Nineteen-year-old Nellie McKay has an eerie command over musical idioms that wouldn't seem to connect. On the surface, she's a sweet-looking Doris Day fan who plays piano and sings with the nuanced voice of an aged jazz great. But her lyrics touch on stalkers, stabbing, and misbegotten foreign policy. She also raps. And wears curlers in her hair. And speaks out against animal testing.
McKay's rich mix of purity and pathos has made her album Get Away From Me one of the most fêted debuts in years: Countless critics have praised her singing and songwriting, which she honed in New York bars and cabarets. After some formative years in Harlem, McKay traveled the country with her actress mother before returning to New York for a brief stint at the Manhattan School Of Music. After dropping out, she took to playing open-mic nights in downtown venues, where record-company executives found an outrageously talented teenager composed well beyond her years.
After signing with Columbia Records, McKay reworked demos that she'd written, played, and recorded herself with producer Geoff Emerick, an old pro who worked as an engineer and producer on records by The Beatles, The Zombies, and Elvis Costello. Get Away From Me came out in February as a two-disc set—it could have fit on one CD, though less splashily—and it's gathered steam as people spread the word. Over the past few months, McKay has performed on The View, set off to tour Europe with Sting, and inked a deal to open for Lou Reed at Carnegie Hall. In between, she met with The Onion A.V. Club to talk about Harlem, gay bars, hip-hop, and what it's like to be 19 and unsure about beckoning stardom.
The Onion: Where did you grow up?
Nellie McKay: I was born in London, and a couple of broken noses later, we were no longer living in London. We went to California and ended up back in New York, because my mother's an actor and that's where the work was. We subletted in various parts of the city, but I particularly remember Hell's Kitchen. Then we lived in Queens for a couple of years. It was the place where they had the big subway fires—that was the subway train we took. Then we moved to Harlem.
O: How old were you in Harlem?
NM: I was 4. I didn't start elementary school until I got to New York. We moved in and I got sent off to my grandmother's for five months and watched a lot of TV and had a lot of grilled cheese with butter on it—because she was English and put lots of butter on everything—and yogurt. The English are big on dairy products, you know? I'd have an earache, and she'd be like, "Here, have some milk." Wonderful woman, but she had kind of screwed-up nutrition ideas. I went through first grade and skipped second. I went to third grade at PS 163, which we called the Alfred E. Neuman School. That was fun. I started the first animal-rights society that the Alfred E. Neuman School had ever seen. Then I went to Booker T. Washington Junior High School. I think that was where I first became weird, and that never ended.
Anyway, by that point we had joined the tenants' union and were withholding rent, because our landlord was not taking care of our building. A lot of ceilings had fallen, and the heat was constantly being turned down. We camped out in the kitchen a lot. There was an alley next to our house and a lot of cats in the alley, so we were pretty much running a spay/neuter clinic out of our house. There were a lot of cats, and we adopted a lot. We had nine. I remember one time I was practicing, and a neighbor came up and knocked on our door—he did so much crack, man—and gave my mother a dollar and said "Give it to the little lady, for making such beautiful music." These record companies, they can throw money at you, but it'll never mean as much to me as that guy. I really liked growing up in Harlem.
Anyway, our tenants' association leader was murdered by people who were never convicted, but I had some ideas. It was on the night after he had represented my mother in court. We decided that at that point, it was kind of time to leave New York. I was approaching adolescence. For some reason, I guess my mother thought it would be less crazy out in the suburbs, which it wasn't. I just think adolescence is hard for anyone. Also, we got mugged. So we wound up in Pennsylvania, where I went to high school. Then I went to college here in New York. I'm glad, because if you're dissatisfied anywhere, New York is the place to be. If you're unhappy at college in Topeka, I don't know what there is to distract yourself with, you know? So anyway, I distracted myself until I decided that the distraction could be a school in and of itself. Then I just quit.
O: How did you start performing music?
NM: In high school, I was always into Jerry Lee Lewis, and they decided they needed a piano player for the jazz band. I had my little boogie-woogie thing that I did, so I did my little boogie-woogie thing. I had a very high-pitched voice.
