. This only alludes to what's to come on her upcoming album though, which promises to be a true pop event…
In this exclusive with ARTISTdirect.com editor in chief Rick Florino, Bonnie McKee talks "American Girl" and so much more…
What's the story behind "American Girl"?
I went in to write it for myself. I definitely wanted to get into my own projects after doing all of this stuff for other people. I wanted to tell a story, which is about being a teenager in America and what that was like for me growing up. I really did fall in love in a 7-11 parking lot, and I do feel like I was raised by television. It's very personal to me.
Was it important for you to paint a picture with the song?
On my album, the number one thing is that I get to say what I want to say and stretch myself lyrically. A lot of times, with other artists, I have to simplify. Simple is good for big pop music. When it comes to my own project, I like to pack it full of visuals as much as I can. It's my introduction to the world.
What did you want to say in that introduction?
I'm heavily influenced by eighties pop culture. I thought back to when I was little, early nineties things, watching MTV and MTV Beach House. I thought about my own idols. I pulled a lot from early Madonna and Prince as well as a lot of the imagery I saw in early Billy Idol videos on TV. That's what I drew from. It's all visual, colorful, bright, and eighties-influenced.
What are the big differences between writing for yourself and other people?
When I write for other people, I've been lucky enough to be in the room with the artist whether it's Katy Perry, Ke$ha, Taio Cruz, or Adam Lambert. When I'm writing with someone else, it's like a therapy session. I ask, "What's going on in your life? What are you inspired by? What are you listening to?" I try to get a story out of them and weave it into a pretty little pop song. When I'm writing myself, I get to turn inward and think of what I want to say and who I want to be.
How long does it take to break down the wall with someone you're writing a song for?
It's surprising how quickly it happens. A lot of times, you don't have a lot of time with the artist. Everyone understands when you go into a room to write a song, you've just got to get real. It's a really bonding experience when you write a song with someone. It's almost like you've had a baby together. People tend to open up pretty quickly. I get all kinds of dirt [Laughs].
How far along on the album are you?
I'm about eighty percent done. I feel like I have a couple more songs in me to write. I'll probably keep writing until the end. I heard a quote from David Bowie. He said, "Albums aren't finished. They're abandoned". I feel that way a little bit. If I were left to my own devices, I'd keep tinkering with it for the next ten years. I'm never finished.
Did you get to try anything you haven't before?
I got to really get weird and be experimental. I don't have to think about radio constantly. As a songwriter, you're always aiming to get the single. For my album, I get to go nuts. It's been fun getting weird.
What artists shaped you?
I was really influenced by early Madonna. Any female pop star these days will say the same thing. Carole King's Tapestry was a big influence for me in my songwriting style. She heavily influenced everything. She was the first songwriter I looked up to. I realized that was another profession you could do. I always just wanted to be an artist. She was big for me. I also loved Fiona Apple. I'm a pop music person overall. Michael Jackson is my all-time favorite. I love Billy Idol. I keep coming back to him. I let that stuff sink in and I want to do a modern day version of that or Blondie.
How do you typically start writing?
I usually start with concepts. I'm always writing concepts down, and I have a book full of them. There are pages and pages of titles. I start with the title. In pop music, there's a producer that has a track. He'll bring it in, and I'll listen to it as I'm looking through my titles. I'll find a title that fits the way the track sounds, marry them together, and weave a concept or story around it. I usually start with the lyrics. Sometimes, the concepts are one word or common phrases.
What's next for you?
I made a video for a song I did called "Sleepwalker". I collaborated with Boys Noize, Oliver, and Corey Enemy. Some of my favorite DJs came together. It's special. I made a whole zombie video. I'm really psyched about it, and we're putting it out Halloween. The video is pretty over-the-top. Underneath it all, the song is about addiction so it's very dark. It's about coming through it and waking up. It's about sleepwalking through life, not feeling anything, and not being present.
Have you heard "American Girl"?