Nellie McKay

Princess of the Protest Ditty

Music Features Nellie McKay
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Did you see the Bob Dylan thing?” Nellie McKay inquires, eyes flickering, face curious.

I presume McKay is referring to Martin Scorsese’s No Direction Home, the mesmerizing PBS biopic which aired in September, and nod vigorously. “My mom TiVo’d it,” McKay smiles. “I really like his style. I like his whole approach.”

McKay may be praising Dylan’s big black sunglasses and his squinty swagger, but since the release of her 2004 debut, Get Away From Me, she’s certainly emulated Dylan’s squirrelly relationship with the press, launching a series of in-print performance pieces: in 2003, McKay was 19 or 22, depending on who asked and when. Her father may or may not have been incarcerated for a violent crime, and they may or may not be on speaking terms. She insisted she only wore flats and shoulder pads, and unapologetically song-stalked men (see Get Away From Me’s “David”) who supposedly lived in her apartment building. She spouted zany, eccentric anecdotes like clockwork, living up to the Doris Day-meets-Eminem captions slapped beneath publicity shots of her in red lipstick, arms tossed up with wild-eyed glee, a wacky, big-mouthed, teenage ingénue. NPR adored her. But the real hee-haw? McKay is actually a remarkably sweet, forthcoming and humble person, a practicing feminist and animal rights activist who loves her manager-mother and doesn’t own a television set. She’s disarmingly quiet, keeping her head down.

On a damp Friday afternoon, McKay and I meet at Dublin House, a dark and crusty Irish pub on Manhattan’s Upper West Side (a subway hop from her West Harlem apartment). At 3 p.m., Dublin House already boasts plenty of grey-haired stool-warmers placing Coors Light orders with a blonde, brogue-heavy bartender and eating stale potato chips from wooden bowls. We find a table in the back, where we sip pint glasses of warm Coke. McKay, tiny and blonde in a navy skirt-suit, inquires earnestly about my pet cat, my writing and if I like living in Brooklyn, purring and smiling with genuine concern. We talk about American roots music and houses with backyards and the Village Voice. She’s not crazy, or cartwheeling, or spewing ridiculous anecdotes. She’s only uncomfortable when pressed to discuss her new record, the addictively weird, gorgeously irreverent Pretty Little Head.

“I’m not at peace with it,” McKay sighs. “Did you get the 16-track promo? Or the 23-track promo?” I sense what’s coming and grimace, dutifully clawing through my backpack and handing over the disc Columbia Records sent to my apartment that morning. “So this is what the advance copies look like? Oh, this is very interesting,” McKay seethes. “Well, that’s wrong. I can’t believe people go to school and they get the salaries they get… this is very interesting. I’ve been trying to get my label to drop me but they won’t. I’m serious, I want out so bad. Here, I’ll give you all 23 tracks,” McKay insists, digging through her purse and handing me a CD-R. “Each track, they’re all something different.”

“Different” is certainly an apt description of McKay’s work and trajectory. After dropping out of the Manhattan College of Music, where she studied jazz-voice for two years, McKay began her professional singing career by touring the gay cabaret clubs of Greenwich Village; major-label interest followed, and Columbia Records ultimately won an intense bidding war, signing McKay to a seven-record deal. The first double-disc debut ever released by a woman, Get Away From Me, inadvertently cast McKay as the anti-Norah, the foul-mouthed, leg-kicking antidote to Jones’ smooth, coffee-table jazz-pop. The record collected glowing reviews, each emphasizing its anachronistic, non-mainstream appeal: McKay was smirking and wry, alternately skewering and celebrating venerated American institutions over unforgettable piano melodies—each rolled out with Tin Pan Alley-meets-Def Jam aplomb. As a contemporary artist, McKay is remarkably, wonderfully difficult to define, even beyond the press-kit confusion, the backstory rife with alarming contradictions, the magazine feature hijinks—both Get Away From Me and Pretty Little Head are stylistic tornadoes, as modern as they are old-fashioned. Ultimately, McKay is so compelling because she’s defiant and unmarketable, strange but eminently lovable: pop critics and talk show hosts finally settled on “eccentric” as the word that best summed her up.

Now, McKay seems exhausted by the press juggernaut which fueled Get Away From Me, and anxious to eschew the trappings of major-label servitude. “I just remember when I got that check, I thought ‘I’m never gonna write another song again.’ As soon as you’re legitimatized in any way, you feel like you’ve lost everything,” she sighs. “I like the way Ani DiFranco does things. I know how difficult I am. But once you’ve created even a small niche for yourself, you can get a distribution deal. It’s just the getting out [of the contract] … I don’t know why they won’t let me go, I’m such a surly cuss. Really, I just ask them to let me do my job, and for them to do theirs. Remember in the Bob Dylan film, how they talked about how they used to look for someone with something to say? And now it’s all about the money. It’s about the corporation,” she shrugs.

