March 5, 2020
What's Going On with Nellie McKay (Hint: Politics & Tap Dancing)
John Amodeo READ TIME: 10 MIN.
She has written, performed and recorded songs about tenant's rights, animal rights, women's rights, and gay marriage. Her second recording, "Pretty Little Head" (2006), features duets with Cyndi Lauper and k.d. lang. It also features a song "Columbia is Bleeding" about Columbia University's cruelty to animals. She has recorded eight solo albums between 2004 and 2019, the first of which, "Get Away from Me" was produced by Geoff Emerick, who was a recording engineer on the Beatle albums "Abby Road" and "Revolver."
She has written three musical biographies, one on executed murderer Barbara Graham, one on environmental pioneer Rachel Carson, and another on Joan Rivers. Her recording "Home Sweet Mobile Home" was produced by David Byrne who co-founded "Talking Heads" and whose musical "American Utopia" is just closed on Broadway. She won a Theater World Award for Outstanding Debut Performance making her Broadway debut as Polly Peachum in the Roundabout Theatre Company's 2006 revival of "Threepenny Opera," which co-starred Alan Cumming, Jim Dale and Cyndi Lauper. In 2004, she opened for Alanis Morissette and Barenaked Ladies in their northern US tour "Au Naturale." Fans of "Mad Men," "Boardwalk Empire," "Weeds," "Grey's Anatomy," and "Nurse Jackie" will have heard her songs underscoring the drama. She is cabaret singer, songwriter, recording artist, actress Nellie McKay.
It is clear the quirky, eclectic McKay is not constrained or defined by labels. She performs not only her own music, but songs from an array of styles, genres and eras, from folk, country, blues and rock to American Songbook, standards and Broadway musicals. Her fourth studio recording, "Normal as Blueberry Pie-A Tribute to Doris Day" (2009), was her first cover album, featuring songs made famous by Day. She followed that with "My Weekly Reader," (2015) consisting entirely of covers from the 1960s, which includes songs by The Kinks, Steve Miller Band, Herman's Hermits, Country Joe & the Fish, The Beatles, Frank Zappa and Crosby, Stills, & Nash. "Nellie McKay is a genius in the jazz world," raved the Boston Globe, "able to swirl together cutting comedy and caustic commentary with a voice charming enough to make bitter pills go down like sweet nothings." David Byrne, in the Wall Street Journal, declared, "Among Ms. McKay's charms are the ways she playfully mixes what is called a tragic noir vibe with her wicked sense of humor. And the New York times called her "...a sly, articulate musician who sounds comfortable in any era." She plays the piano and the ukulele, both of which she plays in concert to accompany her singing. In a rare Boston area appearance, McKay will perform on Saturday, March 7, 7:30 PM at the Regattabar in Cambridge's Charles Hotel.
McKay's soft out-of-breath speaking and singing voice may at first conjure visions of Marilyn Monroe, but that would not accurately reflect her quick satirical wit, her serious demeanor, and her political conviction. Edge recently spoke with McKay, where she was as outspoken as ever about today's politics while managing to fit a story or two in about her music.
Working with David Byrne
EDGE: Tell me about your collaborations with David Byrne. How did you come to work with him?
Nellie McKay: He approached me when he was first making his record about Imelda Marcos, which he then turned into a musical ("Here Lies Love"). If he offered me free tickets to his show now, I'd go. He's lent me a lot of records, which I haven't returned but are marked DB. He's a wizard. He wears all that white and he rides bicycles. I don't know how he keeps his clothes white.
EDGE: You have a career both in songwriting and biographical writing that touches upon the political, gender equality, social issues, the environment. What inspired you to make that a focus of your writing?
Nellie McKay: I suppose what's going on tends to make its way in. You want to support what you care about. That aspect has farthest to go. The animals are the most tortured beings on the earth. We're all in the system that is horrendously cruel to people, as well. And we all share this planet, which is dying because of capitalism.
Trump is a symptom
EDGE: Has the current administration inspired your songwriting at all?
Nellie McKay: Yeah, it's just that Trump is a product of the system. As the comedian Jimmy Dore says, he's the liver spot, not the diseased liver. If this continues, we will wind up with someone worse than Trump. My favorite line from "Schindler's List" is, "How can it get any worse. It can always get worse." Trump is only about himself. He's not an ideologue. If we get one of those, it will get worse.
EDGE: Tony Award winning actress Audra McDonald sings some of your songs on her solo recordings, one in particular, "I Wanna Get Married." What do you feel when you find other singers picking up your material?
Nellie McKay: Ectasy! Gee, wow! I don't have to do anything. I remember seeing her perform that song at Lincoln Center, and I could just sit there and drink.
EDGE: Do you ever think another singer's interpretation of your songs has missed the mark or altered the meaning?
