Nellie McKay has one of those timeless voices. It's how she chooses to use it that differentiates her from the jazz divas and torch singers the singer-songwriter counts as influences.
Nellie McKay: Music to Go Vegan By
McKay (it's pronounced "McEye") is capable of delivering a silky-smooth piano number, sure, but you'd best expect biting social commentary along with that. An eclectic talent, the East Coast artist has produced cabaret-style tunes about topics like animal rights ("Columbia is Bleeding") and gay marriage ("Cupcake") that are as catchy as they are subversive. This isn't dry, pedantic music by any means: McKay's often hilarious, spinning anger into scathingly funny moments ("Sammy, oh let me put away the kettle/Oh, no honey, your arrogance is what makes you special") during songs like the countrified feminist ditty "It's A Pose".
And all the while she uses that voice, uses it to sing, to speak, to laugh and to scream, sometimes seemingly all at once.
McKay hits Minneapolis next week while touring behind her new album, Obligatory Villagers, but that's not all that's in the works. Current projects include a musical film now in pre-production called “The Amazing True Story of a Teenage Single Mom” that's based on a graphic novel by Katherine Arnoldi ("I'm sure we're going to fuck it up in the movie; it's just too perfect already,” McKay says). She's also working on a musical about a tenant's organization she hopes will be done in the early part of next year.
While speaking with her by phone just after she had stopped for lunch in Perry, Utah, I found that she has both the breathy, dulcet speaking voice one expects of a singer and the wicked sense of humor her songs suggest.
City Pages: How would you compare Obligatory Villagers to your previous two releases?
Nellie McKay: They don't sound much like each other – they're kind of all over the place. Other than that, this one is shorter. CP: Was that a conscious decision? It's interesting that you would release a shorter album after the much-publicized fight with a record label where you wanted the longer version of your work released.
NM: Usually, I kind of feel pressure from myself to put everything on there, because who knows when your next album is going to come out? But It's all about the song mixture. It should be less about length, and more about how the various songs complement each other.
CP: On each of your albums, there are overtly political songs. Were you an activist before you were a musician, or vice versa?
NM: You have a lot of I think that an activist is anyone who sees something they consider unjust and does something about it – and it can be a very small thing. If you complain about something to someone in a position of power and that person does something about it, then you're an activist, so I guess that came first. But I always loved music.
CP: There's a new song on your website that's not on the new album, "A Christmas Dirge." It's a different kind of holiday tune, one that urges people not to cut Christmas trees. How did that song come to you? And people who download the song are asked to donate to the "Nellie McKay Disaster Fund." Can you tell us about that?
NM: Well, we're not making any money, that's how the disaster fund came up. And I am a walking disaster, so that fits too. [Laughs]
I've always considered it very sad that, the day after Christmas, you'll see the sidewalks littered with these Christmas trees that have just been thrown out. It just seems such a waste. I've also written a more upbeat Christmas song, too. I'll be performing that in Minneapolis, and that's called “Take Me Away.”
CP: Your songs are diverse musically. When you compose a song that combines genres – like "Sari", which incorporates hip-hop elements – do you set out to try to combine styles in a certain way, like “Hey, maybe I'll shout here, maybe I'll put a quiet piano part here”?
NM: I have no idea. [Pauses, laughs] With "Sari," basically nobody in the studio had any experience producing hip-hop, so we were wandering around the studio randomly asking people “is this funky? Does this sound funky to you?” But it is nice to always have fresh things.
CP: What's one fresh thing you can tell us about yourself that people ought to know, but don't?
NM: [long pause] I'm secretly a Republican.
CP: It's obvious. So, when should we invade Iran? Tomorrow, or next week?
NM: We should've invaded them last week. Motherfuckers. I hope we continue our militaristic, capitalistic, fascist domination of the planet until it finally buckles under our iron grasp.
Nellie McKay plays with Aimee Mann at the Guthrie Dec. 10. Hear her last answer in this interview as an MP3.