Artists only get one chance to make a first impression, and Nellie McKay's was a doozy.
The singer is a member of a small club of artists — among them, The Mothers of Invention, Chicago, Frankie Goes to Hollywood — who dared to debut with a double album. Get Away From Me coyly referenced Norah Jones' inescapable Come Away With Me and should have been blasted in just as many coffee shops back in 2004. Brimming with the savvy and confidence of a 19-year-old prodigy who doesn't know how to second-guess herself, McKay managed to draw an emphatic line from Tin Pan Alley to humorous singer-songwriters like Tom Waits and Loudon Wainwright III to the more abrasive braggadocio of The Beastie Boys. She earned herself a Parental Advisory label in the process.
Since then, McKay has alternated between issuing albums of original music (Home Sweet Mobile Home, Pretty Little Head) and collections of cover songs like Normal as Blueberry Pie: A Tribute to Doris Day and last year's standards album, Sister Orchid. Given her self-deprecating humor, naming her new EP Bagatelles could be McKay having it both ways, using it as a musical term (a short, unpretentious instrumental composition) or as a deflection (a trifle or a trinket). When asked, she likens the new EP to "a little appetizer, a tasty morsel. These songs felt a little bit spring-like, even though it came out in the fall. It's a nice reprieve."
And it's something we could all use in these days of somber impeachment hearings, which were getting underway when we spoke with McKay about Bagatelle, her career, her animal rights activism for PETA (which she noted on the back of her first CD), and of course, politics.
Phoenix New Times: I'm sorry I'm interrupting the impeachment hearings. Are you following them live or just watching the highlights?
Nellie McKay: I don't think there are any highlights. The highlight would be to get corporations out of politics, which is facilitated by both parties.
Very much so. On your first album, you dabbled with political commentary in songs like "Sari," which slotted rap alongside cabaret-style songwriting. Were you an avid fan of rap because it displayed the same kind of jovial wordplay as Cole Porter?
It generally makes people feel better. It depends on who it is or what they're saying. It can make them feel better than a happy-go-lucky tune.
Any rappers you took note of at the time?
I was probably listening to a specific song here and there, and people would make me mixtapes or CDs. I once auditioned to be part of a rap group, and I didn't pass, which is as close as I got to rap in the real world. But I understand. I can't do melismas. It's when you sing, and you go [she stretches a note to several syllables]. There are so many forms that are out of reach, like gospel, that I just sit back and listen in awe.
Your first two albums were double albums, which was pretty gutsy. It's hard to imagine anyone doing that now. Was releasing an EP in 2019 an acknowledgment that people these days have limited attention spans? Are albums still a viable format?
It seems that so much music is online. New cars don't even have CD players anymore. You have to special-request them, and I hope they do, but to each his own. I do love how everything's accessible. I hope it stays that way. They say getting music for free is like stealing a pair of shoes. Music is more intangible. And also, there's a case for stealing a pair of shoes (laughs).
On your first album's "Suitcase Song," you sang about turning off your phone before going to bed. You strike me as someone who has a healthy aversion to phones intruding on personal time.
I don't know how anyone's growing up with it, because even people who didn't are completely addicted. It's crazy. People who never had it in their lives, and now they're in their 50s or 60s, and they have the blue light staring back at them all day.
You named your last album after Brother Orchid, a 1940 Edward G. Robinson movie about a gangster turned monk that few people have ever heard of. Did you have an affinity for the lead character?
I'm glad you like it. I hope more people watch it. It's a gangster redemption tale, so they're hard to find. And it's a good one.
Since Sister Orchid is a solo album mostly, were you tapping into the movie's monastic theme?
That's a good point. I hadn't thought it that far through, but that makes sense. I like that.
We recently lost Geoff Emerick, who co-produced your debut and your album of '60s covers. What lessons did you take away from working with him?
He really respected the music, always. He always had such reverence for what he was doing. And for the machines. He would touch the Neve console as if it had just dropped down from outer space, and he was the first one allowed to use it.
Was growing up in Harlem as idyllic as you made it sound on "Manhattan Avenue," where "a mugger and a child share the same paradise?"
Harlem was a different place. It wasn't that long ago, but there were trash-can fires and the crack boom. Now it's just gentrification. It's a virus in New York, and I don't understand where all these people get their money. There are people who have multiple homes in the world. They buy up places, and their New York apartment is just one of eight or 20. But then who are all the other people? I don't know how these many people have this much money to be driving up all the rent, driving out the residents, and completely changing the community. It becomes policed, even if they're not in uniforms. There's that vibe. When gentrification comes, even if you can stay, you feel displaced because everyone you knew is gone. Here's to the holdouts.
Did you get into Doris Day's music through her association with PETA?
My mother got a book called Animal Liberation [by Peter Singer] when I was little. It kinda lays out how animal rights and showing consideration to animals is an extension of our ethics. I got off the meat when I was eight, and that really stuck. So when I found out Doris was an animal rights activist, that definitely helped introduce me to her music, and then some of her movies.
I remember seeing one of Doris Day's '60s sitcoms. She took a rare-for-its-day stand against people leaving dogs in cars.
A lot of people don't know the danger and how fast the heat can rise in a car. They can die. It's so hard. You're excluded from so many places with a dog. I really appreciate from 10 years of having a dog that there are just so many stores you would take her if you could. It'd be nicer if it was like Paris, where you can take dogs pretty much everywhere.
Are you officially endorsing any candidate in 2020?
I might knock some doors for Bernie Sanders. People don't realize he's the compromise. He doesn't go far enough, but he's salt of the earth. He's real people and a step in the right direction. I know so many people who would vote for Bernie who are Republican because people like and trust him, and so often they vote based on their gut feeling about someone. Even if they may disagree with some of his policies or outlook, they like that he's been saying the same thing for 40 years. That's so rare.
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The recent Bernie versus Elizabeth Warren brouhaha seems to have bolstered his campaign.
I know. I think more people were more turned off by that. I think it kind of backfired (on Elizabeth Warren). I went through it in 2016, between the super delegates and the electronic voting machines. There are so many ways that dissent can be quashed, and somehow corporate forces maintain their lock on the realms of power.
I should mention that we did a song about the 2016 primary, and it's called "Ridiculous." Most of the video is of the long lines to vote in Arizona, some of the worst. There's a lot of Arizonans in it. So maybe someone will recognize themselves.
Nellie McKay is scheduled to perform on Saturday, February 8, at Chandler Center of the Arts. Tickets are $36 to $42 via Ticketmaster.