Trying to explain to someone what to expect from a performance by the eclectic Nellie McKay can be a difficult task. Unfortunately, asking McKay herself for help only serves to confuse the matter further.
“I don’t know. Fireworks? A chorus line? Guys in panda suits?” McKay deadpans. “I guess I’d just say a potpourri of sound.”
Got that? The “potpourri of sound” description actually seems as good as any in trying to pin down an artist who sings, dances, tells jokes, plays piano, marimba and ukulele, and does all of it across the widest range of styles imaginable—from Broadway anthem to jazz standard to cabaret torch song to vaudeville slapstick. In other words, she’s an entertainer, plain and simple. Or maybe not so simple. But she definitely feels like being on stage was what she was born to do—probably.
“I guess I got into music by default, really. It’s the one thing I did that people really seemed to like,” she says. “I started playing piano at around age 7 or 8; I probably should be better at it by now.”
To be sure, McKay’s sardonic wit is likely one of the few givens one can count on. The other? A pervasive fascination and genuine affection for the past. Like the protagonist in the 2011 Woody Allen film “Midnight in Paris,” the 31-year-old McKay seems to feel most at home in bygone eras—whether in revisiting the music of Doris Day on her critically acclaimed 2009 tribute album Normal as Blueberry Pie, or in recently helping to close down a classic New York nightspot.
“I just sang with Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks at Sophia’s last night, and it was probably the closest thing to heaven that I can imagine,” she explains with equal parts wonder and melancholy in recalling the August gig. “The big band, the old 1920’s microphone, the thrift shop dress I found in New Hampshire—it was all just so perfect. We played ‘They Didn’t Believe Me,’ an old Jerome Kern tune from World War I, and the setting was just right. Sophia’s is one of those places that feels like a slice of the Old World, with the dance floor and the crushed velvet—it’s a little bit of yesteryear and a little bit of magic that will be gone soon. If anyone has $30 million lying around to save the place….”
Yet despite her obvious regard for the settings and styles of the past, McKay is hardly a by-the-book revivalist. Her work is laced with the same modern sense of humor that informs her conversation—a kind of knowing wink that places those songs of the past firmly in the present. So she’s something of an old soul, but with a realistic sense of what that means in the current times.
Perhaps that still doesn’t fully explain what to expect from a Nellie McKay performance. But one thing is certain—it’s bound to be entertaining, because she can’t seem to imagine doing anything else.
“What would I do if I wasn’t making music?” she considers. “Well, I don’t have a lot of responsibilities, so I don’t think I’d have to take a crappy job. I’d rather live in a van down by the river.”