If singer Nellie McKay is in a league of her own, it’s because she’s dared to create it.
By Naila Francis
Much has been written and said about Nellie McKay since the irrepressible − and some would say irascible − singer became the music darling of the moment with the release of her double−disc debut “Get Away From Me” last year.
The title, a tongue−in−cheek jab at the Norah Jones ballad, “Come Away with Me,” was the first clue that McKay (pronounced mc−EYE) was making her arrival as a formidable and feisty talent.
The audacious 20−year−old, with giddy genre−crossing abandon, used her music and her many appearances and performances to attack everything from President Bush and the war in Iraq to the complacency of the pedigreed wealthy, while advocating for columbiacruelty.com − a site dedicated to ending the abuse of lab animals at Columbia University − and a host of other causes dear to heart.
She appeared angry at times, rapping with a caustic tongue and biting lyrics on tracks such as “Sari” and “Inner Peace,” and beguiling at others with her blithe odes to puppy love − quite literally, as she claims adopting a dog from the pound as the cure to all ills − and old−fashioned marriage, where keeping house and participating in bake sales are the joys of a contented wife.
And so the piano−playing cabaret rocker − an anomaly in itself − who performs Saturday at Sellersville Theater 1894, has become something of a contradiction. She’s a woman who dresses with the genteel charm of another era, with a vintage 1940s and ’50s Hollywood elegance, yet her songs are laced with enough expletives and a sexual frankness to have a parental warning
stamped on her album. She has a fondness for Doris Day − whose genuine decency and sweetness take her back to a simpler, more innocent time − yet is rooted strongly in contemporary culture, her songs peppered with references to the Oxygen network, fen−phen, Eminem, cloning and Dr. Phil.
McKay’s keen intelligence has her comfortably at home spouting words such as “vivisection” and “beguine” in her lyrics, yet she seems to gleefully delight in the role of oddball, delivering unlikely rhymes such as “I’m so German … please Ethel Merman …” and punctuating her pontification with nonsensical phrases like “blah blah blah.”
Her songwriting, she says, was a deliberate move to distinguish herself in a saturated business.
Born in England and raised in Harlem − after her parents split − before a mugging sent her and her actress mother packing to Olympia, Wash., and later Mt. Pocono, Monroe County, McKay returned to New York City with her mom for a brief stint at the Manhattan School of Music. Ever the nonconformist, she dropped out to pursue a career on her own terms, getting her start singing primarily in gay clubs and bars. With an audience not known for being shy about what it liked and didn’t like, she knew she had to make listening to her worthwhile.
“No one’s going to sing the standards better than Billie Holiday,” says McKay, who now splits her time between New York and Mt. Pocono. “There are people who make a go of it and that’s great. I didn’t think I would make it on those terms. I’m not that good or unique on my own, so I had to write my own stuff.”
That her music is a rich tapestry of sound, ambitious in its leanings, unfolding sometimes like a manic journey through jazz, hip−hop, retro pop, rock, cabaret and whatever seems to tickle her ear, comes from that same premise − and a strong desire to make her mark musically.
McKay, in addition to piano, plays cello, saxophone and xylophone, but, she says, “the singer just gets the most attention,” explaining why she chose the path of chanteuse instead of musician even while confessing her insecurities about her own voice.
“I think to be a good singer, you have to be an actor on some level,” she says, “but I’m not sure I’m a good singer. When you’re performing your own songs, it becomes more about the song.
“But I do love music and music has gotten me through a lot of tough times,” she says. “I was also kind of bad at everything else and it kind of finds you, whatever you’re good at, at least for me. I mean I love politics but I can never pretend to be normal enough to do it.”
She admits that her debut could have been better. Despite generous praise, numerous television appearances and performances that included opening for Sting in Europe, Lou Reed at Carnegie Hall and sharing the bill with celebrities like Alicia Keys and Cyndi Lauper at the Great Wall of China, to her, the album was a bit choppy and rough in sequencing. Already at work on her follow−up, set for release in September, she’s hoping to improve the flow and offer listeners a little more rock.
McKay says by the time she was signed to Columbia Records in 2003 after a write−up in Time Out New York brought her to the attention of several labels, she had already been performing many of the songs that made it onto “Get Away From Me.”
“Those songs − they were written to be performed in front of live audiences. They weren’t written for the studio,” she says. “People listen to lyrics differently when you’re performing for them live and I think you write differently because you want to make them laugh.
“But my favorite songs on people’s albums are songs I can’t imagine working live. They’re repetitive or very simple − they’re musical pastiches.”
So how will her next album, which she will begin touring behind in the fall, translate to the stage?
“We’re going out with a band and that’ll make a difference,” says McKay. “Maybe when people know the music from the album, then they’ll forgive it live.”
It’s the kind of self−effacing comment that seems surprising given her own bravado and willingness to put herself on the line to maintain both her artistic and personal integrity. But even McKay, who refutes the abrasive personality some critics tend to attribute to her, realizes that a certain zealous commitment to her beliefs can breed alienation.
“I’ve been an activist since I was a little girl,” she says, noting that the nonprofit Doris Day Animal League, which works to improve the humane treatment of animals, is another reason she admires and looks up to the star.
“My mom really taught me to care about the planet, but at the same time, since I know that what people are involved in will determine how I like their art, I know that that can either be a deterrent or an asset to people who are listening to my music.
“Sometimes, I wish I could make music for everybody. I do think some people respond to it, it has to strike a chord with them somehow,” she says. “What I would like is for it to be enjoyed more from the heart than from the head.”
And if she’s being true to herself, then she’s more likely to achieve that effect. It’s a quality she admires in her own influences − Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Janis Joplin.
“It’s not that you can hear any of them in my music,” says McKay, “but there has to be a certain amount of honesty … I’d like to believe I have that. You feel a little egotistical saying it sometimes, but that’s certainly what I aspire to.”
– The Intelligencer