Nothing ordinary about Nellie McKay
October 17, 2007
ASPEN ” With Nellie McKay, even the subject of her age can be a source of controversy, multiple truths and, ultimately, humor.
There has been some debate over how old McKay (pronounced mik-EYE) was when she released the 2004 debut, “Get Away From Me.” In any event, she was young, especially to be making a two-CD set that sprawled through cabaret and big-band to rap and rock, with a heavy dose of irony. Various reports had her anywhere from 19 to 21.
Of her age, McKay has been quoted as saying, “You should always lie during interviews. I don’t know why more people don’t lie about their age.” Knowing that, I asked her only for an approximate age; still, her response didn’t exactly shed much light on just when she was born.
“Emotionally, about 2. In terms of cynicism, about 95. And I suppose a reasonable physical estimate is about a quarter-century,” said McKay, who had lost her cell phone, and thus was speaking from a Southern California phone booth, which seemed an appropriately offbeat setting. “And then there’s dog years … “
However many years ago it was, McKay was born in London. But after her parents divorced, McKay and her mother hit the road, moving to New York City, Washington state, and eventually Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains, a place that resonated with McKay. Her new album, “Obligatory Villagers,” released last month, is dedicated to such defunct Poconos landmarks as the Mt. Airy Lodge and the Swiftwater Inn. The moving around provides an interesting enough biography, but in McKay’s telling, the color is heightened: “We were a boat of gypsies in a VW bus pulling a VW Bug that broke down a lot,” she puts it.
McKay became, for a short while, a stand-up comedian. In her own account, she was not a very good one. Her review of her stand-up years read like this: “Profane and unfunny. Kind of dyke-y, kind of stupid. You try to work in some political stuff. And this was around Sept. 11, so there was a lot to work in.”
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McKay made a splash with “Get Away from Me,” whose title was a play on Norah Jones’ debut, “Come Away with Me.” The sounds ranged from country to torch singing to something like punk. The shifts in style were enough to qualify as humor, but all of it was wrapped in a cabaret delivery, and the lyrics were viciously ironic, all of which put McKay in a class by herself ” a politically active, personally removed, keyboard-playing, 21-(or so)-year-old cabaret singer.
McKay says she can see the day when humor isn’t a component of her music. “Humor has problems in repetition,” she observed. “Most of the music I listen to is unintentionally funny.”
That day hasn’t come yet. “Obligatory Villagers” opens with “Mother of Pearl,” a winking rebuke of feminist-bashing (“Rape and degradation’s just a crime/ … Can’t these chicks do anything but whine?”), which McKay sings in a hushed voice, while backing voices chime in with oblivious lines like “Lighten up, baby” and “Take it off.” On “Oversure,” the laughs are more from the sounds, a rapid-fire big-band assault. The 23-second “Livin” examines the scatological realities of existence.
Comedians were not the primary inspiration for McKay. Instead, it was musicians who displayed a wide range of tastes, mentioning the guitarist and producer Ry Cooder as an example.
“I guess I just was interested in people who drew from a lot of influences. The eclecticism of the Beatles was pretty amazing,” she said. McKay has had no difficulty absorbing a multitude of styles ” but that may be the problem. Asked what she listened to while growing up, she said, “Pretty much anything, which is a problem. Because you hear a lot of crap, and it can’t get out. I suppose some crap is OK.”
The conversation coming to an end, McKay was reminded that her interviewer was in Aspen, a tidbit that piqued her interest.
“Is it true that’s the home of most of the billionaire rednecks?” she asked.