Bonnie McKee’s Coachella Festival Stories Could Fill A Memoir


For NYLON's newly relaunched print edition, we asked past Coachella performers to share their favorite backstage memories to celebrate the festival's 25th anniversary. But among all the stories of bad drug trips and surreal celebrity encounters, no artist had a history with Coachella as deep as Bonnie McKee's. From attending as a fan during the festival's early years to having her own 'bucket list moment' on stage at Coachella in 2018, the pop star and hit songwriter, who he's been doing with his stellar recent singles, he's been through 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 is something truly magical about Coachella: the weather, the fashion. I've had so many magical experiences seeing my favorite acts there over the years: Madonna, Daft Punk, Prince, Justice, Empire of the Sun, Gorillaz, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Prodigy, Chromeo, Amy Winehouse, all these people I grew up with listening and idolizing. I have so many memories of crying in the desert with joy as the sun went down. And I learned a lot about being a performer and what gets an audience excited.

There was a year when I went alone with no ticket, no wristband and no place to stay. I was still super broke. This was when you had to print and scan your ticket. I found a rejected ticket on the ground, and when I got to the gate, this woman said, “No re-entry.” I went mute and started crying, “Please Paul McCartney on stage, I've been waiting my whole life!” She took pity on me and let me in. Once I got in, I think I talked Diplo into giving me artist passes. And then I met Kesha, and I think we ended up sleeping on a pool float under a desk in someone's dad's office in some random McMansion. You always end up sleeping in the strangest places.

“Ariana Grande came off the stage and gave me a big hug. She said, 'You're cute! You will kill him!'”

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

Coachella parking is a nightmare. I once picked mushrooms and was having the time of my life watching Gorillaz, rolling around in the grass and thinking I knew karate. When we were leaving, I got in the back of the car because we were overloaded, and then we ended up stuck in the parking lot for two and a half hours while I'm picking mushrooms. It was an SUV so it was right behind the back seat, it's not like I was stuck in the trunk, but it felt like forever. When you encounter mushrooms, the idea of ​​traffic is so absurd. I said, “That's it no how I want to be with mushrooms right now.”

After that I realized and took a party bus. Once you're in the back of a mushrooming SUV, 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 going wild. And we were trying to get into Moschino's party at Frank Sinatra's house in Palm Springs. We knew we didn't have our names on the list, but we said, “Let's see what happens!”

The bouncer said, “Absolutely not. You're not on this list. You're 20, bye. And then we ran into Jared Leto, who my friend was working for at the time. He was walking by and he said, 'He's with mi”. The door type is like: “all of them?” And Jared was like, “Yeah!” The guy at the door had to look at me and all my friends went, “That's right, bitch! We're with Jared!” At Coachella, you never know who you'll meet. You never know where you'll end up. And just because you're not on the list doesn't mean you're not going to get in.

“Just because you're not on the list doesn't mean you're not going to get in.”

Still, my craziest Coachella experience was probably the year I got to play. She had just completed a world tour with Kygo as guest vocalist. He had a song in his Children in love album, but it wasn't a single, so it was cut from Coachella's condensed set. Then, two days before the second weekend of Coachella, Kygo called me and asked if I would perform “It Ain't Me,” his collaboration with Selena Gomez, which was probably his biggest song and known, except that he had never sung it before. It had no choreography. I had nothing to wear. I said, “You can't give me that! This is something I would have rehearsed for weeks.”

I spent the next 48 hours struggling to learn the song and put my own twist and movement on it. I had my friend Jim Tanner make a costume for him. He was up until 4 a.m. the night before he left.

I was very nervous but also terrified. It was a dream to be on stage, but sure enough, here I am, about to perform a song I've never performed before, for probably 120,000 people. I remember seeing Ariana Grande debut “No Tears Left to Cry” live for the first time during her set. I'm like, “Do I really have to follow Ariana, the big whore, right now? Oh my god!” He was squatting on the floor backstage, hyperventilating and crying.

Courtesy of Bonnie McKee.

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

Just before we went on stage, someone in the team said, “Oh, by the way, there are fireworks.” And I said, “What!?” I didn't know when the signs were. I didn't know where I was going on stage. I'm going to twirl around in my long, hair-sprayed tails. Will I catch fire and be a windmill of flaming hair? I didn't know what would happen.

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


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