Bonnie McKee
click on image to visit artist's website | image © Reprise Records 2004

Bonnie McKee

Trouble

interview and album review

review and interview © Russell W Elliot 2004 | all images Reprise Records 2004 | used with permission
click on images to visit artist's website | formatted for 800 x 600 or larger windows | Last updated: 24 July 2004


Singer songwriter Bonnie McKee will release her debut album Trouble (Reprise Records (USA), 2004) this autumn. Our editorial staff have been listening to an advance copy since the wintertime; the formal release has been delayed to allow Bonnie to stir up interest online, on radio and in the press. She's a feisty 19-year old as our interview and these exclusive photos illustrate. Visitors to her website will find further evidence of her outspoken attitude both in the EPK and find her online promo videos most enjoyable. Based today in Seattle, she has been singing publicly since the age of five and writing songs since she was twelve. She also got a huge boost from being cast as the young Janis Joplin in NBC's series American Dreams. Our review of the 12-track Trouble wraps up this installment on the amazing Bonnie McKee!

Interview

Musical Discoveries: Tell us a little bit about yourself--how did you get started, Bonnie?

Bonnie McKee: My mother named me Bonnie Leigh Mckee but I leave out the Leigh cause it sounds too country. All I ever wanted was to be a star. This is how it happened. I was born in Vacaville, California, and then finally ended up in Seattle for the "important years." My father is very musical and got me singing at a young age. He taught me all about harmonies and opera and the blues.

  Bonnie McKee
image © Reprise Records 2004

I spent ten years in the seattle girls choir, where I learned music theory and sight reading, sang for the Pope--yes, I'm a choir geek!!--and I also took classical piano lessons for seven years, and began to study privately with a vocal coach at the age of twelve. My teacher encouraged me to get into the studio, so I made a demo of six or seven cover songs, with stuff like Fiona Apple, Carole Ling and the likes. People were impressed, but everyone kept telling me to write my own music.

So what did you do?

I had been secretly writing songs since Iwas a little tiny thing, and now it was only a matter of having the courage to sing them for people. Two years later, I recorded a demo of six of my very own songs, most of which are on the record today. I gave it to everyone I knew and it ended up in the hands of a guy in Los Angeles that believed in me and wanted to help me fulfill my dream. I hired a lawyer and lived in a hotel room for the summer while taking meetings with record companies, and voila! Dream come true!

I was signed to Warner Brothers and moved down to California at sixteen. I had alraedy been kicked out of high school, so I went ahead and got my GED. I then moved to New York to record the album, scratched all but one song, came back to LA and started over. Bing bang boom Trouble was born and here I am today!

What kind of music do you find yourself listening to all the time?

I listen to everything and I know that sounds cliche but it's true! I guess if I had to narrow it down, I'd say I listen to a lot of trip hop, rock-n-roll, and lately a whole lot of indie. But I will always have a soft spot in my heart for a quality pop song.

Who are some of your favourite artists?

Bjork, Fiona Apple, Guns n Roses, Portis Head, Radio Head, Pixies, Kurt Cobaine, Micheal Jackson, Jem, Tribe Called Quest, Janis Joplin, Johnny Cash, Maroon5, Missy Elliot, Christina Aguilera, Rick James Bitches!

Bonnie McKee
image © Reprise Records 2004
 

How did they influence your album?

Yes, I think that what these artists have taught me is the importance of lyrics, which is really what I'm alll about, telling a story, and wrapping it up into a catchy little ditty that anyone can get into. That is the beauty of pop music, its accessability.

If you have something to say, why not take the route that will connect you to the most amount of listeners possible? Say something to them! Also, I'm a vocalist, so I always appreciate people that do something different with their voices. The human voice is such a powerful thing, I love to hear an artist utilize that and really strike something within a listener.

Where do you draw inspiration for your music and the lyrical content?

I have always drawn inspiration from my own life experiences, my own heartbreaks, my own epiphanies. That is what Trouble is about. A bit of a comming of age album, if you will. But lately in my writing I have been experimenting with other people's stories, just to mix things up. It was important to me to have Trouble be all me, all real, all out, but you may see something a little different next time around (smiles).

How would you personally characterize the music on the album?

Pop. "real" pop, "smart" pop? I don't know, emotionally charged. A huge production, but still raw and honest. High quality. Buy it!! You won't be dissapointed!

How did you meet the producers you're working with and what has the relationship been like since you have been working together?

