Q&A: Nellie McKay makes music for smart women (and the men who love them)

The music of Nellie McKay is spry humor wrapped in searing social commentary and baked into a sparkling holiday pie.

Or, if you're only paying a little bit of attention, extraordinarily versatile and engaging.

Not many artists would devote a cabaret show - "I Want To Live" - to the life of Barbara Graham, a convicted murderer and the third woman to die in the gas chamber at San Quentin. It's safe to say that even fewer artists would compile a setlist for this show featuring the strange bedfellows of Jimi Hendrix and Irving Berlin. But McKay is not most artists, and both "I Want To Live" and "Silent Spring: It's Not Nice To Fool Mother Nature" (a tribute to the life and work of pioneering environmentalist Rachel Carson), are winning critical acclaim. High praise for McKay has recently appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New Republic and The New York Times.

Since her first album (a rare double-CD debut) "Get Away From Me" in 2004, McKay has won a Theatre World Award for her Broadway role in "The Threepenny Opera" and contributed original music to the Rob Reiner film "Rumor Has It." Her songs have been heard on several TV shows, including "Weeds," "Grey's Anatomy," "NCIS" and "Nurse Jackie." She has logged guest appearances on the "Late Show with David Letterman," "The View, Late Night with Conan O'Brien," "Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson," and "Live with Regis & Kelly." She followed up her 2009 Doris Day tribute album, "Normal As Blueberry Pie," with a CD of original songs, "Home Sweet Mobile Home," in 2010.

She performs original music and some standards at The Garde Arts Center in New London this Friday, Oct. 5 at 8 p.m. You can hear sample tracks at www.nelliemckay.com.

If you're heading to the Garde show, listen closely. Meaning, listen closely to her words. McKay's visual presentation is like a tall glass of sweetness and light. Her bright blond hair sits perfectly coiffed over her dark eyes. She plays the piano, the ukulele and the cello. She favors pretty dresses with generous skirts, and her voice is as clear and earnest as a bell. But a deeper listen to her lyrics reveals an artist deeply committed to women and social justice; an animal-rights advocate dismayed by corporate culture's toll on the planet and its people:

Lookin' through frosted windows
I envy the soft contented sighs
But I don't get people
I don't get the things they think are reasonable

So you'll find me
Here right beneath the underdog
When life's impossible
Hold tight beneath the underdog
That's where I'm comfortable.

- from Beneath the Underdog, Home Sweet Mobile Home (2010)

Grace caught up with her in a phone interview last week.

Nellie McKay: I'm glad you called. You're saving me from reading about toxic supermarket chemicals and other fun reading. It's so depressing!

Grace: Speaking of depressing, let's talk politics for a minute. Are you concerned with what you see happening this election year, and the possible ramifications for women?

Yeah, well, it's hard to believe it's 2012. A woman's body is still not her own. The whole thing is, we have to have control. Birth control was a very strong statement - control is a very powerful word. But we still haven't got it. If you don't have that power over your own body, what power do you have? Sex education should be widely available. Anyone who doesn't like abortion should be supporting all the sex education, all the access to birth control. It doesn't make sense that the top anti-abortion groups oppose those things. It's ludicrous.

Yes, you can almost see a society where if those things were really robust, abortions would possibly decline?

Right. It's all about making informed decisions and choices. But it's worth noting - and I believe I remember reading that roughly half of all abortions - those people were on birth control. These things do fail. And let's not forget, feminism isn't just about the right to not have a child; it's about the right to have a child. So in countries where women are limited to one child, or there is infanticide against girls, no one is talking about that. It's all about us being in charge. ... I still think we need a better system; the two parties just aren't cutting it.

It's fascinating the women you choose for projects, like Barbara Graham. How did you find out about her?

It was more that we picked the title. My mother had suggested "I Want To Live" and I had never seen the [Susan Hayward] movie. But under that title, the show could be practically anything, you know, it's a broad banner. And then we saw the description of the movie, which was "a woman of ill-repute, often spotted in seedy bars" so I wound up watching the movie and it's become a quest almost to learn more about Barbara's real life, and incorporate other elements we learn along the way about the death penalty. We hope to keep touring with both that and the Rachel Carson [show].

It seems you're drawn to paradox. You have this presentation on stage which is pretty and soft and sort of ultra-feminine, but your lyrics are really incisive. There's some edginess, some darkness...

I think it's probably good to have a contrast, but I worry about that. When you go to awards, everyone is in high heels, everyone is in makeup, everyone has had their hair done. And you wonder where the radical voice has gone. So sometimes I'm getting ready for a show, and I'm looking at the bouffant and the circle skirt and I wonder if this is as subversive as I'd like it to be. Because you can start to look a lot like the thing that you're satirizing. But then again there's also that Steve Martin edict - never catch the audience looking better than you.

I know your mom helps handle public relations, and in interviews it seems she's a real sounding board for you. What's it like working with her?

Well, we do get on fine and I just try not to mishandle my end of it too badly... You know, I think women and minorities tend to lose self-esteem with every year of higher education they get after high school. We're taught our own absence from history, professors are white and male and we're separated from our families. And then after college we're thrown headfirst into society and culture. It can be very subtle but you start to feel this pervasive sense of worthlessness and 'replacability.' To work with her has spared me a lot of that ... Honestly, though, I don't know what's in it for her. (laughs)

You seem to kind of do whatever the heck you want, creatively and artistically. Is it difficult to carve that space for yourself?

Autonomy is a wonderful thing - some people are so scared, they don't want to lose their job. My only responsibility is a little mutt so I can afford to say 'no.' But of course, if you want to be at all even a small part of the machine, everybody has to sell out or cut corners a little - so I apologize in advance. (laughs) You do see for people how it gets them out there and gets them known and then they have some money and then they can do the things they're really passionate about.

Has becoming more 'known' changed the way you connect with audiences? Does playing larger venues change that dynamic for you?

Oh that's nice of you to say but I don't think we'll have to worry about the really large venues (laughs). It's nice to feel the energy from the audience, but at the end of the concert, I just get so relieved. And then if you have a CD signing, that's really my favorite part. Onstage you can be so nervous you don't know what your relationship with the audience is. But I really like meeting everyone afterward.

So what can we expect from your performance here?

A variety of stuff and probably some clunkers. (laughs)


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