Fire-haired singer-songwriter Bonnie McKee is, in her own words, a “pop star in training.”
For five years, the songwriting dynamo has helped pen eight No. 1 singles — including Taio Cruz’s “Dynamite,” Britney Spears’s “Turn Me On” and “How We Do (Party)” by Rita Ora. She has also co-written five hits for frequent collaborator and longtime friend Katy Perry: “California Gurls,” “Teenage Dream,” “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.),” “Part of Me,” and “Wide Awake.”
Well known in Hollywood for her chops as a tunesmith, McKee, 29, has now made a splash as a solo artist with her breakout single “American Girl.” In June, she released a buzz-worthy celebrity lip-dub video for the track, featuring Motley Crue drummer Tommy Lee in drag, rapper Macklemore dancing in a bathtub and Perry in her jammies.
The official video for the summer dance anthem, which premiered July 22, has received more than 1.6 million views. And “Roar” — the new McKee-written single from Perry — leaked Saturday.
We had a chance to talk with the artist about her songwriting past, her dream collaboration, her upcoming debut album and her hopes for the future.
Tell me a little bit about your musical background.
I was always musical, and my dad is really musical — we used to play together and he taught me how to sing in harmony. We played bluegrass songs together. I would play piano and he would play the guitar.
I joined the Seattle Girls’ Choir in the third grade, toured all over Europe, played at the Vatican. So I am classically trained. I seriously began writing songs when I was about 11 or 12.
What were some major musical influences growing up?
Well, you know, like I say in the song [“American Girl”] , I was “raised by a television.” So, I have to say, a lot of my heroes were on MTV— early Madonna, Michael Jackson, Tina Turner and Blondie. Those are all big ones for me. Also, I was a singer, so I was also into the divas — Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston.
How did you transition into songwriting, and what was your first big break?
I was signed to Warner Bros. when I was 16. I put out an album and it didn’t do what I wanted it to do. I got dropped and was kind of left with nothing, so it was sort of a necessity, honestly. I sort of stumbled into it. I had never done anything but music, and wasn’t in a position to get a paid job. I didn’t know how to do anything else.
I started singing demos for people and tagging along with my boyfriend, Oliver Goldstein, who was a producer. He introduced me to Josh Abraham, and they have a little publishing company called Pulse. They took a chance on me and I signed a deal with them. They started putting me in the right rooms.
I knew Dr. Luke socially through Katy Perry, so he took an interest in me once I had gotten this other publishing deal with Pulse. He put me in a room with Katy, and the rest was history. The first hit I ever had was “California Gurls.”
Do you feel like you are bringing some heart and soul back to pop by writing your own tracks?
I always try to put some kind of heart into what I do, even in the fluffier songs I write.
For instance, “Dynamite” is commonly misinterpreted. The lyric is “I throw my hands up in the air sometimes. Saying ayo — gotta let go!” It’s about giving up, surrendering and being fed up with life and just wanting to let it all go. It wasn’t “put your hands up and party.” It’s more like, “Let go of something.”
What is your creative process like?
My general process is, I listen to the track and I have a book of titles or concepts. I listen to the track, look at my titles and . . . then if something pops up that looks the way the track sounds, then I put them together and then build from there.
Writing songs with any artist, big or small, is really like a therapy session. I talk to them about what’s going on in their life, what are they feeling, has anything that they have listened to lately inspired them. I try to dig in with them, see what’s inspiring them, and then translate that and try to make it into a pretty little pop song.
Who would be your dream collaboration?
I love Bruno Mars. . . . I know him through the industry, but I have never had the chance to work with him. Also, Lady Gaga, I am a big fan of her, as well.
Why did you choose “American Girl” as your lead single, and what was your inspiration behind the track?
It was one of those songs when I wrote it, I just felt it. I just knew that it was the first thing I wanted to put out into the world. It felt like an anthem and it was very me. I pulled from my own adolescent experiences, you know, “falling in love in a 7-Eleven parking lot,” mall culture and all of that. I felt like it was a good introduction for me.
To introduce “American Girl” to the public, you released a promotional video of celebrities lip-syncing along to the track. How did that come about?
The video was inspired by what Carly Rae [Jepsen] did, actually. I love what she and Justin [Bieber] did with “Call Me Maybe” and seeing . . . all of her friends just hanging out, looking cute and singing her song. I thought, “Well, I have lots of confident, attractive friends! I might as well take advantage of that.”
I was really shocked about how many people really came through. I was also like, wow, I guess I do kind of know a lot of famous people. I didn’t even realize it until you put them into one little video.
What are your plans for the future?
I’d like to do a world tour and keep making music. Additionally, I would like to do some more acting [she played Janis Joplin on the TV show “American Dreams” and had a minor role in the 2007 film “August Rush.”]
I do like to act and it’s really fun to play pretend. Music is my first love, but I like a challenge, and acting is a challenge — so I’m interested in doing more of that. And then maybe one day, I’ll have my own talk show or something [laughs].