  Bonnie McKee
image © Reprise Records 2004

Rob Cavallo doubles as an A&R guy at Warner, so I met him through the label, and he brought Antonina Armato into the project. I was origionally only going to re-record the single, but we just hit it off and next thing you know the whole album's been redone. We had such a fantastic time! Lots of silliness, and of course a healthy dose of tears, but what the hell kind of record would it be without those? They are very busy but we make an effort to keep in touch.

Your album has been finished for quite a while. What has led to the delay of its release and how does that make you feel?

Well, the delay was in the re-recording. The first recording of Trouble was a year in New York, and then the second recording was another year in LA, and the third year was tacked on due to, um ... That's a really good question. It's very frustrating. I wrote these songs all before i was sixteen, and as much as I still love and believe in this album, it's always hard for an artist to listen to thier old music again and again.

There is also the prodigy factor. There are all these little babies making records these days, and it seems the younger you are, even if your music sucks, the more they want and admire you, and it's hard in this town to get older while the fresh batch of pop starletts are being groomed. But it's also a blessing.

The sophomore album is always a bitch because you have your whole life to write the first album, and a year and a half to write the second one. But I have a head start cause I've got three years worth of songs prepared plus the ones that didn't make the first album. I wonder if I'll ever catch up with myself. I'll still be singing songs I wrote when I was fifteen when I'm thirty!! Oh, wait, I'm never gonna turn thirty. I'm just going to keep turning nineteen until being young goes out of style!

Bonnie McKee
image © Reprise Records 2004
 

So what's with the album cover?

The cover is a picture of me looking dead pan blowing a pink bubble. A bit of a play on the bubble gum pop thing, except it looks kind of like a mug shot. This album is all about juxtapositions. It's deceptively innocent. A young heart with an old soul, a bittersweet struggle between being a strong young woman and a little girl all in one. I'm just sooooo deep aren't I? (smiles)

Tell us about the making of the album.

The making of this album started when i was thirteen because that is when I started writing these songs. By the time I was signed, the album was written, so it was really only a matter of finding the right producer.

I met a man named Bob Power, who is most well known for his work with the Roots, Tribe Called Quest, and other hip hop artists. I was stoked because he was classically trained, but then also had all the street cred.

At the time I was really interested in making a trip hop sort of Portis Heady thing, with singer songwriter roots. Kind of like what Nellie Furtado was doing at the time, bless her heart. There is still some of that feel on the newer version of Trouble, but it became clear to me that I needed to make something that every one in the universe could hear and want to buy, not just the kids I was trying to impress in the underground hip hop scene in Seattle.

What happened when you went to New York?

I had such an amazing experience living in New York--which is like, soooooo cool!--but it was a very lonely existence. I didn't know anyone, I was seventeen on my own in the biggest brightest city in the world, had this fantastic apartment that I got evicted from and then an even more fantastic one after that, but nobody to play with!! It was good to be that independant, I think that I learned alot about myself, and wrote some damn good songs about it, but I really need to be around people or I get a little nuts. Think Roman Polanski's Repulsion. I didn't kill anybody but you know what I mean.

  Bonnie McKee
image © Reprise Records 2004

Anyway, the album I recorded was not what I had originally thought it to be, and they asked me to re-record the single, "Somebody." Being as loyal as I was to Bob Power, I got a bit defensive, but went out to LA to record anyway. Well, a year and two million dollars later, we had re recorded the whole fucking thing and I was a whole lot closer to the record I had heard in my head. Whew.

What can you say about the songs that wrote yourself?

That you should listen to them and learn all the words so you can come to my concerts and sing along!! What can I say? That I wrote all the lyrics and all the melodies by my pea picken self. My favorite songs are "Open Your Eyes," "Trouble" and "A Voice That Carries," mostly cause they're fun to perform and they're all the kickass songs on the record.

What is the live show like?

I like to writhe around like a rock star and shake my ass. Then sit down at the piano and make people cry. We are still getting a band together, so I can't tell you much about the band just yet! But when we do, we will most likely have your standard guitars, bass, drums, some crazy kewboard shit, and then maybe some drum machines. When I'm playing arenas and whatnot, I'd really like to do some more performance art kind of stuff, like Madonna or the Flaming Lips. I dig playing dress up! But I guess for now I can settle for dancing girls in cages.

How do audiences react to your live show?

Women cry to it alot. My friends used to have me sing them to sleep at slumber parties and we'd all have a good cry. Guys don't always get past the legs and lipstick, but for some reason, they listen to me. I really think my music is chick based, but I get a surprising amount of male fans that actually hear what I'm saying, and that's really exciting to me. The thought that everybody stops and listens. I have little sisters and people's grandpas that love the album. It's universal, I hope.

