NELLIE McKAY: RISING ABOVE IT
By Paul Freeman [October 2012]
Look beyond the adorable smile. Listen past the appealingly girlish vocals. Nellie McKay’s irresistible music reveals a feisty social conscience, as well as a wicked sense of humor.
McKay has won wide acclaim for her show “I Want To Live!,” a darkly amusing, irony-filled musical bio of convicted murderer Barbara Graham, who died in San Quentin’s gas chamber. McKay also tours with her homage to environmentalist Rachel Carson - “Silent Spring - It’s Not Nice to Fool Mother Nature.”
Critics constantly rave about McKay’s playful and perceptive work. “It’s nice,” she says. “You try to appreciate. Gratitude is a poor bedfellow. But you just poke it in the ribs now and then... Really, it was all payola, as far as getting those good reviews.”
Her latest delightful album, “Home Sweet Mobile Home.” (Verve Records), was produced by McKay and her mother, actress Robin Pappas, with “artistic input” from David Byrne. Stylistically, it spans pop, jazz, rock and reggae.
Of her eclectic repertoire, McKay says, “I like all kinds of things. And then I think you get to a point, playing music, where you don’t like playing music anymore. I think I’m just about getting there.”
Is there a solution to that dilemma? “I don’t know. Work at Walgreen’s?”
During her solo performances, McKay accompanies herself on piano and ukulele. Her cello will stay at home. “We couldn’t fit it in the overhead compartment,” she says, laughing.
Actually, these days, home is the highway. “I’m kind of king of the road right now. I’ve been on the road so long, I don’t really have a permanent place.”
McKay was born in London. Her father is Scottish playwright/director Malcolm McKay. Growing up, she lived with her mother in New York, Olympia, Washington and rural Pennsylvania. McKay attended the Manhattan School of Music for two years, then tried stand-up comedy. Gaining attention in the anti-folk scene, she was signed to Columbia Records and released her debut album in 2003.
McKay won a Theatre World Award for her Broadway debut in 2006’s “The Threepenny Opera,” co-starring with Alan Cumming, Jim Dale and Cyndi Lauper.
Her fourth album, “Normal As Blueberry Pie,” released in 2009, is a tribute to Doris Day and features songs made famous by that girl next door. “The standards, I think they set the standards for what you aspire to. There’s so much great music out there. You don’t want to clutter it up. I feel already I’ve cluttered it up,” says McKay, whose humor often veers towards the self-deprecating.
Like Day, McKay is passionate about animal rights. She wrote a song called “Columbia Is Bleeding,” confronting that university’s cruelty to lab animals. McKay is a vegan.
“It’s nice when they have the vegan and vegetarian alternatives at restaurants and grocery stores more and more,” she says. “But, at the same time, more and more animals are being killed for food or being used for food products. So that’s still our most basic relation to other animals, is that we eat them or exploit them. And that’s got to change.”
Animals inspire her. “I was watching a polar bear the other night and I thought, ‘I’m going to do my next show like that, kind of purposeful... and slightly drunk.”
She’s also immersed in feminist issues, which she tackles cleverly in “Mother of Pearl,” whose opening line is “Feminists don’t have a sense of humor.” The song proceeds to pinpoint the scary and hilarious viewpoints of misogynists.
McKay says, “It seems like the first thing to go was chivalry. But we still do most of the housework, most of the child-rearing. We don’t make as much. We still parade around in stupid fashions and high heels and stuff.”
Her work can be thought-provoking, as well as entertaining. But McKay downplays that aspect. “It all seems pretty useless, really. Do things really change much? It seems people have been trying for a while now.”
Of the current political climate, McKay says, “Certain things do improve, but then other things seem to get worse. Has it ever been any more corporate? And people still treat it like a joke, you know, when they’re replacing the bodegas [mom-and-pop corner shops] in New York with 7-Elevens. I think that’s a tragedy.”
So what’s the answer? “You just try to do what you can do and maybe get some kind of money or power or influence. I don’t know. You tell me.”
McKay seems to speak for those who don’t have a voice. But she won’t take herself too seriously. “I just try to remember the lyrics.”
McKay has written songs singing the praises of Ralph Nader and lamenting the persecution and execution of Troy Davis.
She often creates a contrast with upbeat sounds and darker lyrics. “They said rock ‘n’ roll was fun songs about sad stuff. But I don’t plan to do that. Usually, there’s no plan at all.”
She doesn’t try to force herself to write. McKay waits for the muse. “There’s so much to distract you all the time. It’s hard to focus. They say it’s 20 percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration. But I think it’s 99-and-a-third percent inspiration and two-thirds of a percent perspiration. I really feel like, if it ain’t happenin’, you might as well eat something. Of course, sometimes, I want money. That’s always a good motivator. I just saw a guy do a crappy parking job. I guess I could write a song about that. He parked so far from the curb.”
As for how much humor to infuse into her performance, “I guess the audience will let you know... But you can’t always trust them either.”
Does she try to please the audience or herself? “I’m not sure I’m pleasing anybody.”
McKay doesn’t try to court the mainstream, commercial world, yet her songs have been used on many TV shows, including “Weeds, “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Nurse Jackie.” Why is she so popular with that medium’s music supervisors? “Because I’m cheap.”
She doesn’t turn out cookie-cutter songs to fit their needs. “You can get used, if they ask you to write especially for their series. They can really lead you on a merry chase. It’s a machine, a profit-making enterprise.”
Of her music career, McKay, 30, says, “I guess I just kind of fell into it. You just try to get your foot in the door, one way or another. I went up for ‘American Idol’ once, but I didn’t get very far. I’d heard that a lot of people watched it. And I guess I was kind of desperate. You try to be smart, not a hard-working fool. I want to be lazy!”
Collaborating with Taj Mahal ranks high amongst her career thrills. Anyone else she would love to work with? “Well, Eartha Kitt [the late, kittenish jazz/pop singer]. Maybe she’ll come back.”
As for the biggest challenge she faces, McKay ponders, then says, “Not eating too many pancakes.
“I feel very lucky. One time, I heard this phrase, ‘Not too bright and not too good-looking.’ Sometimes I feel like that. But that can be a good thing. You can kind of rise above it.”
For news and terrific videos, visit www.nelliemckay.com.