TALKING “CRUEL INTENTIONS: THE MUSICAL” WITH STAR LAUREN ZAKRIN

Cruel Intentions: The ’90s Musical Experience

Lauren ZakrinLAUREN ZAKRIN IS READY TO SHOW YOU HER DARK SIDE.

Fresh off playing the titular character’s understudy in Broadway’s Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, the Michigan-raised actress’ newest project is taking her deep into a corrupt world of secrets, seduction, and deception. As the dangerous and manipulative Kathryn Merteuil in Cruel Intentions: The Musical, Zakrin is transforming from an ingénue to a villain.

After two sold out runs in Los Angeles, Cruel Intentions: The Musical has arrived in New York City for a limited engagement (through February 19, 2018). Opening December 11th, the show is based on the 1999 cult-classic motion picture of the same name. Created by Jordan RossLindsey Rosin and the film’s director, Roger Kumble, this stage adaptation features a compilation of throwback hits, including some of the best-known tracks from the movie’s legendary soundtrack – including Counting Crows’ “Colorblind” and The Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony.”

I spoke with Zakrin about getting to be a “bad guy” for the first time, her connection to the show’s source material, performing some of the biggest songs of the ‘90s, her musical theater dream roles, and more.

Cruel Intentions: The Musical

ALEX NAGORSKI: Growing up, were you a fan of the movie? What’s your first or favorite memory about the effect it had on you?

LAUREN ZAKRIN: I was absolutely a fan! And I hate to admit it, but I was on Team Kathryn. I don’t know what it says about me as a person, but the darkness and the power of her character fascinated me. I think I might have been a little young for it, so the movie felt like this dirty little secret that I hadn’t quite figured out yet.

Cruel Intentions: The MusicalAside from the movie itself, where/who else are you drawing inspiration from to shape your interpretation of Kathryn?

I think it would be easy to point the finger and say that I am drawing inspiration from girls who were unkind to me in high school, and of course I do. But it’s much more juicy to find the Kathryn that already lives within me. Even if she has never come out before, I think we all have a little Kathryn Merteuil inside, whether or not we would like to admit it.

Have you had an opportunity to meet and/or speak with Sarah Michelle Gellar (who played Kathryn in the film) about this role?

Unfortunately, I have not met Queen SMG. However, I have heard that she attended the show while it was running in LA! Everyone says she was lovely, and very supportive. If I do get to meet her, my inner Buffy-obsessed pre-teen self will probably freak out.

Kathryn and her stepbrother Sebastian have – to put it mildly – quite an unconventional relationship. How have you and your co-star Constantine Rousouli found the balance between passion and revenge that these two characters force one another to endure?

Cruel Intentions: The MusicalConstantine and I were fortunate enough to walk into the process already knowing each other. Nine years ago, we toured together in Legally Blonde, my very first job! It has been helpful to have a bit of history and trust in the bag when diving into a relationship as complicated as Kathryn and Sebastian’s. Everything else between our characters just seems to be falling into place. There is a natural flirtation and playfulness between us. We know how to poke fun at each other. And we also know when the other one needs support. Constantine has also already been on the Cruel Intentions ride for a couple of years now, and it’s been wonderful to have him holding my hand and guiding me through the world! It doesn’t hurt that he is devilishly handsome, either.

As an actor, how does getting to play a villain differ from some of your previous characters in musicals such as Wicked and Grease?

Kathryn is my very first villain, my first “mean girl.”  In the beginning, I was intimidated by her darkness, but now … I LOVE IT. I find it very therapeutic to expose all of the facets of her to an audience.

The film was based on the novel Dangerous Liaisons (which was also turned into a movie). What do you think it is about this story that has allowed it to live on in so many incarnations and mediums?

Everyone is capable of darkness. I think telling a story that exposes the ugliness of human nature, the selfishness, the jealously, the desire and the cruelty not only forces us to address the unkindnesses in the world around us and why they are happening, but to also acknowledge our own thoughts and actions. It forces us to address our own capabilities towards good and evil. Everyone has dirty little secrets and fantasies, and perhaps everyone has done a thing or two that they aren’t proud of … but pretending otherwise isn’t helpful, nor is slapping a quick label on it. We must address it and examine it, and find the why. I think these stories allow us to take the look that we might be too afraid to do on our own.

The musical is filled with some of the biggest hits of the 90’s – including songs by artists like Britney Spears, No Doubt, R.E.M., Christina Aguilera and Jewel. As a performer, how do you go about re-contextualizing these iconic songs within a musical theater narrative?

As a performer, you must strive to make each song as story driven as possible. Of course, when these songs drop in the show, the audience loves it. There is a lot of laughter and hooting and singing along, which is exactly how it should be. But as the storytellers, we have to try to resist falling into the trap of the joke. The song’s nostalgia is the joke, but the performance of it is not. That’s the only way to maintain the integrity of the story itself, while weaving in these fun 90’s hits.

The show takes place at renowned downtown Manhattan venue (le) Poisson Rouge, complete with bar and table service. How does performing in this type of nightlife environment contrast from being on stage in a more traditional theater?