What do you enjoy most about performing on stage?

I don't always remember what happens when I'm up there. It's like I go somewhere completely different, like I'm not there at all. I'll start out really nervous, thinking about the lyrics and my posture and all, but then all of a sudden it's over and people are cheering and it's been twenty minutes.

Bonnie McKee
image © Reprise Records 2004
 

I'm a vessel for something bigger. It's not me, something's moving through me. My mother teaches transcendental meditation, and she always talks about "transcending". That's what I'm doing up there. It's bliss. It's like an orgasm. It's very personal.

When are you going to get to the east coast?

I've already been! I went on a tour all over the us talking to radio stations and we went all up and down the east coast. I love it there. Love the humidity. I'll probably go back this fall.

Tell us about the making of your promotional videos.

The videos that you see online are not the final versions. They're just promos, just to give people a visual. When I do videos I'm gonna do some fucking videos, you know? I think the music video is a bit of a lost art. It's such a great oppotunity to express yourself, and I've been waiting to do them since I was six. I used to put on my mothers black slip and run around the house like Madonna in "Like A Prayer." That was a good time.

Wayne Isham shot the ones on launch, and it was really a lot of fun! Really long day, but super fun. It's really exciting to go to a set full of 100 people all there to shoot li'l 'ol me! He was great. I am so lucky. It's like everything I do I get to do a trial run. The record, the video, the radio tour ... I'm so ready for this!

What are your plans following the album's release?

To start working on the next one! I love being in the studio, I love creating, I'm very hands-on and I will hopefully get to go on a tour and sleep on a bus and eat horrible road food while counting mullets in the mid-west.

How do you think the internet will influence your career?

It already has so much!! Pretty much all of the buzz that we've gotten has been thanks to launch.com, iTunes and other online companies that so many people lay eyes and ears on. It has been such a huge deal to me, and I know it will continue to be. Now if I could just figure out how to work my computer.

What are your musical hopes and dreams?

To go everywhere, to touch everyone, to last, to be remembered.

Review

  Trouble
image © Reprise Records 2004

Recognized by Reprise Records as one of the most captivating debut albums in recent memory, Trouble draws listeners in with the robust title track--thick arrangements with layered vocals a catchy hook and a tremendous flute part contribute to the opening excitement. McKee, a cutting-edge self-confessed choir girl is equally a precociouis young woman with a worldly wise soul, unabashedly sensual and uncompromisingly honest.

Bonnie is a provacative paradox--as the photos illustrate--wrapped in a wildly original package. The album is comprised of a range of dance-pop music, she has written herself. The album is produced by Rob Cavallo and Antonina Armato with the exception of two track produced by Bob Powers. Layered vocals add texture and further substance to the recording.

The stunning track "Open Your Eyes" demonstrates the artist's virtuosity both in spot-on vocal and emotional delivery. Production across the album is tremendous with instrumentals, harmonies and lead placed in perfect perspective. The lyrics of the album deal with Bonnie's coming of age and blend with the melodies and backing vocals perfectly. The gospel choir in "Somebody" is a notable addition to the album. Bonnie can rock with the best of them as "A Voice That Carries" clearly demonstrates.

The album blends upbeat rockers with blues and heartfelt ballads. In the bluesy ballad "Honey," Bonnie's lead drives the tune. In the even more downbeat "Green Grass," Bonnie evocatively delivers the lyrical message atop light blues instrumentation in the verse but rocks in the catchy chorus. It is said Trouble's most eyebrow-raising moment comes in "January," a song in which McKee feverishly awaits the day she reaches the age of legal consent. The heartfelt ballad "Marble Steps" further illustrates Bonnie's vocal range.

In addition to the more robustly produced numbers, the album reveals Bonnie's ability to carry a tune with just her voice. It is so clear in the scales she does within "Sensitive Subject-Matter," a heartfelt mid-tempo tune. The evocative ballad "I Hold Her" is clearly one of the album's standouts sung at the edges of Bonnie's range atop gentle arrangements. The album concludes with "Confessions Of A Teenage Girl," a short, upbeat--almost a capella--pop tune with a lot of attitude. It is a perfect bookend to the album's opening title track. We are going to be hearing and seeing a lot of Bonnie McKee. While only the first single will be available this summer, join us as we anxiously await the album's official release this autumn.


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