Nellie McKay: I guess it depends, but generally it's great to hear different interpretations of my songs.
EDGE: While most of your recordings feature your original compositions, you did release a tribute to Doris Day, "Normal As Blueberry Pie." For someone so politically outspoken as you are, what made you choose someone like Doris Day to pay tribute to?
Nellie McKay: Doris Day, she was outspoken on behalf of animals, in the topic of animal adoption and against fur. People are capable of change, whether it is Doris Day or Malcolm X. So, she founded the Doris Day Animal League, and the Doris Day Foundation, after receiving letters from fans against animal cruelty and fur. I got letters from fans of the Doris Day Animal League, even before I made the Doris Day album, and they all had great penmanship. Many wrote me thank you letters because they saw me as an advocate.
EDGE: In spite of Doris Day's perceived sense of infinite optimism, she actually had a dark side. In the film "The Man Who Knew Too Much," when she sang "Que Sera, Sera," from a piano in a deserted warehouse, she was trying to comfort her kidnapped son who was being held somewhere else within that warehouse. As she sang it, she knew her son's life was in danger and he could die any minute. It gave a sense of urgency and dread to a song that otherwise seemed to be carefree. Did you ever tap into that darker side to Doris Day?
Nellie McKay: Well, yeah. In the song "Black Hills of Dakota," from the movie "Calamity Jane" [in which Day starred], there's a line in it that goes, "This sure is a beautiful country. It's pity we stole it from the Indians." That line is disarmingly honest. So that song holds for me the symbol of the ghosts of this world who are still with us. Whether we are tacitly implicit or reluctantly implicit, our lives are built on the backs of others. There was an article about her; Doris had a very hard life, an abusive husband, her last husband left her penniless, her son, Terry Melchor, was in the music business, and he turned down Charlie Manson. Melchor once lived in the house in which Sharon Tate lived, and there was a theory that Manson was out to get him instead of Tate. Sometimes that darkness is a motivation.
EDGE: As someone with a career as a singer songwriter, how did you come to get cast in "The Threepenny Opera?"
Nellie McKay: I was working with the director on a writing project, and he suggested I audition. It was luck and serendipity. You are so less self-conscious when you're young. It's hard to keep that. It's silly.
EDGE: Have you performed in Boston before, and if so, where?
Nellie McKay: Yes! At the Regattabar, with Amy Mann and Madeline Peru as part of Amy's Christmas show in the early 2000s. Both of them were so generous.
EDGE: What material will you be doing at the Regattabar? Original, standards, pop/jazz covers?
Nellie McKay: A potpourri. A little of each. I'll take requests. We have an EP that came out in the fall, and I'll do some selections from that. I'll tap dance and wear a giant panda head!
EDGE: Will you be accompanying yourself, or will you have other instrumentalists with you? Will you play the ukulele?
Nellie McKay: Ukulele, You gotta play the ukulele! Other musicians? It depends on how early I can get to the bar.
EDGE: You'll be doing Birdland in April. How often do you play NYC?
Nellie McKay: It's tempting to play close to home, but you don't want to overdo it. It can be harder to play for the people you know. When you go to the ends of the earth you are free.
EDGE: What most appeals to you about performing live?
Nellie McKay: I can't believe people come! With all the things at people's fingertips, that they bother to get dressed, leave their house, make arrangements, buy a ticket, park, go out in the cold, to buy drinks and food, and even buy merch! And then, they even stick around and say hello! I don't even do any of that. No pressure, but you better not fuck it up. We aim to entertain. It's nice when they react. The audience has energy, they are the life force.
EDGE: What else is on your mind at the moment?
Nellie McKay: Super Tuesday is on my mind. Everything people care about is contained in the question, "Do you want the people to decide the fate of themselves, the animals and their planet, or do you want the corporations and military industrial complex who has taken over the level of power in this country to decide?" Most people have empathy. When you look at who is the hardest hit, it is the women, women of color, homeless gay youth. Rather than place so much emphasis on who is in power, whether it is the first woman president or the first gay president, do you want a government who answers to the people or the corporations, who by definition are psychopathic because their passion is profit? We have to realize we are all on the same side. Even Bernie doesn't go far enough. We are building a movement. It's an exciting and perilous time, and I'm trying not to get hopes up, and failing.
Nellie McKay performs on 3/7, at 7:30 PM at the Regattabar, Charles Hotel, One Bennett Street, Cambridge, MA 20138. Tickets $25. For information and tickets, visit: http://www.getshowtix.com/regattabar/moreinfo.cgi?id=4199
John Amodeo is a free lance writer living in the Boston streetcar suburb of Dorchester with his husband of 23 years. He has covered cabaret for Bay Windows and Theatermania.com, and is the Boston correspondent for Cabaret Scenes Magazine.