Cruel Intentions: The MusicalAfter doing The Great Comet of 1812 in a tent in the Meatpacking District, I have found that I really thrive in a more interactive environment. I think we have this wonderful opportunity to push the boundaries and change the shape of how theater can be done or seen. Cruel Intentions is meant to be a dirty, wicked little party, so it fits perfectly into Le Poisson Rouge’s rock-and-roll world. It’s the perfect place to have a drink in your hand and be singing along to Ace of Base.

You made your Broadway debut in 2014 as Sherrie in Rock of Ages, a musical about the 1980s. Now that Cruel Intentions has taken you to the following decade, do you have more fun reliving and exploring the ‘80s or ‘90s through your work? 

was a child of the 90s, so revisiting them still brings me a little bit of shame when I have to look at some of my fashion and music choices. Doing something like Rock of Ages really let me feel like I was diving into another world that I got to learn about and explore.

You’ve been very vocal on social media about the absurdity, cruelty and chaos that defines our current presidential administration. Is it your hope that stepping into the nostalgia-tinged 90’s world of this immersive musical experience will provide audience members with a temporary pass for true escapism? Or are there larger lessons/takeaways that you’re hoping the audience leaves with?

I think we absolutely have an opportunity to comment on the current climate, and to point at things that may or may not have changed socially and politically. There are moments for escapism, but it is always a shame when the opportunity is missed to create change.  As I mentioned, I hope this story, at the very least, allows people to honestly observe, address, and examine the unkindnesses and cruelties within them and in the world around them.

I was fortunate enough to catch your phenomenal turn as Natasha in Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 this past summer opposite Oak Onaodowan and Ingrid Michaelson. What were your thoughts/feelings on the show’s abrupt and controversial closing?

Thank you for your kind words! All I can say is that Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 has been the most rewarding and beautiful experience of my professional life, and I miss it every day!

In addition to Cruel Intentions, you’ve been a part of several other movie-to-musical adaptations – including Legally BlondeCatch Me If You Can, and Flashdance. In your experience, what are both the most rewarding and challenging aspects of bringing such beloved films to life on stage?

It is always helpful to begin a project that already has a built-in fan base. However, there can be some challenges in navigating how to maintain the things that people love about the movie while keeping the stage adaptation fresh and relevant. While we want to stay true to all of the iconic moments people are dying to see, it is important to know when change is necessary to best tell the story today. It is also important to avoid the trap of replicating or imitating a performance. The characters need to remain truthful in our bodies, and our interpretations of them grounded in honesty.

What is your musical theater dream role?

Natasha in The Great Comet of 1812. Christine in Phantom of the Opera. Clara in The Light in the Piazza. Marilyn Monroe. Or better yet, something new and all my own!

CLICK HERE to purchase tickets for Cruel Intentions: The Musical, playing now through February 19, 2018 at (le) Poisson Rouge in New York City.

Originally published on PopBytes

EXCLUSIVE: INTERVIEW WITH EDEN XO

Eden xo

Eden xo is ready for pop domination.

It took a few false starts before she emerged as the confident and exciting songstress that she is today. The 25-year-old musician started out in a female-fronted punk band, Shut Up Stella, before moving to England to collaborate as a songwriter with some of the biggest hit makers it pop. When she returned to the US, she fronted Jessie and the Toy Boys, but after a handful of singles and a successful tour, she found her true artistic calling by rebranding herself as Eden xo.

Her infectious debut single “Too Cool To Dance” (iTunes) is rapidly being added to radio stations across the country, has been featured on the smash compilation Now 52, and was named one of “Tomorrow’s Hits” by Billboard. With over 900k plays on Spotify, the single is slowly but surely exploding into the mainstream, paving the path for a huge and pivotal 2015 for Eden xo. I caught up with the singer about her inspiration behind the song, her upcoming EP and album, her Norma Jean moment, her aspirations for the future, and more.

“Too Cool to Dance” is very clearly influenced by Madonna’s early material. Will the rest of your music continue to incorporate this throwback ’80s pop sound with a contemporary spin?

Yeah, absolutely. It’s a little bit late ’70s and early ’80s for me. Definitely early Madonna or Chaka Khan, Michael Jackson, and Sheila E. It’s funny because it’s obviously not my generation’s music at all. But being a dot com child of the internet, I discovered it recently and really fell in love with the musicality, the live horns, the guitars, and that whole feel. It was a real goal of mine to not just try and emulate that era, but really go to the source and try to make the record with people who were involved in that music. So the guitars were played by Paul Jackson, Jr., who played on a bunch of Madonna records. My favorite thing he did, though, was the rhythm guitar on “Thriller” for Michael Jackson. And then the horns are live. We have the guys from Earth, Wind and Fire – their horn sections play all those horns. So it’s absolutely throwback, you hit the nail on the head with the Madonna thing, but obviously with a 2015 spin.

You spent some formative years in the UK writing for Xenomania, singing backup for the Pet Shop Boys, and recording demos for Kylie Minogue. How did those experiences shape your identity as a solo artist?

