Music News & Reviews

Nellie McKay's range: from Doris Day to Bertolt Brecht to David Byrne

Nellie McKay has thrived on the stylistic contrasts of her young career. She says listeners don't mind: "I think they like to be kept guessing."
Nellie McKay has thrived on the stylistic contrasts of her young career. She says listeners don't mind: "I think they like to be kept guessing."

During the course of seven years and five studio recordings, Nellie McKay has offered a remarkably varied study of modern pop that seems to pride itself as much on unpredictability as it does on its robust sense of songcraft.

As a writer, she offers a mix of reflection, activism and feminism and a sense of romance that shifts from the blissfully hopeful to the unapologetically uneasy. And she has a bagful of melodic choices with which to explore them, including richly designed pop, torchy jazz, reggae and hip-hop.

As an interpreter, she draws from a wildly diverse inspirations. She has sung Bertolt Brecht on Broadway, devoted an entire album to the sunny pop of Doris Day and collaborated with stylistic scholar David Byrne.

An artistic wonder or a marketing nightmare? — Nellie McKay is a bit of both.

"Frankly, I think it's nice when people can't always tell where the inspiration for the music comes from," McKay said. "I think they like to be kept guessing."

McKay has indeed kept them guessing ever since she gained national acclaim while in her teens with a debut album titled Get Away From Me. The title was rumored to be a play on Norah Jones' popular Come Away With Me.

She lobbied hard for the record to be a double-disc recording and won, making her one of the few artists awarded such a luxury on a debut recording by a major label (Columbia). The cover photo of a cheery McKay in full Mary Tyler Moore mode hinted at G-rated pop. The graffiti on the brick wall behind her suggested otherwise.

The music inside cemented such vivid contrasts. Such seemingly sunny moments as The Dog Song were riddled with unrest ("I was sad as a sailor. I was an angry one, too") while the bolder, half-sung rap tunes (Sari, Inner Peace) roared by with the blunt, unglamorous swiftness of a subway car.

Where do such vast and seemingly opposing sounds and themes come from? For McKay, the answer is easy: Growing up in New York, she was surrounded by them.

"There was always music in the air," McKay said. "When I lived in Harlem, there were African drummers in the park. I would like to think they had an influence. But there was also a strong music program in school that made music so available — particularly jazz band. Really, it was all about jazz band for me.

"I heard A Night in Tunisia just the other night. I heard I Got It Bad and That Ain't Good recently, too. Those songs that we did in jazz band always take me back. It was such a relief from the regular part of school."

Ensuing years allowed McKay to star on Broadway as Polly Peachum in Brecht's The Threepenny Opera ("Brecht unnerves people, which I think is a good thing"), explore Day's vintage pop on 2009's Normal as Blueberry Pie album ("Those were some dainty, dancer-y shoes to fill, and I'm quite indelicate and clumsy") and be one of the many guest vocalists on Byrne's Imelda Marcos-themed Here Lies Love project with Fatboy Slim ("I couldn't believe David asked me. It was probably because I'm very cheap").

That takes us to last year's Home Sweet Mobile Home, McKay's fifth and perhaps finest record. Co-produced by McKay and her mother, actress Robin Pappas, Home is a typically disquieting tapestry of songs that reflect dashed dreams of a false paradise (the ukulele serenade Adios), a grimmer forecast of a real paradise (the reggae-fied Caribbean Time) and a literally dispiriting meditation (the jazz and gospel fused Dispossession).

"A lot of these songs were written for a musical based on the book and movie Election, which looks like it's not going to happen. So I used some of them on the album. Dispossession was written as a duet between mother and daughter. It's funny to hear people say that these songs seem quite personal when they were, in fact, written for another character entirely.

"You know, there's a funny quote from Conan O'Brien. I'm paraphrasing a little, but it goes, 'Show business is full of extraordinarily lucky people who are really bitter about it.' But I'm very happy with my career. Sure, the stress can get to you. Still, I try to relax and have fun. I just haven't found the right combination of alcohol and meditation to put me completely at ease."