Interview with Nellie McKay
In 2004, Nellie McKay’s double CD, Get Away From Me, launched her as one of the most talked-about new singer-songwriters in recent memory. Her neo-cabaret style was laced with hip-hop cadences and thrift-shop glamour, and her sassy humor (the album’s title was a sly slap at another recent breakthrough album, Norah Jones’ Come Away With Me) made McKay a press favorite, presenting her with numerous opportunities for her freewheeling political and social commentary. On McKay’s follow-up, Pretty Little Head, songs like "Real Life" and "The Down Low" are more rocked-up, while elsewhere she adds a swinging ’60s/That Girl vibe to her mix. But McKay—born in England, raised first in Harlem and then in Washington state and Pennsylvania—won’t be able to take the new material out on the road anytime soon; she has been cast as Polly Peachum in a new Broadway production of The Threepenny Opera, set to open in the spring. McKay, 21, settled in at an Irish pub on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, eager to talk about Pretty Little Head despite mixed feelings about being in the spotlight: "It beats working at a fast-food joint, I guess."
Mother Jones: Of late, you’ve expressed a lot of ambivalence about celebrity.
Nellie McKay: It’s just so sleazy, it’s not worth it. When you think about what goes on in the world, you think, "How can I be so selfish not to take every opportunity celebrity offers to get pro-animal messages out there, pro-women messages, pro-civil rights things?" But through music, your message comes clearer, and that’s really all that needs to be out there. Not muddled versions of what you’re saying.
MJ: Did that affect how you approached the songs on this record?
NM: No. There’s more politics on this album, it’s just maybe subtler—or maybe people are just so used to being hit over the head. If you don’t mention Bush directly, people don’t think you’re writing political songs. They can be really dense sometimes. Say you live in a building that’s trying to kick the tenants out, that isn’t just happening to you and your street—that’s happening across the city, across the country, around the world. That’s what "The Big One" is about. And about Bruce Bailey, a tenant activist who was murdered.
MJ: The story is really complicated in the song’s lyrics. Give us the quick version.
NM: He fought against the powers that be, the people with huge amounts of money and huge interests in real estate in this city, mainly in Harlem and the Upper West Side. The landlords would hire drug dealers to come in, or intimidate tenants, or use deliberate neglect, so people will move out and they can raise the rents. Bruce worked with our building. He and my mother were in court together in 1989, and then that night he was abducted and they found his body in various pieces a few days later. The case was never solved.
MJ: At one point, you were planning to kickoff this album with all the protest songs.
NM: I was going to, but—it’s interesting, because what constitutes a protest song? There’s "The Big One," and one called "Columbia Is Bleeding," which is about Columbia University’s animal laboratories. "Cupcake" is about gay marriage. There’s also a song called "Mama and Me" that a lot of people have responded to. I get really angry with how people dismiss mothers, don’t respect their opinions. They’re basically treated like birthing machines.
MJ: Did your own move into the public eye confirm or challenge your ideas about women in society?
NM: People feel like to be a feminist means being pro-choice. Maybe that’s where it begins or ends or something, but that’s far from the whole thing. If you truly want to be equal, it starts in the most subtle of things. So don’t pretend that you’re pro-women if you’re putting them down in your magazine all the time or you’ve always got those snotty little captions or whatever—don’t pretend you’re a conscious and caring individual, because you’re not. Everybody puts down all the pop stars for taking all their clothes off. But then those same people ask them to take their clothes off, so I find that extremely hypocritical.
MJ: What’s the biggest misconception about you?
NM: I can’t really think of something about me, it’s more like when I was talking with a certain reporter about the Columbia University animal labs, and I gave him the website—columbiacruelty.com. You can read about the experiments and what goes on and what we’re trying to stop. And what he wrote was, "which she believes to be cruel"—like it was a figment of my imagination—as they always do with protesters. Protesters "claim," governments "say."
MJ: Animal rights is your main issue?
NM: It’s not like women’s rights or civil rights are in any way secure, but animal rights is still considered radical enough that the press mentions it more. I do feel what the animals are going through, in terms of sheer numbers, is worse than what people are going through. Six billion a year are slaughtered for food—just for food—in the United States alone. People criticize groups like PETA for comparing it to other tragedies, but it wasn’t animal rights groups that first made the comparison to the Holocaust. When Isaac Bashevis Singer escaped the Holocaust, he got a room over the Chicago stockyards, and he looked down and said, "I haven’t left."
MJ: It’s hard for me—and for a lot of people—to prioritize that fight when there’s still so much to be done for human rights.
NM: It’s all the same fight. If you waited to pursue women’s rights until you had complete and utter civil rights, then women would still be barefoot and pregnant. If you waited to pursue civil rights until you had workers’ rights for white people, there would still be complete segregation or slavery. I don’t feel you can wait or prioritize, and I don’t feel that they’re exclusive at all.
MJ: What drew you to The Threepenny Opera?
The message or the music?
NM: The music is wonderful, but it’s still so pithy, about all the politicians, the greed and lies and corruption. Can we just start with the basic needs before all these distractions and abstractions, side issues that are used to divide people? Threepenny addresses a lot of that hypocrisy.
MJ: Is it hard knowing that as soon as this album comes out, you go into rehearsals?
NM: I’m trying to escape my own album, that is true. Maybe I just agreed to do it so I could get out of touring!
A live performance of Nellie McKay singing "Ding