Well, it made me realize I don’t want to be a songwriter. What I mean by that is I love writing songs for myself. If other people cut or use them, that’s great, but I always have this weird thing where it’s like, “Oh, those are my ideas, and this is strange that someone else is doing it.” When I was at Xenomania for a long time, I was kind of trapped in this writer role where I had all of these ideas, and Girls Aloud were coming in and singing them, and it was actually really frustrating in some ways, because, I was just like, “Ugh, this is not right…” It’s not how I intended it. So, the best thing I got out of it was I learned so much, because obviously working with Xenomania, and with Pet Shop Boys, and people like that, they’re just on another level. So they stepped up my game as a songwriter, but it just kind of reinforced how badly I want to be an artist myself and not only a songwriter.

Under the moniker of Jessie and the Toy Boys, you received the coveted honor of opening for Britney Spears on her 2011 Femme Fatale tour. What was that experience like and did she give you any advice on the road?

It was like everything I’m sure you’d imagine. I couldn’t believe that I was opening up for Britney Spears, arguably the queen of pop of our time. It was insane, especially for me. Growing up, Baby One More Time was one of the first CDs I owned. It was just like, “Wow, I can’t believe that she picked me,” you know? It was such an honor.

Advice? Not so much specifically like “Let me sit you down and tell you how it is,” but she has a great aura about her. Just being in her presence and seeing how her ship is run and how she operates and performs every night, you can’t help but to pick a few things up. It was great to be on that tour. I learned a lot and it was another stepping stone.

I bet! Have you seen her Vegas show yet?

No, I haven’t. I heard it’s really similar to the Femme Fatale tour though, because I think she basically just went from that tour to the Vegas show and then they added a couple numbers. So I feel like I’ve seen it, because I saw the other show every night for three months. But I haven’t seen the new show. I would love to. I love her. I will always be a fan.

What made you decide to drop the Jessie and the Toy Boys and reemerge as Eden xo?

Well, the truth of the matter is that after that tour, I was kind of in a very lost state. I mean, the tweets stopped coming in, the phone had stopped ringing, and I just was isolated and left kind of by myself. Because I was doing this thing, I was on this mission, like, “I’m independent,” you know, “fuck major labels, I don’t need you, whatever.” And, ultimately, it turns out that if you really want to have your music on the radio and out there to the masses, you can’t really do everything yourself and you need a little bit of help.

It was very humbling in some ways and I felt like I was such an underdog for so long. So I just threw myself into the studio and I was kind of in a depression. I started writing different stuff and I felt like I had changed so much and evolved so much as a person that I didn’t feel like I was the same person anymore. And so, I was thinking that maybe I should create a new project or whatever, just to have a fresh start.

Also with my sound changing and shifting from, you know, wanting to stray away from the electro thing and going more organic, I just felt like I was creating something new. And then when I thought of all of these names, I thought, “This is so lame.” I actually just wanted to strip away the gimmick and I just wanted to be myself. Then I was just staring at my driver’s license, because Eden is my middle name, and I looked at it and I was like, “Oh, there you are,” and it was staring me in the face my whole life and I just didn’t realize it. And now is the time. It’s almost like I had to go through everything to figure it all out. So now, when people call me Jessie, it’s actually strange to me. It’s really weird. I feel as though I’ve completely evolved. It was my Norma Jean/Marilyn moment.

What was it about “Too Cool to Dance” that made you decide it was the perfect debut single to launch this new chapter of your career with?

Well, it was the first song I finished, so that helped. The message of the song really resonated because of everything that I have gone through. It’s a fun pop song but, I’m tired of being in the corner, taking selfies and not dancing, in all forms life. I just felt like it was time to let loose and ask, “Who cares?”

And so “Too Cool to Dance” to me really hits a lot of points personally that I wanted to put out there, which is like, “Don’t care about what other people think, let’s not be too cool to dance,” and “let’s just enjoy life and have fun.” You can waste away worrying about what other people think and I just don’t care anymore.

The music video is super cute too. It features you stuck in a retirement home with your grandparents until your friends show up and save the day by getting everyone in the community to dance. How did you come up with the concept?

Thank you! I actually originally made a gif video myself. I did that version first and then the director saw that and it kind of inspired her to write the treatment she wrote with the older people. Because in mine, I have the random Asian Jazzercise club at the end and she was like, “Oh, my gosh. This is so brilliant,” and was like, “What if we did Palm Springs?” and la, la.

So, that’s kind of how it came together. And I liked her style, I liked her photography a lot. I hadn’t seen a lot of her videos but I kind of decided to work with her more based on her fashion photography, because I love fashion so much and I thought she had a good vision. So it was something we tried to focus on in the video with nailing the look of everything, and the clothes, and whatnot.

Do you have any ideas regarding the titles and/or release dates of your upcoming 5-song EP and your debut album?

Yeah, I do. I know that I’m not allowed to say the title. So lame, I know. But I do have the title. I have all songs mixed and mastered, everything’s done, and the EP is coming out in March. I don’t think they’ve given a date on the album, but it’s close to being done too. It’s at least all written. The album is on the way, but mostly the EP is the focus right now, five songs. It’s going to be awesome.

Which producers and songwriters are you working with to craft both of these records?

