From The Magazine

Bonnie McKee Could Fill A Memoir With All Her Wildest Coachella Stories

The pop star and hit songwriter has lived it all at the festival: bizarre backstage encounters, misadventures with mushrooms, and a “bucket-list moment” with Kygo.

Interview by Nolan Feeney

For NYLON’s newly relaunched print edition, we asked past Coachella performers to tell us their favorite behind-the-scenes memories to celebrate 25 years of the festival. But amid all the tales of bad drug trips and surreal celebrity encounters, no artist had a history with Coachella quite as deep as Bonnie McKee’s. From attending as a fan in the festival’s early years to having her own “bucket-list moment” on the Coachella Stage in 2018, the pop star and hit songwriter — who’s been on a roll with her recent stellar singles — has lived it all.

I performed with Kygo in 2018, but I started going to Coachella around 2003, when it was still a rave in the desert. There’s something really magical about Coachella — the weather, the fashion. I’ve had so many magical experiences seeing my favorite performers there over the years: Madonna, Daft Punk, Prince, Justice, Empire of the Sun, Gorillaz, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Prodigy, Chromeo, Amy Winehouse — all of these people that I grew up listening to and idolized. I have so many memories of weeping in the desert with joy as the sun is setting. And I learned so much about being a performer and what gets the crowd hyped.

There was one year I went by myself with no ticket, no wristband, and no place to stay. I was still super broke. This was back when you had to print and scan your ticket. I found a discarded ticket in the dirt, and when I got to the gate this woman was like, “There’s no reentry.” I played dumb and started crying: “Please, Paul McCartney’s onstage, I’ve waited my whole life!” She pitied me and let me in. Once I was in, I think I talked Diplo into giving me artist passes. And then I ran into Kesha, and I think we ended up sleeping on a pool float underneath a desk in someone’s dad’s office at a random McMansion. You always end up sleeping in the weirdest places.

“Ariana Grande came off stage and gave me a big hug. She was like, ‘You look cute! You’re going to kill it!’”

You just do what you’ve got to do. I’ve walked the streets of La Quinta so many times at night because we thought our car was going to take too long, so we’re just under the stars for miles and miles, thinking, “Are we ever going to make it?” I remember another time I stayed with Katy Perry in a house, and we took a golf cart to the festival thinking that was fine. We got pulled over — you’re not technically supposed to drive a golf cart in the street. I think we ended up riding bikes in our heels to get to the festival.

The Coachella parking lot is such a nightmare. One time I took mushrooms and was having the time of my life watching Gorillaz, rolling around in the grass, and thinking that I knew karate. When we were leaving, I climbed in the very back of the car because we were overpacked, and then we ended up getting stuck in the parking lot for two and a half hours while I’m peaking on mushrooms. It was an SUV, so I was just behind the back seat — it’s not like I was stuck in the trunk — but it felt like an eternity. When you’re on mushrooms, the idea of traffic is so absurd. I was like, “This is not how I want to be on mushrooms right now.”

Bonnie McKee at Coachella in 2018.Courtesy of Bonnie McKee.
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I got wise after that and got a party bus. Once you’re in the back of an SUV on mushrooms, you think, “Well, with a party bus, if we’re stuck in traffic for two hours, at least we can still have fun.” That year, I must have had 20 people with me. There were stripper poles on the bus. We were getting wild. And we were trying to get into the Moschino party at the Frank Sinatra house in Palm Springs. We knew well and good that we did not have our names on the list, but we were like, “Let’s just see what happens!”

The doorman was like, “Absolutely not. You’re not on this list. There’s 20 of you — goodbye.” And then we ran into Jared Leto, whom my friend was working for at the time. He was just walking up and was like, “She’s with me.” The door guy is like, “All of them?” And Jared is like, “Yeah!” The door guy had to watch me and all of my friends parade by: “That’s right, b*tch! We’re with Jared!” At Coachella, you just never know who you’re going to run into. You never know where you’re going to end up. And just because you’re not on the list doesn’t mean you’re not going to make it in.

“Just because you’re not on the list doesn’t mean you’re not going to make it in.”

Still, my most insane Coachella experience was probably the year that I got to play. I had just been on a world tour with Kygo as a guest vocalist. I had a song on his Kids in Love album, but it wasn’t a single, so it got cut from the condensed Coachella set. Then, two days before Coachella’s second weekend, Kygo called me and asked if I would perform “It Ain’t Me,” his Selena Gomez collaboration, which was probably his biggest and best-known song — except I had never sung it before. I had no choreo. I had nothing to wear. I was like, “You can’t just spring this on me! This is something that I would’ve rehearsed for weeks.”

I spent the next 48 hours scrambling to learn the song and put my own spin on it and put together some movement for it. I had my friend Jim Tanner whip up a costume for it. He was up till 4 in the morning the night before I left.

I was so nervous but also terrified. It was a dream to be on the stage, but of course, here I am, about to perform a song that I’ve never performed before, for probably 120,000 people. I remember watching Ariana Grande debut “No Tears Left to Cry” live for the first time during his set. I’m like, “Do I really have to follow Ariana motherf*cking Grande right now? Oh my God!” I was squatting on the ground backstage, hyperventilating and crying.

Courtesy of Bonnie McKee.

And then a $2 bill floated down in front of me. I was like, “What the hell?” I looked up, and there was this random guy handing out $2 bills backstage. He said, “Good luck!” And I was like, “It’s a sign!” I’ve since told people that, and they’re like, “Oh yeah, that guy” — I guess that’s just something he does every year at Coachella, but I really needed that $2 bill in the moment. I still have it. And then Ari came off stage and gave me a big hug. She was like, “You look cute! You’re going to kill it!”

Right before I went on stage, someone from the crew was like, “Oh, by the way, there’s pyrotechnics.” And I was like, “What!?” I didn’t know when the cues were. I didn’t know where on stage it was going to be. I’m going to be whirling around with my very long, very hair-sprayed pigtails. Am I going to catch on fire and be a windmill of flaming hair? I didn’t know what was going to happen.

But I got out there, and it was just so beautiful: I saw the Ferris wheel, I saw all the people in the crowd, and I remembered all of the years that I had been in that audience watching my heroes. That was a bucket-list moment for me. I just ended up having the time of my life — and I didn’t catch on fire.