Nellie McKay mixes it up
by Richard Dodds
Singer-songwriter Nellie McKay can give you answers that are straight, curvy, or looped. What may seem like the easiest questions bring the most opaque answers, while there is eloquent passion when conversation moves into trickier terrain. All this shouldn't be too unexpected for a performer whose songs can spur double takes as you are pulled one way by popular-music riffs and another by lyrics that can slyly undermine expectations engendered.
McKay was last seen in San Francisco last year at the Rrazz Room with her quirky song cycle inspired by the movie I Want to Live, and she is returning this week as headliner of a concert that will also have her performing with the all-male choral group Chanticleer. The March 23 event is part of the Bay Area Cabaret series at the Fairmont Hotel's Venetian Room. (Ticket info at www.bayareacabaret.org.)
Chanticleer, San Francisco's renowned a cappella chorus, is perhaps best known for its precise and formal renderings of a classical repertoire. There is curiosity as to how McKay plans to mix it up with the guys. "Oh boy, well, we're hoping to do a Talking Heads song," she said. "That should mix it up a little bit, and well, I hope we can mix it up. Gee, I don't know."
Pressed for a bit more details, she said, "I arranged the Talking Heads song myself, specifically for them. And I think we're doing the old standard 'Yesterdays.' I heard them perform at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and it was beautiful." As for her own songs that she plans to sing, McKay offered that it will include "a little bit of this and a little bit of that."
That incorporates a wide range of possibilities, considering that she has released five albums (two of which are double-CD collections) since 2004. Most are made up of self-written songs, though a 2009 CD paid tribute to the Doris Day songbook. The CD's title, Normal as Blueberry Pie, suggests an irony when viewed through the subjects McKay's own songs navigate with a sometimes unnerving ambiguity.
McKay (pronounced Muh-KYE) was not to be cajoled into describing her own musical identity, but she did respond to specific suggestions like subversive ("I like subversive") and perplexing ("Well, that's all right"). But much of what isn't revealed in an interview can be sussed out from her lyrics, which, set to a kind of hybrid light pop-bluesy-jazzy-folk music, may invoke gender issues, animal rights, cranky relationships, and self-esteem.
"What's the point of making something if you're not saying anything?" she said of any messages in her music. "But I'm not sure that music does change anything. Laura Bush is a big fan of Bob Dylan, so go figure."
Photo: Joan Marcus
To do her SF show, McKay is taking a quick break from her co-starring performance with Bill Irwin and David Shriner in Old Hats. The held-over off-Broadway production has Irwin and Shriner returning to their clowning personae of Fool Moon, with McKay providing musical accompaniment on the piano when not singing center stage equipped with a ukulele.
"They're quite cruel to me," McKay said of Irwin and Shriner. "They beat me with sticks and throw stones, and they've given me just a closet with a single chair and a bare light bulb for a dressing room. If people can't afford to eat, what's the sense of making art?" It's a deadpan joke with a seemingly sober coda.
As mercurial as the 30-year-old McKay can be when it comes to her talents and career, she becomes fluent discussing key social issues that are also reflected artistically in her lyrics. Like animal rights. "A vast majority of people believe it's wrong to intentionally mistreat animals," she said, "and the majority of people do so because they eat them." In the song "Columbia Is Bleeding," about animal testing at the NYC university, she sings, "They're just animals, make good edibles/ Fester filth and disease/ Check the Bible son, we got dominion/ We can do as we please."
She also talks passionately on the subject of gender equality and biological inequality. "Women are never going to have full equality because we have half the time as men to choose whether or not to have children," McKay said. "So you're constantly having to judge whether or not that's important to you. If we're not going to have equality, I would at least like back a little bit of chivalry." And McKay casts a gimlet eye on matrimony in the song "I Wanna Get Married": "I need to cook meals/ I wanna pack you cute little lunches/ For my Brady bunches/ Then read Danielle Steele."
McKay clearly carries the weight that comes with a keen awareness. "But that's why we have a sense of humor, because if we didn't we'd all shoot ourselves in the head," she said. "You have to find some way of coping with the nightly news, so sometimes you just have to have a laugh."