I worked a lot with this guy named Jesse Shatkin. I met him a few years ago and he, at the time, was Greg Kurstin’s assistant engineer and we had a writing session. We just had an instant creative connection, and we wrote something like eight songs in two weeks. So we were like, “Whoa, we’ve got to keep working together,” so we did. And I’m so proud of him, because he wrote “Chandelier” with Sia and had a massive year with her and that song, and now he’s up for Grammy for Best Record. I also worked with Tony Kanal from No Doubt and Jimmy Harry on a couple of songs. And then there was another collaboration with Fred Falke and Ron Fair, who I did “Too Cool to Dance” with. There’s another song called “Savoring Up My Love” on the EP that we did together, and I think that’s it.

Oh, and a lot of French influence somehow. There is this other French producer named Will Simms, who oddly enough does all these K-pop records but he is one of the freshest programmers I’ve ever heard. He had this beat, this idea, and we called the song we did together, “The Weekend.” That’s another song where we got the Earth, Wind and Fire horns in, and so it’s kind of another one of those mixed fusion moments of the old and the new.

Music isn’t your only forte. You also had a recurring role on the soap opera, One Life to Live. Do you foresee doing any more TV or film acting in the future?

I would really love to act more. I actually got my first movie offer a couple of months ago and I had to turn it down because it was at the exact same time I got the green light to put out “Too Cool to Dance,” so it was impossible to do both. It was kind of a weird and bittersweet moment where I was like, “Oh my God, I’ve been waiting for all of these things to happen and they’re both happening now,” and I had to make a decision. But music is my first love so, you know, that’s kind of why. But I think acting would be great. I’d like to find the right kind of role. I mean, One Life to Live was a good learning experience. It was like the basics, but if I’m to continue acting, I’d like to kind of pay my dues in acting the way I have in music – maybe start out in an indie feature or something like that.

What’s at the top of your holiday wish list this year?

Oh, my God. Sleep. No, I’m just kidding. I know it’s weird, but probably furniture. That’s such an adult answer. Where before it would be clothes and whatever, now I’m into furniture. I’m into design and … like, this is so weird. Any time I have a moment off, I’m watching HGTV and watching shows about flipping houses. And I’m like, “Oh, I want this like antique settee.”

What’s been your favorite album of 2014 so far?

Probably Ultraviolence by Lana Del Rey. I really love that. She’s incredible. I also love the new record that the Arctic Monkeys put out, AM. I listen to it all the time. It’s my jam.

Tell me a little bit about this online dance competition that you recently launched. I know that it’s happening now through December 31st, and it’s called “Are You Too Cool to Dance?”

Yeah. Basically, given the message of the song about dancing like nobody’s watching, it’s this fun opportunity I’m giving fans to win a trip to LA for two and to be in my next video for “The Weekend,” which will be filming at the end of January. All they have to do is make a video and upload it towww.toocooltodance.com. Dancing wherever they want. Some people think, “Oh, I’ve got to put a lot of thought into it, it’s got to be really creative,” but really, the simpler the better. It’s just whatever you feel. If you’re grocery shopping and you just want to break out and dance, just do it; capture it on film, and you could win a trip to LA and be in my next video.

So, just to wrap up, with all of the music you have coming out and all of the exciting things you have to look forward to over the next few months, where do you hope to see yourself this time next year?

I hope to have a #1 album, I hope to have Grammy nominations and I hope to be on fucking top. Finally. I really want a full album out. Because I just know that once people get to peel the other layers of the onion, it’s just going to change the game. There is so much I want to say, so much I want to do, and there is so much creatively that’s out there. So, really, as long as I can keep doing what I love to do and not have to wait tables, I’ll be happy.

eden-xo-2

Originally published on PopBytes

EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH BETTY WHO

betty-who-22013 has shaped up to be a huge year for Betty Who.

Following the April release of the 22-year-old Australian singer/songwriter’s debut EP, The Movement (iTunes), Who is hard at work on her upcoming first full-length album (slated to hit stores next year via RCA Records). Her song “Somebody Loves You” also serves as the soundtrack to a recent viral video of a flash mob marriage proposal, which has already garnered over 10,790,000 views on YouTube. And just last week, she churned out her first official remix (for Demi Lovato’s “Neon Lights”).

Taking a break from the studio, Who caught up with me about her musical origins, debut album, current tour, love of Britney Spears, the proposal seen around the globe, and more.

betty-who-1ALEX: For starters, where did the stage name Betty Who come from?

BETTY: I wrote a song when I was seventeen or eighteen in high school about this boy who didn’t really want to be with me because of moral stuff. You know, he was super conservative. He didn’t kind of like my lifestyle, I guess, which is really silly cause at eighteen my lifestyle was just like … I had gay friends. So I named this song “Betty Who” kind of randomly. Then I had this song that I was working with my producer a year later and we were talking about stage names and he was like, “Well, you’re going to have to have a name that you’re going to be comfortable being called for the rest of your life cause that’s how it’s going to happen.” And then I was like, “what about Betty Who?” and it just felt so right.

Where were you when you first saw the “Spencer’s Home Depot Marriage Proposal” video and how has it impacted your career?

I was at the hairdresser actually. I was sitting getting my hair done and my manager emailed me the video and I started to like cry at the hairdresser’s. It’s definitely, like totally changed my life. I told the boys that too. When they came out for the VH1 performance to New York, I got to meet them and I remember sitting down with them and just being like, “you’ve actually changed my life, like really.” So it’s been amazing. I love that if my music was going to stand for anything, you know, it would be this.

