Photo: Brian Ziff

Bonnie McKee

Once upon a time, singer Bonnie McKee was known to most pop fans as the magic ingredient to writing hit songs for our favorite stars. It’s no exaggeration. A quick Google will inform you that McKee was behind all the tunes you had on repeat during the early 2010s. Katy Perry, Britney Spears, Kesha, Kelly Clarkson, Cheryl, Cher, Christina Aguilera. The list goes on. Around the same time, she also released her own music that was met with acclaim. Remember her 2013 hit “American Girl”? It was intended to be the lead single for an album that was expected to follow shortly after. Sadly for fans, the project never saw the light of day. That, however, is all about to change. 

After a decade-long wait, McKee is finally inviting us all to live it up in Hot City, a world of paradise filled with sun, fun, and endless bangers. The camp and glossy record was initially set to be released under Epic Records but was shelved by the label after its release date was postponed several times. The majority of the songs later leaked online, which fans ate up and freaked out over on music forums. Making up for lost time, McKee is reclaiming her power and is finally releasing the album on May 31 on her own terms. Unapologetically pop, the songs have been re-imagined and she’s even added a new track to the mix, “Snatched.”

In an exclusive interview with EUPHORIA., McKee spills the tea surrounding some high-profile writing sessions, finally getting to release Hot City, and the album that’s coming next.

Photo: Brian Ziff

You have been gearing up to release Hot City for a while now. These are songs that should have been released a decade ago but never did. How long had you been thinking of doing something with these songs?

I’d say I started really seriously considering it about 2 years ago when I got on TikTok. When I started posting stuff, I saw people commenting, “We loved ‘American Girl,’” and “We want ‘Slay,’ we want ‘Forever 21,’ and we want ‘Hot City.’” I was really pleasantly surprised to see the fans asking for these specific songs because I had only played them live a bunch of times. The demos had leaked and I ended up finding this forum that was like 500 pages long and 10 years old where they were all just talking about this unreleased album. Anytime I put anything out, fans would always say they really wanted “Slay” or “Hot City.” And I was like, you know what? I’m gonna give the people what they want because I wanted it too. I was so heartbroken when I had to shelve that album and I really didn’t think there was any hope for it to see the light of day, which is devastating because they were some of my favorite songs I had ever written for myself. It’s been really liberating and exciting to feel like I have the support of the fans and to finally have my own artistic vision come full circle.

Having the album shelved and then for the songs to leak must have been really hard to deal with at the time. It’s as if someone has stolen your identity.

I mean, look. In this particular situation, having the fans have the league demos and stuff, they really got to know them. They really love them. I appreciate that they went out of their way to hear these songs. They wanted to hear them so badly that they went and found them. But, it does feel like robbery a lot of times, and it’s scary when your demos leak because it’s like, where did you get that? Are you watching me on my camera? You know? It’s like, how do you know? It is a violation. Also, for a songwriter, if a song leaks, like, if I wrote a song for Britney Spears or whatever, and then the demo leaks, a lot of time, the label won’t put it out because the element of surprise is gone. It literally takes money or it takes food out of the songwriter’s mouth when you leak demos like that. I know that my fans just love me and just wanted to hear the songs and so I appreciate they’re coming from the right place. But for future reference, please don’t leak songs.

You’ve spoken about how there was an issue getting your masters from Epic Records. Has anyone over there been in touch since starting this campaign?

I reached out a couple of years ago when I first talked about doing this. I didn’t wanna get in trouble, I wanted to make sure that it was in the clear. I wanted to do it right. I didn’t wanna put it out and then have them flag me or take it down or do a cease and desist. So, I’ve been collaborating with them. And, honestly, it’s all different people there now from when I was signed. And so they’re like, wait, what is this? They didn’t even have the masters because I recorded everything myself, so I have the hard drive with everything on it. Just to cover my bases and to not have any controversy with that, I was just like, “Is it cool? Can I do this?” And they were like, “Alright.” So I re-recorded everything. On a few of them, I used some of the old stuff because there were certain things that I just couldn’t recreate. I tried it, and I felt the magic wasn’t there. They were really cooperative and cool and let me use the synth on “Slay” and stuff. So I’m really grateful to them, and now we’re kinda partnering on it.

Was there a particular song that was most fun to re-record that almost took on a new life?

