From the Vault: Nellie McKay interview

NewBeats.com will be celebrating its 10th anniversary this April! Throughout the year we’ll post some previously ran features and interviews. Kicking off is an interview from a few years ago with singer/songwriter Nellie McKay, before she had a record deal.

Nellie McKay
by David Chiu

Most rock and pop stars, especially the established ones, are usually ambivalent and cynical towards celebrity. Artists like Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder have been known to regard such things with disdain, while other stars like Madonna have celebrated the notion of fame in a cheeky yet mocking way.

However if you bring up fame with Nellie McKay, she genuinely loves the trappings of celebrity unapologetically, almost shockingly, as a means to promote herself and to impart social change.

“The more fame and money you acquire, it gives you more power,” says the engaging singer, “and there are a lot of things, I’d like to change about this world. Celebrity and wealth are some of the biggest weapons for social change because most people who have them don’t use them for anything but Versace.”

If you haven’t heard of Nellie McKay, you probably will soon. McKay is a 19- year-old singer-pianist-songwriter whose musical instincts lie more in Tin Pan Alley pop, Kurt Weill, and Randy Newman than the pop songwriting teams of the Matrix and the Neptunes. Her melodic pop and jazz-styled tunes make her sort of the anti-Norah Jones; while Jones makes romantic stately music, McKay’s approach is more quirky, sarcastic, and sometimes scathing. On stage, McKay performs solo on piano tackling her original material and covers from the past like “Body and Soul,” “These Boots are Made for Walking,” and “San Francisco.”

“I was influenced a lot early on by the women of the big band era,” she says of her musical inspirations. ” I really liked the spirit of the ’60s and the pop music of that era. If you mix that all up and you throw in politics and nostalgia and being generally a kid growing up, yeah-that’s basically it. McKay says that she is influenced by classic pop and jazz music more than contemporary music. “I really haven’t gone much beyond 1970. I listen to a little Eminem, [and] stuff like [the Bangles’] “Walk Like an Egyptian.” I’ve been trying for a while to write my own “Walk Like an Egyptian.”

McKay is like no other artist, especially in terms of songwriting. Some of her songs provide a soapbox of her views such as in the political and social realm. Proof is a song of hers called “Sari” (a jazz-meets-hip-hop hybrid of a song) in which she rails against things in the news and in pop culture such as the Oxygen Network and the memorial service of the late Senator Paul Wellstone (and not to mention, herself). “I feel everything is political–love, sex, life. I don’t see how people can be unaffected by politics or the current events of the world. I get impatient with love songs, especially when they are written in a more modern style.”

Another song of hers “I Wanna Get Married,” is a sad ballad laced with self-deprecation and irony. It begs the question whether McKay is already thinking about the ball and chain even when her career is just getting started. The singer explains that the song was born out of her her perception of romantic and domestic bliss via television shows like Bewitched. “I just wanted to have a nice normal life, and that’s never going to happen for me. At the same time you can’t help romanticizing especially the further removed you are from it. Basically I’m mocking my own infatuation with matrimony.

McKay’s music is sophisticated and smart, but the artist herself is very self-deprecating about her approach to songwriting, especially when it comes to the words. McKay is not ashamed to admit she borrows from contemporary pop music in the process. “I write the melody first and usually before the melody is done, I’m copping chords from an N’Sync CD, then I’ll make the bridge from a Shania Twain CD. Then I’d write a melody over it and then I try to decide what’s it going to be about.”

A dazzling pianist who possesses a cool and seductive vocal delivery, McKay had played at the Antihoot, an open stage Sidewalk Café. The newcomer impressed many folks in attendance, most notably Lach, who runs the Antihoot. It would set the wheels in motion for her burgeoning career. “He proposed ‘manage’ to me,” cleverly puns McKay. “We get a long really well. I really like it when people encourage me.”

McKay’s mannered, articulate, and slightly-accented speech might be due to the fact that she was born in London. During her childhood, she has traveled around when she emigrated with her mother to the States, first to California, then living in New York City’s Harlem; then moving to Olympia, Washington and later Pennsylvania, and then back to New York again. In New York, she studied jazz voice at the Manhattan School of Music before dropping out (she admits has no regrets). Surrounded by Columbia University students in the area, she is now on her own and in debt like every other artist living in the Big Apple. “I really think the reason I’m 19 is that in some ways I’m 40 and a toddler. I had to boil water the other day-my mother never taught me how to cook or clean or do anything. Emotionally I’m totally a baby.”

For someone who has yet to release a full-length record. McKay has already garnered praise. A recent Time Out New York piece on her says she is fast proving to be one of New York’s most intriguing performers. Jason Trachtenberg of Trachtenberg Sideshow Players called her an absolute phenomenon. Lach himself has dubbed McKay as one of the most important artist of today. Does such attention and kudos fazes this wunderkind? “I take it as a compliment,” she says. “Seriously they’re expecting that much from me, and I’m going to try to fulfill it.”

When asked how would she change things once she has fame and money, McKay threw some memorable examples, one of which included the state of carriage horses-yes, the ones you see riding the tourists around Central Park. “They’re there for no reason. I don’t see why they can’t be in a field somewhere. I don’t think that it’s beautiful in New York when you got a cold wet horse picking his hoof out of his own manure. I don’t think that’s charming.”

McKay continues on the topic of social issues and is not afraid to speak her mind. “People are complaining about celebrities getting involved in politics,” says McKay. “I’m trying to find a benign way you can do that without people criticizing you for that.

“It’s unbelievable the political infrastructure in this city. Or like the homeless. Why would you cut education? There’s so many things I want to change, and there’s no way I’ll ever do it.”

The singer/songwriter is having a great last couple of months playing live to people and getting noticed by the record labels, several of which are trying to covet her. Although she loves the attention, she hates the whole tug of war nature of the biz. “I feel like I’m suddenly the popular kid in school who’s gonna like be my partner. I just want to take everyone home with me. I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. My manager Lach is enjoying this very much.” (As of this writing, McKay recently inked a deal with Columbia Records; her major-label debut is scheduled to be released this fall).

The ultimate goal for McKay, with the exception of her desire to achieve fame and fortune, is to bring happiness through her music. “If everybody tried to be happy in life, then the world would be a better place. My concept of happiness is to make other people feel content.

“If you can achieve change I think that’s the greatest happiness you can have. There’s no great pleasure. If I can have Mother Theresa with my hedonistic streak, than that’s what I like to do with my life.”

While other emerging artists might have an inner struggle in dealing with fame and the problems that comes with it, McKay has absolutely no problem in handling them-her attitude is ‘bring it on!’. Part of her ambition to make it comes from having worked menial odd jobs that included being a secretary and a stint at the supermarket Gristedes, which she disliked. “I have a great respect for teachers but everyone says, ‘Get a college diploma so you’ll be able to teach and have security.’ I think I would rather live on the street. There’s nothing worse than working for pennies for the boss man.”

However, when this interviewer mentioned wouldn’t that be the same scenario working for a corporate record label, she acknowledged that fact with a wry sensibility that makes her all the more endearing. “But you are doing work that you love for the boss man. That’s a very good point. Even if you are a product, it’s so much less dehumanizing than checking bags. I get a great pleasure out of what I do.”

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