Absolutely. I’d say then that it’s safe to assume that you will be singing at their wedding?

I think that it’s definitely in the cards.

Your music as a whole has been very embraced by the gay community in particular. Do you think that there is some sort of specific reason for that?

I had a friend describe it to me this way once. I think that gay men like to emote and they like to dance and I do both of those things in my songs. That’s basically what I heard a friend say that and I think that’s a really good description of why my music is the way that it is.

You recently signed a record deal with RCA, which is home to some of the biggest names in pop. How does it feel to be joining the ranks of people like Justin Timberlake, Kelly Clarkson, and Pink? Is there a lot of pressure?

Yeah. There is. I was talking to RCA for a couple months before I signed with them. So when I walk down the halls of RCA now, I still kind of don’t really feel like its real yet and I don’t know if it will until like I have an album up on the wall or I have a picture up on the wall, you know what I mean? I think because I haven’t really released anything through RCA yet. It still doesn’t really feel real. So, I’m waiting. Like on the floor that the RCA offices are, you walk out of the elevator and there’s just like pictures of Justin Timberlake, Usher, Kelly Clarkson, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera – I’m waiting to have my photo up there and I’ll lose it, I’m sure.

That’s going to be so exciting!

I know, right?

So actually speaking of Britney Spears, you’re very open about your love for her. Do you have plans to check out her Vegas show and what are your thoughts on her new song, “Perfume”?

Yes, Britney! My queen! I would actually love to go to her Vegas residency but you know, I live in New York so it’s a little bit more difficult to go to than if I were to live in LA. But I definitely will make plans to sneak away for two days when I’m in LA sometime and drive to Vegas with friends and go see it. I also like any Britney song that comes out. Like I will buy and I will love. You know what I mean? I don’t know if Britney could make a bad record, so “Perfume” is great.

I totally agree! Part of what I love about your music is the glittery, feel-good, 80’s throwback vibe that I get from it. Who are some of your biggest musical influences and what is it about this era that made you want to put your own contemporary spin on it?

Sure. I loved Michael Jackson when I was growing up. And you know, I loved Madonna, I loved Cyndi Lauper, I loved Pat Benatar. I remember listening to “Love is A Battlefield” when I was like fourteen maybe and like yelling it in my room. I love that music from the 80’s and 90’s is really fun. I think that pop music got really dark in the last couple years, and I mean that’s fine too and that’s great, but I also miss the sparkle of “Like A Virgin.” So for me, it’s really fun to make music that touches on that, but also gives it a way to exist in the world now that doesn’t just sound like I’m making a sound alike record.

Would you say that in today’s pop landscape that’s what makes your music stand out and distinctively Betty Who?

I guess. You know, a lot of people are making music that also is like 80’s throwback. If you listen to “Treasure” by Bruno Mars, it sounds like a 80’s record. So you know, I don’t know if I could be honest and say that like “oh yeah, well, like I’m the only one doing it.” But I definitely think that there’s an honesty in my lyrics and in my writing that very much makes it me. I think that’s what makes it different because I write all the music and so much of me goes into it.

Of course. So, originally you had plans to follow up the release of The Movement with a second EP, but I understand that you’ve since scrapped that idea and are instead working on putting out a full length album. Can you confirm those rumors?

Right, yes all of that is true.

Will the album then be an extension of the sound that you introduced on The Movement or do you think fans will be surprised by what they hear?

I think it’s very much an extension of the EP. All the songs from the first EP will be on it.

Have you chosen a first single yet?

I haven’t. Lots depends on that so I don’t have a lot to say about that yet.

Will fans who are coming to see you on your current tour get a taste of some of the new songs that the upcoming record will offer?

Yes, absolutely.

What’s your favorite one to perform live?

There’s a song called “Heartbreak Dream” that is not out anywhere yet and it’s just like a really high-energy song and people have been responding to it really well. So I’m very excited to release that. Out of the older songs, “High Society” is my favorite to perform – just because the energy in it and the way that people like it. Now, when people sing a long, it’s really amazing – especially the “we’ll drink Chardonnay through the day ‘cause we say so” part.

Awesome! Do you have a title or a release date in mind yet for the album?

No, neither of those things.

Can you tell me a little bit about who you’ve been working on this record with? Is it the same team behind The Movement? Or are you also collaborating with some new faces?

Sure. It’s mostly just me and my producer from the first EP, Peter Thomas. He and I did almost the entirety of the record, and then there’s one song on it that I wrote with this band called Ghost Beach. I don’t know if you know Ghost Beach, they’re amazing. I played a couple of shows with them, that’s how I met them, and we’ve become friends, and we recorded this awesome song, so that song will be on the album.

Well I can’t wait to hear it! Did you dress up for Halloween this year?

I did.

What or who did you dress up as?

Well I was in LA, and I was in the studio all Halloween day and I got out at like maybe 5:30 or 6, so by the time that I was leaving, I was like, “I don’t have a costume, I’m running late to this party that my friends want me to go to. Like I’m just not going to have a costume.” And I texted my friend that and she was like, “Just come as one of the girls from The Craft with us.” And I was in a black velvet skirt and a white shirt already, so I was like, “oh, perfect.” So I just stopped by CVS, I picked up knee high socks, a costume necklace and some dark lipstick and I found a black velvet hoodie at CVS, which is like the grossest thing in the whole world. And I wore that. And I was like “It was perfect.” I was already in costume.