O: When did you start writing songs?
NM: I started writing songs for real about a year and a half ago. I played piano for a long time, and I said, "Well, fuck that! You don't get any credit as a piano player. So I'll be a singer, and then people will pay attention to me." Then I got to music school and nobody paid attention to the singers. In fact, we were condescended to a great deal.
O: This was at the Manhattan College Of Music?
NM: Yeah. In the hierarchy of instruments, if you're a harpist, you're considered someone with a brain much more than if you're a singer. Even though singers, particularly singers who can play piano… If you go to the office of career development, you can get a gig much easier. Still, musicians tend to look down on you. I think they've got some nerve, because if they could sing, they would do it, but most of them can't. So I wanted to sing and play piano, and that wasn't terribly encouraged. Then I went to see A Hard Day's Night at Film Forum, and it made me go out and get some gigs. Once I got the taste of some real work, I felt I was getting much more from that than from school. So then I played a lot of gay bars, and I learned a lot from gay boys. I learned to really not screw up, because, my God, they are good listeners. Not good listeners because they listen all the time, but I mean—not to generalize all gay people, but there's a certain kind of clientele coming in that if you fuck up, they notice.
O: What were your first songs like?
NM: Well, I've been performing my whole life. In eighth grade, I did a song called "Please Please Don't Shoot Us" about elephant poaching. I guess that was the beginning of my songwriting career. It didn't really go anywhere. It was me and my friend, and we dressed up as elephants. Gee, I'm glad I got a record contract, because all of a sudden everything you were doing before that made you a stupid person now makes you a smart person. I do tend to stick my neck out in a lot of bad ways, as well as good. One might say that I like being humiliated, but I just think you have to try.
O: Why did you quit school?
NM: I was in school for jazz voice, which is the dumbest way to spend $35,000 a year. I just felt like a rip-off of good jazz singers. I didn't feel like I was being anything special, and I always wanted to be special. It's like you know you have something inside you that's gonna make you different than everybody else and make you somebody in this life, but you wish you could figure out what it is, because at most things, you're either mediocre or really, really bad.
O: What was it like when record companies started showing up at your gigs?
NM: When it came, it wasn't much of a surprise, because I'd been knocking on record companies' doors for so long, and I had gone on a lot of auditions. It's weird when you go to those auditions through the Village Voice or something. You never know what to expect. You just press Floor 3 on the elevator and pray that it's not… You know, anyone can place an ad, so it's really freaky. I had a lot of people who said "You need $5,000 here or $3,000 there, give us a certain amount of money and we'll make it happen, blah blah blah." There was a lot of that kind of shyster stuff. When they were casting The Graduate on Broadway, I had a person who was trying to get me a job in a stripper part. Thank God that didn't happen. There's just so much shit you do—comedy gigs where people yell out "Show us your pussy!" Then there are directors who say "I'd like to teach you about life," with a gleam in their eye. So by the time I was actually in a record office and they wanted me to play songs that I had written, I wasn't scared one bit. You get thick skin. You're still soft on the inside, but you really develop a "fuck you" attitude to the world, in kind of a pleasant way.
O: Did the record-company people have designs for you, or were they ready to hear you on your own terms?
NM: I think they could tell I was pretty hip. In the contract, I was really looking out for creative control, so that was by mutual agreement. I did all the demos myself—not only writing and playing and singing, but producing—and they just wanted me to reproduce it for the album. What people generally tell you is, "We'll all agree," and then once you sign, they expect to get their own way. I think it was a bit of a surprise that I was still very headstrong even after signing. I wasn't so happy to get a deal that I would agree to anything. In fact, I disagreed on most things and got my way on most things, which I think was to all of our benefit. But they wanted the record to come out, and I wanted the record to come out, so we had to work together.
O: Was it hard to convince Columbia to do a double album?
