Nellie McKay embraces music, keeps public at bay

nellie mckay

Wide-ranging chanteuse ends boycott of Canada with Horseshoe gig.

Nellie McKay plays the Horseshoe Tavern on June 30.



Nick Krewen

Special to the Star

Published on Wed Jun 27 2012


It’s hard to know where to start with Nellie McKay.

Over eight years and five albums, the enormously talented British-born New Yorker has immersed herself in disciplines both visual and musical, ranging from acting in major motion pictures to starring roles in Broadway and cabaret theatre; her witty and acerbic songwriting embracing styles that include, but not restricted to, blues, pop, rap, rumba, meringue, Brecht-flavoured waltzes and jazz.

The ukulele-strumming and piano-pounding McKay, who closes the TD Toronto Jazz Festival this Saturday at the Horseshoe solo, sharing a bill with the Becca Stevens Band, is one of those gifted rarities who can stretch their skills to suit their purpose, be it satire (“Clonie,” from 2004’s introductory double-album Get Away From Me) or aiming darts at various adversaries with deadly, unflinching precision (2006’s anti-animal-testing anthem “Columbia Is Bleeding” from her double-CD Pretty Little Head).

She’s equally adept at interpreting (2009’s Normal As Blueberry Pie is a Doris Day tribute album) and hopes to record a rendition of her one-woman cabaret show, consisting of cover material and based on I Want To Live, the 1958 film about convicted murderer Barbara Graham, for release next year.

So which Nellie McKay is showing up at The Horseshoe?

“Because it’s a jazz festival, these are people you want to make happy,” chuckles the 30-year-old.

“So happy jazz.”

As an interview subject, McKay is elusive. Ask her about her inspirations and she’ll rhyme off things like “my dog, pretzels, a nice book.”

Try to pry into her private life, and you’ll get nowhere. “You shouldn’t talk about things really,” she replies. “To anybody. It cheapens them.”

Does she feel that keeping the public at arm’s length has hurt her career?

“I think other things have hurt, but I don’t think anybody really cares,” McKay says from backstage at New York City’s Signature Theatre, where she’s conducting a workshop.
“We’ve considered manufacturing scandals sometimes, but the shame would be if you manufactured a scandal and nobody covered it.”

Actually, McKay was embroiled a bit of a scandal at the beginning of her career, telling everyone she was 19 or 20 during promotional duties for Get Away From Me when she was actually a couple of years older.

“Right, yeah, well, you know it’s that thing — that you’re so scared of the prejudice that you end up feeding it,” she recalls. “It’s the equivalent to passing, when blacks used to pass for whites, or Jews would pass for Christian, or any sort of passing that way, to pass for a younger age, you wind up feeding the very thing you abhor.”

Listen to her music, and you realize that McKay abhors a number of things, especially animal cruelty. The sometime activist reveals that her upcoming trip to Toronto is her first in awhile because she boycotted Canada due to a long-standing issue.

“Toronto’s a delightful city,” McKay says. “For a few years we didn’t come to Canada because we were part of the boycott because of the seal hunt. I think it was myself, and Morrissey and Paul McCartney, and somehow I think they had a bigger impact.
“But I guess change is slow coming, so we’ll have to find another way, but it will be nice to come to Toronto again.”

One mainstay in McKay’s life is her mother, actress Robin Pappas, who also acts as her manager, and on her most recent album, Home Sweet Mobile Home, her co-producer.

Is it a good idea to have a parent involved in practically every aspect of her life?

“I think it’s all pretty wonderful, for me,” McKay says, laughing. “I think she’d like me to, proverbially speaking, ‘leave home,’ eventually.
“If there’s any downside it’s that she cares about quality. I would like to sell out more.”

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