Bonnie McKee Talks Writing Hits for Katy Perry, Music Industry Hardships and Her Long-Awaited New Album (Exclusive)

The hit singer-songwriter tells PEOPLE about the journey from making her 'Hot City' album over 10 years ago to finally now sharing it with the world

<p>Courtesy of Bonnie McKee</p> Bonnie McKee

Courtesy of Bonnie McKee

Bonnie McKee
  • More than a decade after Bonnie McKee made her second album, Hot City, the project was released on Friday

  • The album was originally meant to come out after she scored No. 1 hits for Katy Perry, Britney Spears and others as a songwriter

  • She was inspired to finally put out the album independently after seeing fans continue discussing its songs online for years

The road to Bonnie McKee's Hot City wasn't without its bumps.

Upon setting out to create the pop album over 10 years ago, the 40-year-old singer-songwriter was at the top of her game, crafting the lyrics of No. 1 hits for Katy Perry and Britney Spears while seeking out a spotlight of her own. She signed a record deal, released her debut single "American Girl" in 2013, garnered buzz and built a fanbase ready for more, but her full-length album was ultimately shelved — until now.

At the time, McKee was devastated. But she didn't give up. After years of fans asking for Hot City, in quite an unconventional pop star move, the dancefloor-ready album finally dropped on May 31.

<p>Courtesy of Bonnie McKee</p> Bonnie McKee 'Hot City' Album Cover

Courtesy of Bonnie McKee

Bonnie McKee 'Hot City' Album Cover

"Like it or not, a big part of my brand, my relationship with my fans and my spiritual journey has been perseverance," she tells PEOPLE. "You fall down, you get back up, and that's kind of been it from day one for me."

McKee knew music was her calling at a young age. Growing up in Seattle, she'd record demos and give them to a family friend working in the music industry, who encouraged her to write lyrics.

As a teenager, she sent an original song to a friend of a friend and ended up getting played on the Southern California radio station KCRW, which led to her first label deal with Reprise Records. There, she released her debut album, Trouble, in 2004.

Related: Hit Songwriter Bonnie McKee Made Her Own Album, Hot City, 10 Years Ago. Now, She's Finally Releasing It (Exclusive)

However, the pop-rock effort didn't connect with audiences, and McKee soon felt pushed to the sidelines by Reprise. "So, in a fit of frustration, I'll say, I went down to Hollywood Boulevard, bought a dagger at a smoke shop, burned a CD of my best new songs, went down to the CEO's house in the middle of the night and stabbed the CD into a tree right outside his front door," she recalls. "Needless to say, I got dropped, which is what I wanted."

In order to make ends meet while looking for her next move, McKee started singing demos and writing songs for other artists. One day, she met Perry in line while selling clothes at the L.A. thrift store Wasteland.

"She was a fan of my first album, and we were fast friends," says McKee, who was then asked by Perry to cowrite songs for her second album, Teenage Dream. Three of their collaborations ("California Gurls," "Teenage Dream" and "Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)") went No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, followed by three more from subsequent projects.

Related: Katy Perry Jokes She Can 'Never Sing That Again' After Kelly Clarkson Covers 'Wide Awake'

<p>Taylor Kahan</p> Bonnie McKee

Taylor Kahan

Bonnie McKee

Around the same time, McKee scored chart-toppers with Spears' "Hold It Against Me" and Taio Cruz's "Dynamite," among many other hits. "I suddenly went from being completely broke, not having a car, my cell phone turned off, not having hot water and digging for Taco Bell money to house-hunting in Hollywood Hills," she says. "It was really surreal."

With massive success under her belt as a writer, McKee was ready to be an artist again and soon landed a deal with Epic Records. She then started making Hot City, released "American Girl" and prepared the next single, "Slay" — but Epic wasn't a fan of the song. "And when the label and I didn't see eye-to-eye on that, I was just like, 'I can't do this again. I don't want to do this again,'" she explains.

So, McKee parted ways with record company and decided to go independent. She kept writing for others and released an EP, Bombastic, in 2016, earning success by landing its songs in several TV shows, films and commercials. "I was like, 'Wow, I really can be indie and make a living,'" she says.

After making another full-length album, McKee was getting ready to share it with fans as the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, and the timing no longer felt right. As she sat home throughout the year, she found a online forum with a 500-page thread about Hot City. Having listened to leaked demos and live performances of its songs around 2013, fans still wanted to hear the full project.

McKee looked at her old contract and realized she could legally re-record the songs, so she contacted the other writers and producers and told them she wanted to finally release the album. "Of course, everybody thinks I'm nuts because it's old," she says. "But I'm like, 'I'm telling you, these songs stood the test of time in the same way that the songs that I wrote with Katy and Britney have proven to be evergreen songs that are still relevant.'"

She revisited each track, gave some "a little facelift" and eventually even got permission from Epic Records to include "American Girl" on the project. The result is a version of Hot City that's both fresh and nostalgic for the time period in which McKee made its songs.

<p>Neilson Barnard/Getty</p> Bonnie McKee

Neilson Barnard/Getty

Bonnie McKee

"I was at the height of my songwriting success, and I was also at the tail end of my kind of party girl phase, because I'm 12 years sober now," reflects McKee, who always looked to Hot City as a metaphor for paradise.

"My idea of paradise at the time was being No. 1, being super successful, getting to have the spotlight for once," she says. "My idea of success has really changed since then. I've realized that it really is about the journey and not the destination, because I've reached the destination before. I've reached the top heights, and that doesn't really solve anything."

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Now that Hot City is out in the world, McKee wants to see the project reach the potential she's always envisioned. She'll take the album on the road to a few LGBTQ+ pride festivals this summer before touring more widely in the future and hopes to see the world connect with her work.

"I would love to be able to throw my hat in the ring to win a Grammy because, honestly, I do feel like this album is a pop masterpiece," she says. "But being an indie artist, it's unlikely, probably. But I'm really proud of the work that I've done, and I just want people to hear it."

The best part of releasing Hot City for McKee? "I fought for it, and so it means even more to me now than it would have back then," she declares. "I just can't believe I made it here."

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