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Nellie McKay's Ongoing 'Head'-Ache
By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
January 20, 2006

 A PETA investigation has revealed grotesque abuses to animals in laboratories at Columbia University, including subjecting baboons to invasive surgeries and leaving them to suffer and die in their cages without any painkillers. Nellie McKay takes time to talk to PETA about the horrible things Columbia does in its animal tests and what you can do to help.

How's your head, Nellie McKay is asked.

"Oohhh, it's still on," McKay says from California in a breathless voice and startled manner reminiscent of Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly in "Breakfast at Tiffany's."

As for McKay's "Pretty Little Head," it's off.

At least for now.

That's because in late December, just two weeks before the scheduled release of McKay's sophomore album, Columbia Records told her, "Whoa, Nellie!" The label dropped "Pretty Little Head," and then it dropped McKay, whose 2004 debut, "Get Away From Me," had earned loads of critical acclaim for the willfully eccentric, hard to categorize singer-songwriter (we'll go with avant-cabaret).

It wasn't because of the song "Columbia Is Bleeding." That song is actually about animal testing at Columbia University, not about the Sony Music subsidiary for which McKay recorded and with whom she had a contentious relationship with from day one. (Her debut included a song with the line "should have signed with Verve instead of Sony.")

And it wasn't because of "The Big One," which laments the gentrification of the Harlem neighborhood in which McKay grew up and addresses the 1989 murder of family friend and tenants rights activist Bruce Bailey. Or because of "Cupcake," which sings the praises of gay marriage.

What brought things to loggerheads was that McKay wanted a 23-song, 65-minute version of "Pretty Little Head," while Columbia wanted a 16-song, 48-minute version. Columbia even sent its version to critics, and positive reviews have begun appearing in magazines with long lead times. In a four-star review, Blender described it as "indie musical comedy," suggesting that McKay, 23, was "pushing forward the craft of the song, connecting Tin Pan Alley to Ben Folds and De La Soul."

But at a show Nov. 29 at the Troubadour in Los Angeles, an emotional McKay (pronounced Mc-EYE) railed against Columbia, saying that an edited album was "not representative. . . . I think if they put that out they should say it's 'Pretty Little Head' by the Sony Corporation. If they put out the 65 minutes, it's by Nellie McKay." McKay also gave out the personal e-mail address of Columbia Chairman Will Botwin, encouraging fans to contact him urging the release of the longer version. Lashing out at animal cruelty and corporations "raping the world," McKay said, "If this is the music business, I want out!"

At a show the next night at L.A. club Largo, McKay said Sony has given her the full CD. But she continued to criticize Sony, saying that if she were computer savvy, she would be stealing music online.

By the time McKay got to New York a week later, Botwin had been forced out in a Sony executive shakeup, replaced by Steve Barnett, the former head of Columbia's sister label, Epic (which had its own widely publicized encounters last year with another strong-willed, idiosyncratic, piano-playing artist, Fiona Apple). At her Mercury Lounge performance, McKay dedicated a song to Botwin, telling the audience that the way he had been forced out was unfair.

Soon after, McKay was told that her album wouldn't be released by Columbia in any form, and she was given her walking papers. "It ain't no use to sit and wonder why -- they kept the coffeepot, I got the dog," McKay said in a statement. "All that matters to me is that I can continue to make irritating music which will baffle and enrage."

Representatives from Sony and Columbia did not respond to inquiries. The label was also rumored to be unhappy about McKay's upcoming Broadway commitment and her inability to promote the album through touring.

"What's happening is the way the world is running," McKay said last weekend. "We're working out a deal, and then I will have the record."

In fact, McKay and her mother/manager, former actress Robin Pappas, put up the money themselves for the album's recording as a way to keep Columbia at arm's length, which should make regaining rights to its 23 songs less problematic. There's talk about an initial Internet-only release and CDs in February or March, when McKay will appear on Broadway as Polly Peachum in Wallace Shawn's adaptation of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's "The Threepenny Opera" with Alan Cumming, Ana Gasteyer and Cyndi Lauper, who guests on "Pretty Little Head."

According to McKay, "We've been getting a lot of phone calls. We haven't had to make one, which is kind of nice. We're just taking in all the options. . . . Who knows, but the future may be indie."

Certainly, the spirit always has been.

