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March 16, 2020 | By Eric Snider

Talking About Music is the Last Thing on Nellie McKay’s Mind

Musician Nellie McKay was not interested in talking about music. For 15 minutes on a Wednesday afternoon, over the phone, I asked what I considered to be easy-to-field questions about her unique and eclectic career as a singer of vintage songs, a piano and ukulele player, a Broadway actress and other pursuits. She answered in short bursts, with long pauses and plenty of hems and haws, offering little insight.

What drew her to performing old songs like “The Best Things in Life are Free,” “Rockabye Your Baby,” “My Romance” and “Angel Eyes?”

“[Pause] I don’t know… It took me to another world. Um, you want to be part of that world.” 

What caused her to take up singing as a young person, enough to make it a career?

“[Long pause] I, uh, think everyone can sing, and, uh so [pause] I can’t even remember. Some people get more out of being in front of the mic.”

Was she planning on performing solo or with accompaniment for her now-cancelled concert at the Palladium Theater’s Side Door Cafe?

“Solo. Unless I make some friends day of show.”

After floundering to touch on a topic that would loosen Nellie’s lips, I finally said to her, “I put together some open-ended questions that I thought would spark a good conversation. They don’t seem to be working? Am I making you uncomfortable? Would you like to end the interview?”

She replied. “I’m not very good at questions.”

Which turned out to be untrue.

Nellie just wasn’t good at answering the questions I was asking. As I began my goodbyes, she asked, “When does the article come out?” I told her I wasn’t sure. “Does it come out before the Democratic Primary in Florida?” I told her I wasn’t sure.

Then, without provocation, she launched into an impassioned and articulate monologue about the perils of climate change, voter suppression, the dangerous influence of corporate media and the evils of Joe Biden, who voted for the war in Iraq. She desperately wants us all to cast our ballot for Bernie Sanders.

We, or should I say she, had hit on a topic that prompted her to talk.

• • •

Nellie McKay, 37, was born in London to an English father, writer/director Malcolm McKay, and an American mother, actress Robin Pappas. As a kid, she lived with her mom in Harlem, Olympia WA and Mount Pocono PA.

She recalls making a cross-country road trip with her mother “in a VW bus towing a VW bug. We had an 8-track player. We listened mostly to a Tommy Dorsey tape and a Blood, Sweat & Tears tape. I liked the Tommy Dorsey tape better. I think my mother liked the Blood, Sweat & Tears.”

(I was grateful for this brief anecdote.)

McKay studied Jazz Voice at the Manhattan School of Music but did not finish, and played cabaret-style gigs around New York City. She released her first album, Get Away From Me, in 2004. Jon Pareles of The New York Times hailed the record “a tour de force from a sly, articulate musician who sounds comfortable in any era.”

In 2006, McKay debuted on Broadway as Polly Peachum in a limited run of Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera, alongside veteran performers Alan Cumming and Cyndi Lauper.

She was not starstruck. “People are people,” she said. “I think the person I probably remember most is Ralph. He was the maintenance man. I don’t remember his official title. He’d come up to my dressing room after the matinee and we’d have a drink together. Those were treasured moments.”

(McKay told me this anecdote after she had talked politics.)

McKay’s six subsequent albums have tended to look further and further back. On My Weekly Reader, she personalizes a collection of ‘60s songs, ranging from Herman Hermits’ “Mrs. Brown You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter” to The Kinks’ “Sunny Afternoon” and Frank Zappa’s “Hungry Freaks, Daddy.”

Her two most recent full-lengths — Tin Pan Alley bookends, of a sort — were recorded together. Sister Orchid, released in 2018, is a collection of mostly torch ballads — “The Nearness of You,” “In a Sentimental Mood, “My Romance” and the like.

Bagatelles (2019) consists of such lighter fare as “How About You,” “The Best Things in Life Are Free” and “Accentuate the Positive.” On both projects, McKay accompanies herself on either piano or ukulele.

McKay’s singing is intimate, coy, conversational, cutesy at times. She plays to her vocal strengths. It’s not about power — she never belts — but interpretation. McKay has a shyly charismatic stage presence and a vivacious smile that would have played well at the Side Door.

• • •

Three hours after our interview, I received a 317-word text (along with links) from Nellie McKay, expanding on her political beliefs.

It ended with: “You asked me about music — artists cannot turn their back upon this despicable system, the betrayal of animals, people and the earth we all share by the Democratic and Republican party leadership and the vicious propaganda in the corporate media. This is what the music is about.”

Explore Nellie McKay’s music here