McKay may lament Columbia’s interference, but she maintains impressive control over both her work and her image: we snicker over a giant list-feature in another music magazine, in which nearly all the men are wearing shirts and pants while the women are squirming in tank tops and making sex-faces, an age-old machination McKay battles regularly (“They’ll take hundreds of pictures, and then use the one where you’ve accidentally got your mouth open,” she says. “I don’t want to be someone’s hot dog.”) Still, McKay’s most impressive bit of self-empowerment is having written, performed, and produced Pretty Little Head by herself: “I loved working with Geoff [Emerick, who produced McKay’s debut, and, perhaps more famously, engineered The Beatles’ Revolver, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Abbey Road], but the way we did this one, it was just whenever we had a day, here and there. I couldn’t have worked with anyone on a regular basis. I know what I want, so this way I just argue with myself instead of someone else.” Still, Pretty Little Head, which was executive produced by McKay’s mother, is not all Nellie alone: the record features duets with k.d. lang (“We Had It Right”) and former tourmate Cyndi Lauper, who co-wrote the explosive duet “Bee Charmer,” which plays like a quasi-tortured phone conversation between two best friends. “With both Cyndi and k.d. you let them boss you around, and you enjoy it!” McKay giggles.

“We recorded mostly at night, just me and my mother. We have our shorthand. I love my mom,” McKay grins. (The one-woman clapping at the end of opener “Cupcake” gives a good idea of the intimacy of their studio teamwork.) “It takes so long to just finish. There’s such bureaucracy. It’s not like you can just write a song and record it and put it out. The recording, in itself, takes enough time. But then you wait and wait and wait. Everything has to have a big build up. I remember this thing Cameron Diaz said where she can’t wait to retire. Just get high on medication and drive a golf cart around. I’d really like to do that.” Unsurprisingly, retirement is not imminent for the songwriter. McKay is currently finishing the score to the musical adaptation of The Amazing True Story of a Teenage Single Mom, based on Katherine Arnoldi’s young-adult novel, and she’s set to star in Wallace Shawn’s Broadway adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera, alongside The Sopranos’ Edie Falco and Tony-winner Alan Cumming.

As a songwriter, McKay’s sharp, theatrical flair is mostly unmatched by her peers, and she embraces politics and humor as wholly compatible aesthetics. Unsurprisingly, McKay refuses to temper her beliefs for fickle pop palettes (“Cupcake” is a fireworks-and-shimmies fight for gay marriage, “The Big One” lambastes gentrification and the lack of tenants’ rights in New York City). McKay campaigned hard for John Kerry in 2004, writing “Teresa,” a heretofore unreleased ode to Teresa Heinz-Kerry (which wisely cautions “Don’t you insult Ms. Kerry/ Don’t you dismiss Heinz/ Oh-ee, Teresa!”), and remains a staunch vegetarian and an active PETA member. Likewise, McKay regularly reps for ColumbiaCruelty.com, a PETA-sponsored website which offers up the grisly details of Columbia University’s increasingly contentious animal-research labs (located in McKay’s own Harlem neighborhood), behind a grim, stone-faced voiceover from Alec Baldwin. PETA claims Columbia researchers routinely employ insufficient anesthesia for unnecessarily cruel operations on baboons and puppies, and in 2003, the university was forced to pay USDA fines for documented offenses regarding their low or improper anesthesia habits. In response, PETA has been crashing Columbia alumni dinners and awards receptions, and sending letters to prominent alumni (including NBA commissioner David Stern).

Meanwhile, as a celebrity endorser, McKay pulls her weight well: Pretty Little Head features an indictment of the laboratories, aptly titled “Columbia Is Bleeding.” The song opens with faux giggles and pep-rally hollers, before McKay, breathless and livid, coos prettily: “Here comes the footsteps of the man who makes you dream / The tube is fitted in / And there you are / And then a scream / The surgeon is in town / And there you are / The clamp is coming down / And then a scream.” The rest of the verses detail, in rapid-fire, the relative obliviousness of the university population, who ignore protesters in favor of more banal collegiate concerns; the song closes with a pointed howl of “This is the Ivy League!” Vaguely embarrassed, I admit to McKay that I graduated from Columbia. She nods sympathetically. But civil disobedience is in her bones.

“Even when I was a kid, I was writing protest letters. And sometimes, you get a victory. Sometimes it feels like, I don’t know, like you’re in the New Orleans flood, and you’re just throwing back handfuls of water. And then someone comes along with a water bulldozer of celebrity, and you get more help, more attention.”

McKay is careful to avoid self-righteousness, but her conviction is still striking and thick. “If you took away all the violence in the world, there would still be suffering. Why do people, in so many ways, have to contribute to it? Any celebrity who wears fur…” McKay trails off. “Look, if I know that someone has a problem with something, I’m going to ask why they have that problem. I’m very strongly pro-choice but I know a lot of very anti-abortion people, and I understand their position. Whereas people who wear fur, they’re deliberately being assholes. They’re saying ‘I don’t care, period.’”

Dublin House continues to fill as we ease into 5 p.m., and conversation somehow slips circuitously back to Bob Dylan and No Direction Home: “The part with the press conference, where they ask him to suck his glasses?” She shakes her head, and softens. “It must be tough to write about someone and try to be honest. I just think that journalists can be kind of deceitful,” she muses delicately, in what might be a gentle attempt at reconciling the facts of her own twisted history, as written by reporters. “It’s like, why are you pretending?”

[Ed. Note - a month after this story was published, McKay's publicist informed us the artist had split with Sony Records. As a result, the release of Pretty Little Head has been postponed until further notice.]