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Bonnie Mckee Embraces Her Dark Side on 'Thorns'

Bonnie Mckee
Photography: Nikko Lamere

After releasing her sparkly Bombastic EP in 2015, the pop hitmaker has returned with a raw, new single & perspective. 

Bonnie Mckee is behind some of pop music's biggest hits, from Katy Perry's "Teenage Dream" to Britney Spears' "Hold It Against Me." But it's not behind-the-scenes where the Los Angeles artist is happiest making music--it's at the forefront, writing, singing and performing her own deeply personal lyrics.

As a solo musician, Mckee's released a small, but strong body of work, from 2013's summer scorcher, "American Girl," to the more experimental, alt-pop Bombastic EP two years later. Her most recent single, "Thorns," sees a shift from the singer's sparkly, bubblegum reputation, opting instead to give fans a deeper look at her struggles with depression.

"I got thorns/ Wear them like a crown," Mckee sings, proud of her inevitable pain. "I got thorns/ You should know by now/ That's what you get when you pick a rose/ Easy to love, but I'm hard to hold."

Fresh off the release of "Thorns" earlier this month, we caught up with Mckee to discuss writing songs, chasing trends and being honest.

OUT: After you released the Bombastic EP, what was your experience that led to "Thorns"?

Bonnie Mckee: Last year, I was traveling all over the world doing a lot of session writing for other artists. I had a mental breakdown and needed to reassess what really makes me happy. I realized that being an artist is all I care about. There's a few artists here and there that I really love writing for, but just being a songwriter as a job doesn't bring me a lot of joy. I had to sit down with myself to look at my own art and think about what was honest and what was real. I think this new batch of music is a lot more raw and a little darker because I was in this weird dark transitional place--sort of having an existential crisis.

Do you think you were being overworked?

Definitely. I was traveling the world, which is great, but I was gone for like six months out of the year. Being a songwriter, we get paid in lottery tickets. I don't get paid for my time. There's no guarantees, so we survive on the hope that something we write is going to take off. But 99 percent of the time, it doesn't. As a creative person, that can be really draining to not have any positive reinforcement or bear fruit from all your work. Also, the whole world has changed in the past year, so I think I was definitely affected by that, as well. Seeing the importance in being more raw, honest and embracing my darker side. I went through a really heavy bout of depression, and when I tried to write my normal sparkly, flashy work, which I love and is always inside of me, it didn't feel genuine. I had to embrace that I was feeling prickly for a while.

Is it more intimidating writing for yourself than for other artists?

It's a lot more pressure. If you write something for someone else and they take it, it's like, I did my job and can wipe my hands clean of it. They get to go on and sing that song for the rest of their life. But when I'm the one that has to sing it, I need to make sure I mean it. I need to make sure it's something I'm going to want to sing and have represent me a few years from now or for the rest of my life. I'm my own worst critic.

There is such a stark difference between "American Girl" and "Thorns," which is a reflection of the world today and your development as an artist.

I'm playing a show this Saturday in LA and I have to play "American Girl." It's my biggest song, I have millions of views on YouTube. I know that a lot of fans who're buying tickets are buying because they know me from "American Girl." But it's funny to play that in a set surrounded by darker shit. It's also a nice breath of fresh air, and I think people still need to hear a light, fluffy song. "American Girl" has taken on a new meaning in the current climate in our country. It was always satirical, and that went over a lot of heads, but I think now more than ever, people are hearing that side of it a little clearer.

What inspired the lyrics of "Thorns"?

Despite my bright, sparkly personality, I've been through a lot. I've struggled with depression and anxiety, and had a lot of trauma in my life. I'm a survivor of a lot of different things and I think that when you've been through a lot, you tend to build up a defense mechanism. It's involuntary, but they become a part of who you are. I generally consider myself to be a pretty warm, friendly, caring, giving person--I'm pretty generous with my love. But a lot of the people who're closest to me have expressed that I can be closed off and aloof at times. It has nothing to do with anyone else, it's just my own demeanor that is uncontrollable. I saw myself apologizing for that for a long time and this song is saying, This is who I am. If you want the rose, take the thorns that come with it. It's been liberating to not have to apologize for who I am. It's not always sunshine and cupcakes. I think we all have a darker side.

Being a pop songwriter, are you concerned with trends?

On the Bombastic EP, I thought long and hard about that and what was happening at the moment. I concluded that I needed to make music that I personally love, and Bombastic is the result. Bombastic is a fuck you to the industry, and really wasn't relevant as far as trends go. I was listening to Sleigh Bells and harder stuff combined with girly, light fluffy vocals on top a la Blondie (Blondie is a huge influence for me). I wasn't pulling anything that was happening right at that second. Now, I think it's a national mood to slow things down a bit. I think I've been listening more to what's going on this second round, but traditionally I don't really care. I just want to make music I love and it just so happens my mood matches everyone else's.

Do you follow trends more if you're writing for another artist?

Definitely. When it comes to my own stuff, I can go ahead and suicide myself out and not care if anybody likes it or not. But if I'm giving it to a client, I have to think about what's going to sell and what's going to make them want to keep it. I really had to stretch myself because a lot of what's happening in pop music right now is not what comes naturally to me. That's what I love about pop--it's ever-changing and I like a challenge. People always think that pop is so fluffy, stupid and empty, but it's really the most challenging genre because it's constantly evolving.

It's a challenge to distill complex emotions into a straightforward pop hook.

I watched the VMAs the other night and Logic's performance about the suicide prevention hotline was so powerful, so raw and so literal. I think for a long time people have been tip-toeing and metaphoring their way about these issues, so I thought it was really powerful and admirable that he just came right out and talked about it. It's something we can't really ignore.

As a bisexual pop singer, do you think you have a responsibility to your fans who're at risk of suicide?

From my sexuality to my own bouts of depression and anxiety, and taking medication and dealing with sexism, sexual harassment and assault--these are all things that are very real to me. I think traditionally, pop singers are told to lean away from controversial issues--things that seem TMI. But I've seen the response I get from fans if I talk about things like taking medication. People are like, Hey, me too. It doesn't feel like a dirty secret. Also today it's so sad to think about sexual identity. I really thought in the Obama administration that we'd come a long way. I was like, We've got gay marriage, we've got DADT repealed, we're really making progress. Even homophobia felt like a thing of the past as far as mainstream issues. Now Trump has given everyone permission to be homophobic, so it's an issue all over again. It's really heartbreaking, so I do think it's important for people to talk about it and let fans know they're not alone. We all need to come together to fight a bigger evil.

Is "Thorns" part of a larger project in the works?

I'm interested in doing a full-length album. The last time I put out a full-length was in 2004. When you search my name, those songs come up and I'm so embarrassed about them. They don't represent who I am now. I wrote them when I was 14, 15, 16 years old. It's important for me to get newer work on the Internet for people to discover me. I have a lot to say and I have so many songs that I've written over the past decade that are just dying on a hard drive. I'm tired of being so precious about what I put out. I'm constantly writing and reinventing, so I might as well share with he world and not be afraid.

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