Nellie McKay

With a wry sense of self, she’s equal parts singer, writer, actress, comedian and activist

By EMILY REILY
Special to the Union Leader
February 21. 2018 1:16PM
Nellie McKay is a musical mutineer who gives voice to her convictions with a sense of humor, from the Vaudevillian off-Broadway hit “Old Hats” to biographical albums that have focused on actress and animal-welfare activist Doris Day, convicted murder Barbara Graham, conservationist Rachael Carson and transgender jazz musician Billy Tipton. 
If you go...
WHO: Nellie McKay

WHERE: Capitol Center for the Arts, 44 So. Main St., Concord

WHEN: 8 p.m., Friday

TICKETS: $15-$20

INFO: ccanh.com; 225-1111

Singer Nellie McKay is always on her toes.

A dancer, actress, multi-instrumentalist and comedian, McKay draws her art from a grounded, yet playful sense of self.

It’s mixed with a hopeful idealism about humanity that hasn’t wavered since her critically acclaimed 2004 debut album, “Get Away From Me.”

She’s also written wildly varied biographical material. Her album “Normal As Blueberry Pie — A Tribute to Doris Day” honors the actress and animal-welfare activist, while McKay’s musical, “I Want To Live!” tells the story of convicted murderer Barbara Graham, who was executed in 1955. Tributes for conservationist Rachel Carson and the transgender jazz musician Billy Tipton soon followed.

Clearly, McKay chooses to live out loud. And her musical style covers more vast territory: genres like rock, rap, jazz, funk and pop. On her upcoming album, “Sister Orchid,” she puts her own eclectic spin on standards like “The Nearness of You,” “Georgia On My Mind” and “Willow Weep For Me.” An outspoken political activist, McKay often expresses her support both for single-payer health care and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) during her performances.

She recently found time to talk with NHWeekend about bargain shopping, politics, and why she thinks the Granite State gets it right.

What’s your show at the Capitol Center for the Arts going to be like?

Let’s see, singing, playing, tap dancing, juggling. We aim to entertain.

I didn’t realize you were a tap dancer, too.

Well, you won’t know that for sure when you see me try to tap dance. But you know … it can be fun. Maybe it’s a kind of Gilda Radner version of tap dancing.

But Gilda Radner was a good tap dancer.

Yeah, that’s true. OK, it’ll be a poor man’s Gilda.

Out of juggling, singing and all your other talents, what is your favorite thing to do?

Boy, what is the most fun to do? I like to go to the dollar store.

Oh?

Yeah, I like the dollar store.

Like Dollar General?

But at Dollar General, you know, not everything is a dollar; Dollar Tree is where everything is a dollar.

That’s true. Some stuff is $2 and then it’s, ‘Well, that’s not a dollar.”

Right, exactly. They get you that way. You always gotta watch your back.

Do you like going to yard sales?

I like yard sales but I always feel like I have to buy something, unless there are a lot of people there. But if I’m the only one shopping I feel like, “Well, I gotta get something or I feel like a jerk.”

Right, because then they’re watching you while you look at their things.

And you’re looking at their life, and you’re rejecting it. I don’t like that. I would buy some books. Books are like heaven to me.
 
Do you read a lot?

Yeah, but I find that when you hold on to things — books or clothes or anything — that they come back into style or you get interested in that subject again. Or you just want to remember that one thing you read 10 years ago. So my advice is never get rid of anything.

Your new covers album, “Sister Orchid,” includes the jazz standard “Willow Weep For Me.” Do you draw a lot of inspiration from Billie Holiday?

Any of these songs that were done by Billie Holiday, you can’t match that. Her versions are always exquisite.

Why did you choose these particular covers?

They’re all other people’s songs. I have some songs (but) they didn’t really seem to fit the album. “Small Day Tomorrow” is by (composer) Bob Dorough and (lyricist) Fran Landesman. I love that song, and I love “Lazybones,” because they’re about getting off the treadmill. We’re all just so ruthlessly propelled through our lives. I like to kind of take a step back. They achieve a state of timelessness with a limbo, a wonderful limbo.

Do you ever have time to take a step back?

No. I think I’m jealous of those songs. I mean to, to a certain extent, but nowhere near enough. You only have one life. How, why, would you want to be in the … they call it a rat race but, I think that’s offensive to rats. It’s a uniquely human construction.

If we had a universal basic income, coupled with single-payer health care and universal child care, people could just get by. They could take care of family, they could pursue their own dreams and happiness.

And then beyond that, if you want fancier things then you can have a job. We just need a maximum wage, a decent tax on the richest people and the corporations, and then cut through our over-bloated military budget.

I actually think most people in this country are in such agreement. You know, people really agree on most things. It’s just that it’s not represented by the people we elect to office.

I read you have British and American roots and hold dual citizenship.

It’s lovely to have that… It’s lovely to travel and to be a citizen of the world. Nation states are a big part of the problem.

Nation states?

Government. People can organize on a much smaller scale than government. But then why do we have government? It really almost comes down to not trusting people. Not trusting people in other countries or not trusting your neighbor, and you need that regulatory force. But because we don’t trust each other, we imbue that handful of people with an enormous, an obscene, an insane amount of power.

I identify a lot with the New Hampshire spirit of “Live Free or Die,” because of the grotesque over-surveillance and the insane militarization of our society and the police state. You know, “Live Free or Die” has never rung truer.

Have you been to New Hampshire before?

Yes, I love New Hampshire. I went up there right at the top of 2016, and I got my first Bernie bumper stickers up there. Good, good memories.

Are you still a Bernie supporter?

We should have direct democracy, and it shouldn’t be so much about candidates and personality as it is. In order to effect the change in the world, we need a revolution in our political system, and that’s still needed. If Bernie ran again, I would support him. I hope he runs as an independent in 2020.


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