NM: It was not very hard. My A&R guy didn't think it was a good idea. Nobody thinks it's a good idea if you're an unknown singer-songwriter. But I just kind of feel like if I want something, I can get it. That's the good side of being American, or something, you know? We gave them wine and peppermint patties and showed them a videotape of Geoff [Emerick] with FedEx tape wrapped around his body, and ketchup staining his face, and a cowboy hat on his head like he was in Mexico, and an Uzi to his head. He read this ransom note on a video screen. Then I gave a PowerPoint presentation and I invited all my friends, because rap stars have a posse, and I thought it would make me look more intimidating. That really freaked out the publicity lady and my A&R guy and the other publicist. They were only looking out for themselves, and they didn't really give a shit about what I was trying to do. Of course, the top reps didn't have any problem with any of this. So we just went ahead, and about halfway through, they stopped and said, "You know, we think we can do this."
O: What was in the PowerPoint presentation?
NM: I assembled a number of figures and statistics with the help of a friend who worked at a research firm. We just put how many double albums have been ranked as the greatest albums of all time, how many they sold, how many tracks are typically on hip-hop albums nowadays, how much it costs to make that extra disc. Originally, we were quoted anywhere from $1 to $2. Bullshit! It costs, like, 49 cents. So I agreed to give that up out of my royalties. I wish I could just say, "I want a double album," but you have to fight. We used quotes of theirs and threw them back in their faces. I'm making it sound nasty, but we just talked about their commitment to furthering their art through their jobs, and how it wasn't just about business, but also seeking the best artistic solution, not just a commercial one. I'd like to think they were reminded of what they believe in. I think people at most record labels really like music, but it's hard because everything is so subjective, and everyone's so creative in their own right.
O: You rap a little on your album. Do you listen to much hip-hop?
NM: I don't listen to much rap, really. I can rarely listen to a whole record of it, because musically, it's very formulaic, and oftentimes it doesn't have the best hooks on every track. I like my music to be very musical, you know? In terms of content, a lot of it's crap, with all the sexism and homophobic bullshit. It's incredible how rappers are always preaching nonconformity—you know, "I'm just gonna go my own way and be my own man and blah blah blah"—but they're the first ones to do so many things that they have to do. They have to do that hip-hop thing, a certain way of walking, and it's so conformist. I mean, way to buck the system! But I do think there's a great deal of politics mixed in. Their reference to the real world is much better than most, particularly a lot of women who seem like all they do is sing about love. Love is such a fleeting emotion. It's such a small part of the things you do in your life. I don't understand why that's all they concentrate on, except that that's what they're encouraged to do, because if you keep thinking about love, you'll be less of a challenge. I like that about rap. It's got power to it.
O: How about the politics in your music? It's rare to hear even a mention of politics in pop these days, and you're so forthright.
NM: Well, gee, I never think it's forthright. I always think it's the apex of subtlety. [Laughs.] I think it does come across even more than I intend for it to, but you have to reflect honestly what's around you. I think a lot of people are just obsessed with their own relationships, so that is an honest reflection of what they see. A lot of people don't go much deeper than that. What good does thinking do you? But while a lot of my day, like most people's, is spent thinking about me, I can see how it's a universal thing: the competition, the clashes of personality that fuel the world and fill the world, are the exact same ones that take place just between two people. I just think politics is a form, en masse, of human relations.
O: Do you worry about not being taken seriously within the context of pop music?
NM: Well, I was never taken seriously when I was taught. But some people who agree with you will like your music, and some who don't agree with you will like your music. I think that if you can approach things in a universal fashion and speak rationally about things, then most people do have similar intrinsic values. They don't—or at least they feel that they shouldn't—want other people to suffer. They want a good life for them and their own. Most people, even though I don't necessarily get along with them, are… I was going to say "good," but I don't really think people are necessarily good. But I feel that most people, if you took them out of their jobs and said "Kill that man" or "Rape that woman" or "Implant an electrode in that monkey's skull," they wouldn't do it. If you can somehow make people see things that way, everybody's pretty universal, at least once they reach a certain point in life. I know young men in particular can be fascinated with pain, but I would hope that if actually confronted with it, they wouldn't do it.