The song that really took on a life of its own was “Don’t Get Mad, Get Famous.” That was a song that I had started years ago, but it was just kind of a joke song. I did a YouTube series called Breaking Bonnie that was about my whole journey to becoming a pop star and it was just playing in the background, and the fans loved it. I wasn’t even really considering putting it out. Like, the label never even heard it. I just kinda threw it away and was like, “Whatever, this is just a joke song.” And then when the fans were like, “We want that one!” I reopened it and was like, “This is kind of a banger.” My co-producer, David Morup, Dave The Doctor is his producer name, really gave it a facelift and refreshed it, and we re-recorded everything. I re-wrote a few lyrics and now there is an extended version that’s gonna be on the album. When I put it out, it was supposed to be an interlude and everyone got mad. But the new version, I got a feature on it, and it’s really taken out a life of its own, and I really love that version. I feel like it’s pretty iconic. I’m glad I was encouraged to take another look at that one. It’s with Sophie Powers, who I recently did a song with called “Obsessed.” I’ve been working a bunch with her. She’s a fresh young artist, a super talented writer, and so funny. She’s perfect for the song. She hopped on and did a verse, and it’s so epic. I’m so happy with it. 

Photo: Brian Ziff

You recorded a new song titled “Snatched” for the album. How long ago did you write the song and how was creating a song to fit a collection of songs written a while back?

It was fun. I actually wrote that one about 6 years ago or whatever, and it kinda fits the vibe. I’ve written a whole entire new album that was supposed to come out before the pandemic, but then the pandemic hit and I was like, “Uh, not the right time.” I was originally going to put it on there and then I got on TikTok and everyone was asking for these songs. And I was like, “I’m gonna give the people what they want, and then I’ll give them a brand new album.” It fits better with the Hot City story and I wanted to give them something that they didn’t have a leaked demo for, so I threw “Snatched” on there. I also got a feature on that one, the great Priyanka who was on Drag Race, and she’s incredible. She’s a great musician. She has a big following in her own right on her music. Great singer, great rapper, great lyricist. It’s been really cool having features on these older songs because I realized once I brought Pri in I’d kind of been lonely working on this album because it was already written. I didn’t get to make new babies. Like, reproducing them with David Morup has been amazing and fun, but it was like, “Oh, wow. I get fresh ideas” as well as someone else’s perspective on this. It was really a breath of fresh air for me.

“Snatched” is definitely for the club. It’s definitely for the queens. It’s very specifically for the queens because the queer community, which I am a part of, they’re really my people. I feel like I speak the language, they understand me and we can celebrate that together. And that’s why it was important to me to have a queer artist featured on it too, specifically a drag queen because a lot of the language in it is from the drag community. It was important to me to represent that and let a queen have a moment to shine.

You’ve been funding this project yourself. That obviously gives you the creative freedom to do what you want, which is probably what you want. But I wonder if that’s come with any challenges because that’s quite hands-on.

Absolutely. I’m just kind of gambling on myself. I’ve spent way too much money on this project probably, but I am just betting on myself. I spent my own money to put out the Bombastic EP in 2015, and that paid off for me. At the end of the day, I’m like, “What do I wanna spend my money on?” Like, all I really wanna do is make art and make the best art I can make. And I’m probably spending more money on my visuals and stuff than labels are giving to their artists these days because nobody thinks it’s important. But for me, it’s like, I wanna be able to look back in 10, 20 years and be like, “I made that” or “Look at all this sculpture I made.” That’s the really important part of the whole process for me, the visual aspect. I spent a lot of time and attention to detail on that. For me, it’s worth it because that’s what I love to do.

I was going to mention the visuals because we’ve had so many already! Are the fun, camp, colorful, almost ‘80s-inspired visuals we see today the ones you always envisioned the album to have?

I think that once I decided and realized that Hot City was the title, I realized that’s a whole world. Hot City is a place. Hot City is a destination. It’s Emerald City or Atlantis or the Bermuda Triangle or something where this fantasy land is or my idea of paradise. I just immediately had so many visuals come to my head where I was like, all of these music videos can exist in Hot City. The album is really about the journey. It’s about chasing success, reaching higher heights, and all the struggles that we go through on our way there. So while Hot City is the ultimate destination, it really is just about how we get there and the lessons that we learn along the way.

You’ve remained a songwriter throughout the years for other artists. How has it been writing material for the streaming era as opposed to the peak of iTunes, which is when you first took off?