Mobile, too. McKay was born in London, but her mother split with her father, Scottish writer and director Malcolm McKay, when Nellie was a baby. They settled in New York and lived in Harlem until she was 10, moving to the West Coast after they were mugged and family friend Bailey, a well-known tenant rights activist and organizer, was kidnapped off the streets and killed.

"The Big One" is about Harlem's ongoing gentrification and corporate commercialism ("another chain will set you free," McKay sings), and it is a tribute to Bailey, "a man who fought for all people," McKay says. "Certainly, I think his case should be reopened because they never found his killers," says McKay, who (with her mother) was in court with Bailey earlier the day he disappeared. (He was representing their building in a dispute with their landlord.) She encourages late-blooming interest in the case because "there's a bunch of guilty people out there."

McKay and Pappas eventually returned to Pennsylvania, where the high schooler began a pattern of formal and informal music education that in 2000 landed her at the Manhattan School of Music. By 2002, she'd dropped out and begun developing her songwriting and performance skills in small piano bars, along with occasional stand-up comedy.

In February 2003, McKay opened for the Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players (they'll open for her at the Birchmere on Sunday), which led to a major profile in Time Out New York, which gave her buzz status and provoked a minor bidding war among several labels. Columbia won but quickly found itself with a handful. McKay insisted that Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick be hired as producer and that "Get Away From Me" (a title tweaking Norah Jones's mega-platinum "Come Away With Me") be released as a double CD. Her album deal called for 13 songs; McKay eventually underwrote the costs of five additional tracks, with Emerick waiving his fees on those tracks. "Get Away From Me" (which she'd originally wanted to title "Penis Envy") reportedly became the first double-disc set ever released by a debut artist, though at 18 songs and hour length it would have easily fit a single CD. (It was priced as such.) The discs were labeled "Side 1" and "Side 2," in homage to the vinyl era and McKay's idealized notion of "flipping over" a record, though she adds that "it was also just that feeling of cleansing the palate as opposed to if you listen straight through without a break. [With either album] people can listen to what songs they want to, and in what order they like. . . . I don't feel that people have to listen to an album as a whole."

Her debut, a piano-centered panoply of sophisticated pop, cabaret, Broadway, rap and jazz tempered with dark wit and social commentary, earned comparisons to, at one point, just about everyone, with critics hailing the then 20-year-old as a boundary-less prodigy. "Get Away From Me" sold 104,000 copies and made a strong showing in year-end "best-of" lists, including No. 14 in last year's Village Voice critics poll, though the Austin Chronicle presciently warned that "it's sometimes hard to tell who's running the show, the major label or the major talent."

McKay was also earning a reputation for emotional performances, particularly of such issue-oriented songs as the animal rights-focused "Columbia Is Bleeding." It was nothing new for McKay, who, at age 7, started an animal rights society at her school, became a vegetarian at 8 and has been taking part in PETA protests since she was a child. One of the first songs she wrote was a protest against elephant hunting titled "Please, Please Don't Shoot Us." She was 12.

"The reason that I work so much with animal rights is I feel it has the farthest to go, even though I'm very committed to women's rights and civil rights and the fight against poverty," McKay says. "Animal rights is still considered a joke to many people, and it isn't a joke at all."

"Columbia Is Bleeding" is the most openly political song on the new album, though the lovely "Gladd" pays tribute to Glad Patterson, a peace activist who died in 2003 and was known for putting flowers in guns at Vietnam War protests.

"The next album," McKay adds, "I'd like to have completely protest songs. I get very impatient with my songs that I feel are more platitudinous."

Now Broadway's calling, with "Threepenny" previews beginning March 24.

"It's very different," McKay admits, adding, "I've always loved Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, so to perform their songs in any way, I'm very happy." (In "Mama and Me," which pays tribute to Pappas and to mothers in general, she sings, "When I was an embryo/Didn't have Nintendo/Saw a lot of Brecht, though.")

"What he wrote is still so pertinent," McKay says of Brecht's meld of accessible art with political and social meaning. "He lived those principles more than other people, and you saw it in his work more. I feel a lot of people have to compromise, but [Brecht's work] was both entertaining and it had substance.

Nellie McKay Sunday at the Birchmere with the Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players Sound: Smart, melodically sophisticated alt-cabaret Influenced by: Set musical Mapquest on random shuffle and blend.