I love that. So what’s been your favorite pop song of 2013 so far?

Oooh, that’s a good question! I think “Rock N Roll” by Avril Lavigne.

Really?

It was the most underrated pop song of the year! It’s so amazing and so well written and has so much energy. I just yell that song in my shower and it didn’t even get a chance to be as great as it is, I think. So, that’s my answer.

 Originally published on PopBytes

CELINE DION SHOWCASES “LOVED ME BACK TO LIFE” AT INTIMATE NYC CONCERT

IMG_1155It’s been six years since pop icon Celine Dion has released an English-language album.

“I had two babies and a French album and a Vegas show! I’ve been busy!” Dion explained to an adoring audience at her concert in New York City on October 29. But with this week’s release of her new album, Loved Me Back To Life (which hit stores yesterday), the French Canadian songstress is more than ready for her comeback.

When it came time to record Loved Me Back To Life, Dion decided to recruit some fresh blood to put a contemporary spin on her signature Lite-FM sound. She turned to songwriters and producers like Sia, Ne-Yo, Babyface, and Tricky Stewart to build a record that was still distinctly Celine – but with a slightly grittier edge than her audience has come to expect from her.

“For 30 years, I’ve had the same recipe, which puts a lot of reverb on my voice. But for this album, I wanted to break from that. There are no effects on my voice. It’s very pure. Very direct,” the singer recently said. “I have nothing to lose. I’m not looking for career attention, for more success, more money. I’m just singing songs I chose because I love them.”

IMG_1162“I’m not trying to reinvent myself,” Dion continued. “I don’t want people to think, ‘This is a brand new Celine,’ but I am at a place in my career where I’m 45, I’m at the peak of my life, and I’ve never felt like this before. I want to have a good time.”

It was that passion and artistic versatility that was on full display during Dion’s concert last week. Sponsored by Pandora, the invite-only show found the five-time Grammy Award winner playing an array of her greatest hits and select new tracks to celebrate the release of her record. And unlike the Colosseum at Caesars Palace – the massive Vegas venue she’s used to – the Edison Ballroom provided a much smaller setting, making it one of the most intimate concerts Dion has performed in years.

Opening with a stunning medley of “It’s All Coming Back To Me Now” and “The Power of Love,” Dion instantly had her audience entranced by her trademark vocal runs and often-dramatic delivery. The singer followed with her first English-language hit “Where Does My Heart Beat Now,” and the epic power ballads “Because You Loved Me” and “The Reason,” before breaking into a trio of new songs from Loved Me Back To Life.

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The first of this set was “Water and a Flame,” originally recorded by Adele and Daniel Merriweather (fun fact: Dion’s new album was initially meant to be named after this song, but was retitled after Merriweather publicly criticized Dion for not crediting the song to him during an interview with Katie Couric). A perfect example of the huskier flavor Dion’s voice is currently sampling, “Water And A Flame” is a harrowing lament for a couple that is just too opposite to attract. And Dion’s subdued live performance added layers of rawness and vulnerability to the already heartbreaking song.

Next was the album’s lead single and title track. Co-written by Sia Furler (the mastermind behind Britney Spears’ “Perfume”), “Loved Me Back To Life” is easily the most radio-friendly song on Dion’s new record. Featuring a chilling vocal loop and a dubstep beat drop, the song expertly blends classic Dion with contemporary pop trends to attract both longtime and new fans alike.

The final Loved Me Back To Life song that Dion performed was the Janis Ian cover, “At Seventeen.” An anthem of remembering teenage awkwardness, the song was the weakest of the new offerings, but still managed to pack an emotional punch when the singer wailed about “ugly duckling girls like me.”

Dion wrapped up her set with her cover of Eric Carmen’s “All By Myself,” which seemed to have a majority of the audience singing along full volume, the disco-tinged “Love Can Move Mountains,” and the rock-n-rolling “River Deep Mountain High.”

But naturally, Dion saved the best for last. Closing the show with “My Heart Will Go On,” the Academy Award-winning theme to Titanic, the chanteuse managed to breathe new life into a song she’s sung countless times over the past sixteen years. Using just her voice, Dion re-created the song’s iconic instrumental introduction, producing a haunting effect that really utilized the intimacy of the venue. It was truly like watching a master class in perfection.

With the release of Loved Me Back In Life now behind her, Dion has her sights set on preparing for her return to Vegas for a new concert series, which will last from this December through next March. And does Dion plan to see the show of another pop legend kicking off a residency in Sin City next month?

“If Britney wants to give stability to her family, I really can’t think of a better place,” answered Dion. “I’m not a wildcat. I don’t smoke, drink or do drugs, and Las Vegas has been wonderful for me. I wish (Britney) the best there, and I will make time to see her.”

Although she may not be a “wildcat,” Dion certainly is a risk taker. Loved Me Back To Life is far bolder and more interesting than her last English-language record, 2007’s Taking Chances. And if her once-in-a-lifetime concert in New York last week proved anything, it’s that her star power has anything but faded over the years. In fact, it’s still burning as brightly as it ever has.

