Taking matters into their own hands
Nellie McKay: With major label battles over, she's free to explore eclectic influences
NORTHAMPTON - Standing onstage in a demure vintage pink gown, her beatific face framed by softly curled blond waves and bathed in yellow light, Nellie McKay looks ready to star in a remake of "April in Paris." Then she opens her mouth and sweetly announces, with a straight face, "This song is about illegal immigration," before launching into a solo ukulele version of Cole Porter's "Don't Fence Me In."
The interlude, during McKay's show at the Iron Horse Music Hall earlier this week, neatly sums up the singular McKay, who comes to the Paradise on Tuesday to promote her new album, "Obligatory Villagers."
The New York-bred singer-songwriter is a plugged-in, politically engaged 25-year-old with strong viewpoints on everything from the Iraq war to animal rights to abuses of eminent domain. But instead of dressing down and picking up an acoustic guitar to get her sanctimony on, McKay expresses her feelings with a balance of satire and sentimentality, dressed like a '50s big-band singer, playing a catholicity of pop styles that were a hit before her mother was born.
"I just feel a severe disconnect from my generation," she says the next day in her drowsy alto of the juxtaposi tion of her thoroughly modern mouth and pre-rock kit bag of tricks.
That MySpace generation gap is evident on "Villagers," her third album and the first to hit stores without some kind of behind-the-scenes drama associated with her record label.
Hailed as a mash-up of Doris Day and Eminem, McKay made a splashy entrance with the 2004 double-disc critic's delight "Get Away From Me." She successfully fought her label, Columbia Records, on both the title and length but was not so triumphant with its follow-up, "Pretty Little Head," whose release date was pushed back until it was finally shelved. McKay released it herself in October 2006 on her Hungry Mouse imprint.
Flush with freedom, McKay (pronounced Mac-Eye) decamped from her Harlem home to record "Obligatory Villagers" - her first single disc - in the Poconos, where she attended high school.
"You always think you go to the main hub, and everything's going to happen, but sometimes you have to step back and the greatest people are right where you started," says McKay, perched on a sofa at the Ivory Creek Bed and Breakfast in nearby Hadley a few hours before the show.
Those people include respected jazz cats like sax men Phil Woods and David Liebman and quirky vocalist Bob Dorough.
"How can you beat the stories of some of these people?" she asks of a group that has collectively worked with the likes of everyone from Thelonious Monk (Woods) to McKay's cherished influence Blossom Dearie (Dorough). "I just think they brought tremendous heart and energy. I'm really not trained in writing orchestrations, and they really elevated some awkward musical lines."
"She certainly shouldn't be so modest. I think she's just a fantastic musician and songwriter and singer and performer," says the 80-something Dorough of working with McKay, whom he calls a hoot and reminiscent of Dearie but "less tame." Although the man who gave voice to "Schoolhouse Rock" favorites like "Conjunction Junction" recognized that his young charge was "a natural" back when he mentored her as a teen, he says with a chuckle, "I had no idea that she would turn out to be 'Nellie McKay.' "
That many of the "Villagers" contributors are, in some cases, nearly 50 years McKay's senior makes sense to the singer, who skips gaily from Tin Pan Alley to the Weimar cabaret as she addresses everything from identity theft to feminism. Get out your passport because there are also side trips to Brazil for bossa nova, Jamaica for reggae, and back stateside for hip-hop. She even compares the composition of her elaborate arrangements - layers of glockenspiels, horns, xylophones, etc. - to the invasion of Iraq: "It's a bad idea to even start and then you think you have a plan, and it just descends into a nightmare."
Of her esteemed collaborators she says, "They're easier to relate to. Young people have nothing to say." When reminded that she is, in fact, young, McKay says without pause, "Yeah, I have nothing to say." But she plows ahead "because otherwise what are you supposed to do?"
In addition to her early mentors, McKay drew inspiration from her run last year in the Broadway revival of "The Threepenny Opera," in which she costarred alongside Alan Cumming and Cyndi Lauper. The experience figured into her new album on the biting song "Galleon," the disc's only real rocker, which makes the backstage portion of the show sound less than ideal: "Beware of dreams come true/ It means you have to share a room," she coos. Still, McKay claims the show had a positive impact on the album and her life.
"That Weimar sound, it's like 'Citizen Kane'; it's still setting the bar to which I aspire," she says. And on a personal level, she adds, "I think I've secured friendships for life whose entire basis was bitching about our experience on 'The Threepenny Opera.' "
Hopefully, backstage drama of all varieties is behind her now. She calls her distribution pact for Hungry Mouse with Vanguard "très agreeable" and has felt no negative fallout from the move to indie status.
"I think I've gained everything, and I've lost nothing, except some nagging shred of humility," she says. "I may still have clung to my better nature, which I've now thankfully tossed to the wind."