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By Jeff Gage
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It may not seem that jazz, politics, and standup comedy would make likely bedfellows, but singer Nellie McKay has mastered the art of weaving them together perfectly. As a forward-thinking musician, McKay has jumped all over the map in the last decade, with her albums spanning pop music, funk, disco, and hip hop. Her most recent, Normal as Blueberry Pie, veers into surprisingly traditional territory with a collection of Doris Day covers. But delve a bit deeper into McKay's politics, and it becomes clear that her voice isn't the only trait she shares with Ms. Day. Both women sport perfectly curled blond 'dos, both sing with the elegance and elasticity of refined jazz singers, and both intertwine animal-rights activism into their rich, artistic lives.
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McKay will return to the Twin Cities to play the Dakota Jazz Club for two nights this week, where she will be backed by musicians from A Prairie Home Companion. We caught up with McKay a few weeks ago to get her take on working with Prairie Home, her history as a comedian, and combining politics with her art.
City Pages: How did you first get involved with A Prairie Home Companion, and what has your experience been like?
Nellie McKay: Oh boy. It's like nothing else, that show. It feels like you are transported back in time and into the future. I always get the impression that [Garrison Keillor] hears everything, from the first minute you set foot in the theater—he's omnipresent. And the band is so fantastic, it's rather hard to mess anything up, no matter how hard you try.
CP: Prior to playing music, you spent some time working as a standup comedian. Have you found any similarities between doing comedy and performing as a musician?
McKay: Comedy is the hardest, because you're completely exposed up there. Music, by comparison—the melody will just carry you. You don't have to do so much. To want to put yourself out there like that, to be in show business, there has to be something wrong with you, I think [laughs]. It's so much pressure.
CP: Do you feel ever feel shy when you are performing?
McKay: No, real life is hard. Performing is—you can create your own reality. The hardest thing is just all the daily insults one must endure. There was something yesterday—I just feel like sharing this planet with other people is very difficult sometimes.
CP: Your newest album, Normal as Blueberry Pie, is a tribute to Doris Day. It seems like you have a lot in common with Doris, including a shared interest in animal-rights activism.
McKay: Oh yeah. She's seen as this retro figure, but she was so far ahead of her time—she still is, in regards to the animals. And certainly, it's wonderful when you love somebody's art and their politics, too, when you support what they're fighting for. People always say entertainers should stay out of politics, but if you find someone who believes or is inspired by the same things you are, I think it means so much more than just someone who sings a pretty song.
CP: Have you met Doris?
McKay: We just talked on the phone once, but she was utterly delightful.
CP: You're often labeled as "outspoken" because of your political beliefs. As a musician, do you feel like you are in a position to speak out and inspire change?
McKay: I feel like the situation in the world is so dire. We're in a state of crisis, so to ignore it is impossible. If at least you can provide a little comic relief—you never want to get too heavy-handed in shows, and I used to do that a while ago—it's wonderful if you can comment on something while still being funny. People are told that it's beyond them, or that politics will get you into trouble—you're not supposed to talk about it at Christmas—and it's crazy. It affects us all. The powers that be would love for us to be ignorant, because then things wouldn't change. To ignore politics, to sweep it under the rug, is so obviously acting against our own interests.
City Pages: Do you feel like music and politics can mix?
McKay: It can be a grind. I had a friend who said, "The thing about democracy is that it's so boring." It can wear you down, because it's so dry. The rhetoric is so great—if all you had to do all day was listen to Joe Lieberman, you would undoubtedly shoot yourself. That's where the art comes in. I'm so glad there's music and other things that can give a broader perspective and have a sense of humor, otherwise you would go crazy.
NELLIE MCKAY performs on WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 6, and THURSDAY, JANUARY 7, at the DAKOTA JAZZ CLUB; 612.332.1010
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