I was on The View recently, and I had a lot of older ladies from suburban backgrounds come up to me afterward. They were really nice. It was great. They said when they introduced me that I was "the controversial Nellie McKay," which I kind of liked. But then the publicist was saying "No, eccentric. Eccentric." Fuck that, man. I want to be controversial! Some people, particularly men, want to think I'm a sweet young lady.
O: Your album is very diverse stylistically. Did you set that as a goal?
NM: I feel like you should always be questioning the genre you're doing. If you're doing something that sounds like a lullaby, it can be good to make it about someone stalking someone. The producer kept telling me to make it harder-edged, but I didn't want to do that at all. It's supposed to be creepy, but in a funny way. It just didn't work, so me and Momma decided to do it softer, in a kind of baby-girl voice.
O: What do you think about the reception your album has gotten so far?
NM: I'm so sick of this album, I just want to die. I just want to work on the next one, get the next album out. I'm opening for Sting, and we're going all over Europe. When I first heard that, I was like, "Oh my God! Me and Sting, in Paris? Oh my God, that's incredible!" And now it's like, "Ah, Sting, you know…" I'd just like to make this next album, do all that shit, never leave New York, maybe go on a trip somewhere colder over the summer. But who wants to work, you know? As long as you have imagination, you never need to work. You never get bored. You could just walk around and go to museums and check out new movies. You could be busy in this city for 10,000 years.
O: Are you working on a new album now?
NM: Yeah. I'm kind of worried about it, but that's another reason I'd rather get it out sooner than later, so expectations are lower.
O: Why are you worried about it?
NM: Because I don't think it's that good. [Laughs.] I'm just kind of sick of music. I don't know what I want to do. It's not that I feel suicidal or anything, but I just want to end this life, you know? I just want to be somebody else now. Sometimes I feel like that. You always think, "If I just cut my hair really short and dye it brown and put on a little goatee, no one would know it was me, and I could…"
O: Can't you do that as a pop star, though? In a sense?
NM: I'll always be me.
O: You're young and playing in this forum that doesn't have a prescribed role for someone like you.
NM: I know, but don't you see how the possibilities can… Just like everything, even the most fun and creative endeavor requires work to be successful, and I'm so sick of working. I'm a lazy person at heart. I never meant to be a go-getter. I don't know where it came from. As usual, I blame my mother, because she put that first little Orson Welles biography in my hands and said, "Now read this, honey." I just feel like there's so much you gotta do, and half the time I feel like, "I'm going to do it, goddammit, I'm going to do all of it, and there's nothing I can't accomplish." And then the other half is just like, "Oh, fuck it." Those are my two emotions. I go through the whole day just like this. Even in an interview, it just goes back and forth.
O: Have you thought about doing other things down the line?
NM: I'm getting offers for movie stuff right now, which is pretty sweet. But it shows how facile the movie industry is. I mean, they don't know I can act. I guess they like my record and think I have a nice complexion? I don't know. How many people work and wait tables to get that break? I really don't feel entitled. Everything's so corrupt, you know? Especially the tastemakers. I trust the American public much more than the tastemakers.
O: Is there anybody you're angling to collaborate with?
NM: I'm doing a song on my next album about gay marriage, and, oh my God, I want the video to be full of every gay celebrity there is. I want to collaborate with Yoko Ono. I'd love to do a duet with Pink. There are so many people that do things better than I do: dancing, singing like a black girl, singing country. Or if, while they sing, they move their arms in and around their crotch; when I sing, I play the piano and look like a little choirgirl. I'd like to mix it up like that. I'm opening for Lou Reed at Carnegie Hall now. I also want to do a rap song with Dick Gregory, because I'm just reading his book Nigger. I'd like to do a song with Jane Goodall, man.
O: How do you feel about your persona as a precocious, eccentric star out of time?
NM: Precocious and eccentric are okay. But I think that people in the arts represent something integral and kind of secretive in everybody else. So the reason people like some artists is because they're saying or doing something that they would like to do or say, but they don't have the balls or the means. People are really afraid to put their ass on the line. Just to put your face on a poster and put your name in big print and say "Come see me," that takes some cojones, you know? Ambition is nothing to be ashamed of.