Nellie McKay :: 1950s looks, 2012 attitudes
Nellie McKay, who adopts a quirky, adorable persona along with a Donna Reed-type look from the 1950s-but whose original songs often satirize relationships and sexism, and uphold women’s rights and environmental and animal rights’ causes-returns to New York’s Feinstein’s at Loew’s Regency through March 31, 2012.
McKay, born in London but raised in Washington state and rural Pennsylvania, is the daughter of writer-director Malcolm McKay and actress Robin Pappas. She moved to New York to study at Manhattan School of Music, but was discovered at an open mic night at the Sidewalk Café. McKay was soon signed to Columbia Records and released her double-length first album (unheard of for new acts) in 2004, which garnered critical raves.
Since then, she has released four more albums, including the Doris Day tribute album, "Normal as Blueberry Pie," a hit on the Billboard Jazz chart. She also won a Theatre World Award for her Broadway debut, "The Threepenny Opera," in 2006. McKay has also written songs for several movie and television projects, including "Rumor Has It," "Monster-in-Law," "Weeds" and "Boardwalk Empire."
Currently, McKay is touring in support of her 2010 CD, "Home Sweet Mobile Home," and performing her one-woman show, "I Want to Live!", based on the life of murderess Barbara Graham (which was also the basis for the 1958 Susan Hayward film).
NYC is the place to be
EDGE: Both of your parents have careers in the arts. How important was that for your own development, as well as being able to come to New York at a young age to pursue your career?
Nellie McKay: Certainly I think New York is the place to be. When I was choosing schools, I had a choice between New York and Ohio. I ended up making the right choice.
EDGE: Is it true you used to play in the piano bar at Don’t Tell Mama?
Nellie McKay: Oh yes! It was a wonderful training ground. Sometimes I still miss the steady paycheck.
EDGE: I read that you were discovered at the Sidewalk Café almost by accident, because you originally went there to perform stand-up comedy.
Nellie McKay: Yes, I lost my nerve at the last minute. I was lucky because it was one of the few open mic places that had a piano, so I sang instead.
’Happiness is a warm band’
EDGE: You had a hit with "Normal as Blueberry Pie," your Doris Day tribute CD, a couple years back. Not only did you capture her style, but I was surprised to learn you share some of the same causes as well. Do you know if she ever heard your album?
Nellie McKay: Yes, I got a lovely note from her. But the real treat was when I interviewed her over the phone for Arc Magazine a couple years before the CD came out. She sounded just like she did in the movies. I’m glad that whenever they honor her, they are supporting the Doris Day Animal Foundation, which does incredible work. She’s been ahead of her time for her entire life.
EDGE: In addition to your touring, you have also been performing your one-woman show "I Want to Live!" around the country. Tell us a little about it.
Nellie McKay: We’ve been on the road with it for a while. I wish it would never end. My new saying is, "Happiness is a warm band." It’s a mixture of old and new, and I always think the old outshines the new.
Will ’Que Sera Sera’ keep you sane?
EDGE: Do you think the current music business climate makes it easier for artists like you to carve out your own niche or is it perhaps harder than ever?
Nellie McKay: Oh, I don’t care about that. I just want to make some money! I’m ready to go back to Don’t Tell Mama! We want to go to the Deep South and on a world tour, if only we could afford to stay on the road.
EDGE: New York has always been so difficult, and yet every year thousands of young people come here to pursue their dreams. Do you have any advice for them?
Nellie McKay: I don’t know, I think "Que Sera Sera" will keep you sane. Have a sense of humor and don’t move to Brooklyn-it’s so trendy now, and I could never live in a place that’s trendy.
EDGE: Your look often captures an earlier era and yet you are a feminist with a sharp satirical edge on social issues. What are your thoughts on what is going on right now with these Republican debates on social issues?
Nellie McKay: I think they’re dangerous people. I don’t think they are joking and I don’t think they are a joke. People are impressionable. I find it powerfully depressing. That being said, I don’t think women want to take the pill-it gives you a tummy ache.
Not nice to fool Mother Nature
EDGE: So this year marks the fiftieth anniversary of "Silent Spring" by Rachel Carson and you have cleverly called your show at Feinstein’s "Silent Spring: It’s Not Nice to Fool Mother Nature." What does that mean in terms of what we can expect to hear?
Nellie McKay: A mix of standards and more contemporary songs. The whole band will be involved and it’s a plethora of talent. I think we all enjoy putting on a show. We’re going to make it about Rachel Carson. Her vision is still so relevant-the pesticides, the environment, the animals. Her concept of the web of life, that we are all connected-she helped popularize that idea. And today there are still ideas of conquest and ruling over nature instead of us being a part of nature. But, you know, Rachel Carson was also a wonderful practical joker, so it won’t be all doom and gloom.
EDGE: What other projects do you have coming up? Is there a new album in the works?
Nellie McKay: Honestly, if we can get through "Silent Spring," we’re hoping to do a movie of "I Want to Live!" Someone is reading it now. [Laughs] Basically, there is no plan!
Nellie McKay 3/27 - 3/31/2012 at Feinstein’s at Loews Regency, 540 Park Avenue, New York, NY. She brings "I Want to Live!" to the Birchmere Music Hall, Alexandria, VA on April 26, 2012. And performs in concert in Denver at Swallow Hill as part of the 5th Annual Denver Ukefest on May 19, 2012. For more information, visitNelli McKay’s website.