Welcome back, Celine.

IMG_1866IMG_1153Originally published on PopBytes

EXCLUSIVE: INTERVIEW WITH BONNIE MCKEE

bonnie-mckeeBonnie McKee is no stranger to the top of the Billboard charts.

Over the past three years, McKee has been responsible for penning nine No. 1 pop anthems and has sold more than 28 million records worldwide. She’s worked with the likes of Kelly Clarkson, Christina Aguilera, Ke$ha, Adam Lambert, and Kylie Minogue, and her biggest smashes to date include Britney Spears’ “Hold It Against Me,” Taio Cruz’ “Dynamite,” and a whole slew of Katy Perry’s greatest hits – including “California Gurls,” “Teenage Dream,” “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.),” “Part of Me,” and the current #1 single in the country, “Roar.”

But earlier this summer, McKee decided to step out from behind the scenes and revisit her dreams of becoming a performing artist. Thus, with the release of “American Girl,” the debut single (available on iTunes) from her upcoming album, the California-born singer/songwriter made the transition from just being the voice behind the lyrics to actually being the voice singing them.

As she prepares for the release of her as-of-yet-untitled album (slated to be released by Epic Records in 2014), McKee chatted with me about the release of “American Girl,” her creative process, her secret recipe for songwriting success, how she plans to balance her performing and songwriting career, and much more!

Congratulations on the success of “American Girl” so far!

Thank you so much! We’re still in the grind so I won’t be happy until it’s gone all the way.

You’re responsible for writing nine of the biggest pop songs of the past few years. Which one would you say is your favorite and which one would you say is your crowning achievement?

Let’s see. Well, I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for “Teenage Dream.” That’s a big one for me. But I think my favorite right now is “Roar,” the new one that I wrote for Katy Perry.

You started out as a performer then switched to exclusively songwriting for a little while. Why did you decide that now was the perfect time for you to re-emerge as a performer again?

Well, after I released my first album, I got dropped from my label, and I kind of had to start writing out of necessity. It was always my secret plan to be an artist again, so I just knew that I had to come back ripe with ammunition. I needed to have a story and I needed to catch people’s attention. I was good at songwriting and I hoped that through that, I could get back to being my own artist again.

How indicative is “American Girl” of the sound of your upcoming album?

Very. It’s all very colorful and full of pop anthems. I’m pulling a lot from my influences like Madonna, Prince, and Michael Jackson. It’s definitely going to be really big and fun!

Do you have a title and/or release date planned yet?

Not yet. I’m still writing. Most of it’s done, but I like to write up until the last minute. You never know, it could be that last song you write that’s a spark of genius and could be the title of the album. So I’m going to wait until I decide what I’m going to call it.

Why did you choose “American Girl” as your re-introduction to the pop world?

Well I felt like “American Girl” was the quintessential Bonnie McKee song. I’m known for my lyrics and big melodies, so I felt like it was very me. I pulled from my own real life experiences and it just seemed like the most obvious choice.

The video for “American Girl” is filled with so many familiar faces. How did you get all of these celebrities to participate?

Most of them are friends of mine. I just sent out a mass text and e-mail. I wasn’t expecting that many people to participate! It was really moving actually. When I got the Tommy Lee video back of him in drag as me flying upside down in the air and playing the drums, I literally was bawling. I was crying. I filmed a reaction video and sent it to him and was like, “look what you’ve done to me, Tommy!” It was just so overwhelming because that song had been on my hard drive forever and no one had really heard it. So for the first people to be hearing it to be these people, and then for them to get so creative with it, was really over the top and overwhelming.

How is your creative process different when writing for yourself versus writing for other artists?

When I’m writing with other artists, most of the time, I have that artist in the room. It’s like a therapy session in a way because I’m picking their brains about what they’re going through and what they want to say. So they share their feelings and I take that and I turn it into a pop song. When it comes to myself, I have to dig a little deeper. I’ve written so many songs in my life that I really have to push myself. There really are so many things to write about in a pop song, so I like to get really creative with my lyrics and try to say something kinda quirky that I don’t think a lot of artists would want to say. So yeah, I’d say I get a little quirkier with my own lyrics.

For the fans that have been following you from the start of your career, will the songs you had featured on your MySpace in between your first album and now ever be available to download or buy?

Yes! There was one song called “Thunder” that got remixed by Rusko – he’s a really awesome DJ. I sent him the acapella and he did this whole thing to breathe new life into it, so that one got kind of a life again. “Stars In Your Heart” may actually make the album. I’m actually planning on making a video for that one either way, even if it’s just for online release. And then I think “Love Spell” will have a new life too. That’s a song that a lot of big names have recorded. A lot of people have wanted that song and I’ve heard so many great, famous voices on it. But I don’t want to give it up! It’s a song that I wrote for myself and is very personal to me, so I’m excited to sing it.

You’ve also written a lot with Max Martin and Dr. Luke, who are pop songwriting legends in their own rights. What’s the best piece of advice they’ve ever given you?