Back in the day, you really had to think about radio and think about what’s gonna offend people lyrically or not or what Coca-Cola was gonna say or whatever. These days, it’s like choosing your own adventure. Everyone’s making their own playlist. There are so many niche genres where you don’t have to follow the cookie-cutter formula that we once did for radio. I still love the cookie-cutter formula for radio because I just love a clean perfect pop song. Dr. Luke and Max Martin really taught me about the Swedish way of writing pop and that’s always been very satisfying to me. I like to stick to that, but there is a lot more freedom in what you can say when you don’t have to think about the radio.

I need to know more about the sessions you’ve done for other artists. You wrote “I Don’t Have to Sleep to Dream” for Cher’s 2013 Closer to the Truth album. Were there any other songs we don’t know about?

Funny story, actually. I wrote “Hot City” while I was at a camp for Cher in Miami. I was working with Timbaland and my friend Kelly Sheehan. We were writing a bunch of Cher songs and I was singing the demos in my Cher voice. It was such a riot. Oh my god. Those demos are so funny. I was inspired by Miami. That was kind of where “Hot City” came from. So, yes, there are 3 or 4 other songs that didn’t make the cut. I don’t think those demos have leaked miraculously, but I’ll probably put them on TikTok or something just because they’re so funny to hear me do my Cher impression.

Photo: Brian Ziff

It’s so interesting reading your threads on pop forums. Every time I look, there always seems to be a demo that leaked. I read that you apparently sang a demo called “Paper” for Gwen Stefani’s unreleased 2014 album.

Wow. That’s funny. These forums, I’m just like, I don’t even remember. Or they’ll ask me on TikTok, like, “Hey, when you wrote this, was it originally for Britney?” I’m like, “I don’t know what song you’re even talking about!” I’ll go dig around and find it and be like, “I barely remember writing this.” I did get to write with Gwen Stefani, which was a dream come true. That album, of course, never saw the light of the day, sadly, but I wrote some cool songs. There were a couple, but “Paper” doesn’t ring a bell.

I know you were also writing a lot for Kylie Minogue before she changed directions and released her country-inspired album, Golden.

I wrote, I think, 3 or 4 songs with Kylie, which was also a moment. What a legend. What an icon. What a sweetheart. What a strong soul. She’s like big sister vibes. I love her so much. She’s a great writer and singer. I was so disappointed that they never saw the light of day. I still think they’re great songs, and I still think they could work today. I mean, obviously, she’s doing fantastic music right now, and so she’s certainly doing just fine with all those songs, but I do hope they would get to see the light of day. If not with her, then maybe with someone else.

You also wrote and recorded the demo for Avril Lavigne’s “Dumb Blonde,” which is very similar to the released version.

Yeah. Oh my gosh. I’ve gotten to work with so many legends. I’m so lucky. I’m such a fan of these artists. I grew up listening to Avril Lavigne, Cher, and Gwen Stefani. Sadly, I didn’t get to meet Cher, I will say, that was unfortunate. She’s the ultimate for me. She’s my icon. Getting to be in the room with Avril Lavigne and ping-pong with her and writing with her, she’s a really great writer. “Dumb Blonde” was her idea. She came in and she was fired up and ready to go. I was like, “Let’s do kind of a ‘Hollaback Girl’ feel, let’s do a cheerleader anthem.” She was like, “Hell yeah.” She killed it. Hearing her actually singing in person was just so iconic. You’re just like, “I can’t believe I’m here.” During the writing process, we wrote a few songs together. She would call me at 3 in the morning and be like, “Can I play you something?” She would sit down at the piano and sing to me over the phone and I would just be sitting in my living room, thinking “I can’t believe I’m getting serenaded by Avril Lavigne right now.” So iconic. She’s incredible.

You’ve touched on the next album that you’ve been making. What is that sounding like?

The new album is definitely a left turn from Hot City. It’s darker. It’s really raw and emotional. It’s still dancy and electronic with bops and traditional pop, but it has a darker theme. It was a really dark time for me. I was getting out of an emotionally abusive relationship, and so it’s kind of like the story arc of being love-bombed being brainwashed, and having this sort of resurrection of understanding what I was in and escaping it. So it is heavier but it still bops. I’ve written probably 75 percent of it. I think there are a few more points in the story that I wanna touch upon. I’ll probably get back into recording and stuff this fall once I’m done with Hot City.