Bonnie McKee was at one of the lowest, darkest moments of her life when she had a validating experience with Lana Del Rey. The singer approached her at a party in 2019 and held up her phone to show what she had been listening to on her way there: McKee’s 2015 song “Bombastic.” McKee was shocked that Del Rey even remembered who she was; they had only met once at a Coachella party years prior.
They exchanged phone numbers that night and spoke on the phone days later. Del Rey said she was a fan of McKee, the songwriting mastermind who has written music for people like Katy Perry, Britney Spears, and Kesha. Del Rey also asked McKee about her YouTube series, where she used to chronicle her journey trying to break through as a pop star around 2013.
“I think that you should go back to being a redhead,” Del Rey told her during their call. (McKee had already made an appointment to do exactly that.) “Having someone that I respect so much just fall out of the sky and tell me exactly what I needed to hear was a God moment,” she tells Rolling Stone. “Lana is a guardian angel to me.”
At that time, McKee was focused on songwriting after being dropped as an artist by Epic Records six years prior. She had released some singles and her Bombastic EP since then, but her artist project was mostly behind her. When she met Del Rey, she had also just ended “a really toxic relationship” with someone who constantly told her she was “foolish” to think she could start her artist career again. He’d say she needed to get her priorities straight and dismiss her dreams of being an artist: “When somebody tells you something over and over again, you start to believe them.”
Although McKee has been described as “Hollywood’s secret weapon,” she always had her eyes set on being an artist — even when she was co-writing the best songs off Teenage Dream. (“California Gurls” became her second diamond-certified diamond in June of this year, after “Roar.”) “Being a songwriter for big stars, you’re not supposed to outshine people,” she says. “You’re supposed to just show up and do your work and go home.”
As the songs she wrote with Perry reached the top of the charts, she completed an entire album that she says Epic Records decided to scrap in 2013 because the “CEO didn’t think the next single was a hit,” even as her satirical earworm “American Girl” received radio play. Since then, that music has been sitting in a vault — until now.
On Wednesday, McKee released “Slay,” the lead single off Hot City, an LP full of what she describes as “sparkly, maximalist pop.” (The song’s technicolor video premieres with Rolling Stone.) The album includes re-recorded and revamped versions of the songs that got shelved in 2013, plus a few she’s saved from the course of her career. There’s also one brand-new track. She plans to drop Hot City in the fall. To McKee, the album has stood the test of time and fits into the early-2010s pop nostalgia that has overtaken much of the internet.
“I’m putting all of the money that I’ve made back into my art because no one else will invest in me,” she says. “When the whole world has told you to sit down and shut up, and you’re like, ‘Fuck you. I’m about to slay,’ there’s something inspiring about that. That’s why I’m doing it.”
WHEN WE MEET up in early June, McKee and I sit near her living room, which is filled with Seventies-style sofas, hanging disco balls, and rolls of fabric leaning against the wall. I cozy up on a giant, tangerine-colored bean bag chair while she plays me new music, and reminisces about her career, especially her time co-writing Perry’s Teenage Dream and Prism albums.
McKee has said that she and Perry had a “cosmic connection” that allowed them to drop hit after hit. They’d arrive at the studio with nearly identical ideas and have the same instincts about where to take the music. “We would finish each other’s sentences,” she says of the writing sessions for tracks like “Part of Me,” “Last Friday Night,” and “Roar.” “We were a great team.”
McKee admits that it’s been years since the former musical partners (or Konnie McPerry, as the fans called them) have connected. But she’s more than open to rekindling their musical partnership today. “I haven’t talked to Katy in a long time. She had a baby. She’s on American Idol. I know she’s working on her new album. And, you know, she knows where to find me,” she says. “I would love to work with her again.”
Something she struggled with as a songwriter was feeling like she needed to put her own dreams on the backburner. “It’s an interesting experience,” she says. “Living in the shadow of the biggest pop star in the world and something that I contributed to.” Returning to her career now is terrifying, but she’s now more than committed to the process.
It wasn’t easy, though. Before the pandemic hit, she reached out to her former label to get back her masters. After going through layers of what she calls “bureaucratic bullshit” for months, she decided she was going to rerecord the songs completely. “I guess I gotta pull a Taylor Swift and just rerecord this shit,” she says, later adding: “I gotta stop waiting for permission. I gotta stop waiting for someone to ask, and just fucking do it.”
She met with music industry leaders for advice and to see if they’d consider allowing her to run an imprint under which to release her music. “They were like, ‘Oh, you’re still trying to be an artist?’” she recalls. “Trying? I don’t have a choice! I would love to have this burden of a calling lifted from me. But at the end of the day, I tried to just let it go and be a songwriter again, and I was so depressed.”
As the pandemic confined most people to their homes, McKee found a new way to connect with an audience. “I surrendered to the TikTok gods,” she says. She opened an account where she shared stories about her career, alternative lyrics to songs she co-wrote, and other fun details from her time in the industry.
Slowly, she put herself in front of an audience that knew her work and reconnected with fans who always wondered where she had gone. “Every time I posted, somebody would ask where my music was,” she says. She began to bet on herself: “Maybe I’m not crazy. Maybe this is actually a thing.”
MCKEE’S COMEBACK ALBUM Hot City takes place in an imaginary, retro-futuristic city, a world with an “Eighties-Miami, expensive prostitute vibe” that lives in McKee’s head. Several songs have leaked over the years: “Forever 21” is one fan favorite. It was inspired by a so-called friend who stole her credit card and charged thousands of dollars at the clothing store early in her career. “The track might seem like an innocent pop song but it has a dark underbelly,” she says. Other tracks include “Jenny’s Got a Boyfriend,” a conceptual play off Rick Springfield’s “Jessie’s Girl,” in which she sings about fantasizing about stealing her friend’s flirty boyfriend. (“It’s not about actually going for it, okay!”)
And there’s the revamped, “sexually frustrated brat” pop song, “I Wanna Fucking Call You,” which McKee wrote about a summer fling she had with an unnamed celebrity. “A couple of songs were inspired by him,” she says with a smirk. “It was a very lusty five seconds of summer type of situation.” There’s also “Snatched,” the only fully new song on the album, which she wrote with the drag community in mind. “Yeah I came to serve/Did I strike a nerve?” she sings on the ballroom-esque track.
As she works on her musical return, McKee also has her eyes set on challenging projects in TV and film, too. After the success of her 2020 short film April Kills the Vibe, which won numerous awards at international film festivals, McKee wrote a dark comedy TV show, loosely based on her experience in the music industry and as a recovering addict with a “murder-mystery plot twist.” She’s also on the front lines of fighting for songwriter rights, speaking at panels and encouraging lyricists to stand up for themselves.
It’s that sort of energy she’s bringing to the studio herself with the rising female artists she’s been mentoring, including Tessa Violet, Sophie Powers, and Peach PRC. “With these younger artists, I feel maternal vibes,” she says. “I was always afraid that I was gonna get older and then I would feel not cool anymore. But I get so much love from these girls. And I give it right back.”
After Hot City, McKee does not plan to stop, and she’s sitting on another album of completely new music that she plans to drop next year. She’s excited about what her fans will think of finally getting Hot City, and she can’t wait to drop the project to see what it brings her. She no longer cares to be the biggest pop star; she just wants to keep doing what makes her happy.
“I’m closing a chapter that’s been loose ends for so long. It’s been like a hole in my heart,” she says. “I always felt like I was abandoning myself by not doing my artist project. I tried to fight it, and I was just so unhappy.”
“Now,” she continues, “I just have to follow my heart.”