Literally every time I write with them, I learn something new. I always try and let the professionals do their thing and I try to pick up as much as I can. But I think the most important thing I’ve learned is simplicity. It’s easy to try to get overly clever, but I think it’s important to instead just pick and choose the moments where you want to be clever and let the record just be accessible. So yeah, I’d say simplicity is definitely the most important thing I’ve learned from Max Martin and Dr. Luke.

So is keeping it simple your secret formula for writing so many #1 hits?

I guess so. It also helps working with all of these amazing artists and songwriters, so it’s always a collaborative effort. But yes, I think that’s the key – writing a song that people can relate to, even if they don’t speak English. As long as you can sing along to it and still feel something, that’s what works. So phonetics are also really important.

I know you yourself weren’t present at the VMA’s this year, but what were your thoughts on the mob of redheads who were all chanting your name on camera?

I thought it was amazing! It was so cute. I didn’t even know that was coming, so when I saw it, I was like, “Oh my god!” It was quite a surprise. It was really cool. It’s awesome to know that you can have a Bonnie McKee costume – and the fact that it’s recognizable is really awesome. It really warmed my heart.

That must have been a really big moment for you!

Yeah! It was a big moment for me. It was one of those moments that I was like, “oh my god, this is really real,” so it was pretty cool.

Speaking of the VMAs, what was your favorite performance of the night?

There were some really good ones! It was a really exciting year this year. I feel like the past couple years have been pretty dull. I really enjoyed Lady Gaga’s performance because she always brings 110%. And of course, Katy. She’s always great. It’s always exciting to hear the songs that I wrote being performed. Every time I’ve seen someone perform a song live that we wrote together, I cry. Every single time. I’m a big cry-baby. So that’s always exciting. And of course, Bruno Mars.

It must be really interesting to see all the visual narratives and choreography and production value added to the performances of these songs that you wrote and seeing how all those things play out on stage together.

Yeah, it’s really cool! I’m always excited to see the music videos too because I feel like every time I write a song, I have a video for it in my head. I’m always imagining what the video for the song would look like. That’s kind of how I write, so it’s always fun to see how they turn out.

As a co-writer of “Roar,” what is your response to the allegations that the song sounds too similar to Sara Bareilles’ “Brave”?

Yeah, I heard about that. It’s funny because people forget that we wrote this song months ago. We wrote the song before “Brave” came out and I had never actually heard it. Then when I listened to it, I was like, “oh yeah, I guess that is kind of reminiscent,” but it’s a total coincidence. I had never heard the song before and I think it’s a great song, by the way. I love Sara. I think she’s so talented. And it happens all the time. I hear stuff on the radio that I’m like, “what?! I just wrote something like that!” but there’s no way that anyone could have copied that because nobody in the world’s ever heard it. But it’s just kind of something that happens and I think it happens all the time.

Will we be hearing more of your songs on Katy and/or Britney’s upcoming albums?

Yeah, I wrote 4 songs on the new Katy album, Prism. I’m really excited about those. We really had a lot of fun writing them together. They’re really different and fun. She likes to get experimental so they’re kind of a departure from her last album that I worked on with her. As far as Britney, I don’t know. If they call me, I’ll definitely do it. It’s always so exciting to hear an iconic voice like Britney’s singing the words that I’ve written.

That actually leads in nicely to my next question –  Do you ever get nervous or star-struck when collaborating with artists of that caliber? For instance, I heard you wrote a song on Cher’s upcoming album. That must have been quite an experience!

I know that Cher recorded a song that I wrote and that was really exciting, but I don’t know if it made the final cut of her album or not. That happens a lot – where the artist will record like 45 songs and they’ll pick the best from those, so I have no idea if she’ll be using it or not. But either way, it’s an honor to have her voice singing my song. She’s just an idol of mine. But yes, absolutely, I get nervous. Britney Spears is someone I grew up listening to and idolizing and watching and studying, so to see her in the flesh and to hear her voice was just really surreal. I’ve gotten to meet all kinds of people – like Steven Tyler was a big one for me. I got to sing for him and he got to sing for me, just me and him and a piano, so I’ve had tons of amazing experiences. It’s been very rewarding being behind the scenes.

What’s one song from the past year that you didn’t write but wish you had?

Hmm … “Call Me Maybe” is maybe 2-years-old now, but I wish I wrote that one. From top to bottom, it’s just a perfect pop song. There are no holes, no questions about it. It’s just a perfect pop song. And Carly Rae [Jepsen] is a total sweetheart.

After your album is released, how do you plan on balancing your career as a songwriter and your career as a popstar?

Well I’m fortunate in that I’m able to pick and choose who I want to write for and what I want to do. But I think for now, I’m an artist. It was always my #1 goal to be on stage and to be able to move people with my own voice and have that experience of sharing my music with people. There’s just nothing like that. So I think I’m going to focus more on my own artist project. As far as songwriting stuff – I’ll do things that I can’t say no to. If Katy calls, I’m not going to say no. If Britney calls, I’m not going to say no. If Cher calls, I’m definitely not going to say no.

Is there anything else you’d like to add about your album or any of your upcoming plans that we didn’t talk about?

I don’t think so! I guess just buy the “American Girl” single on iTunes!

bonnie-mckee1Originally published on PopBytes