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"I'm not sure that the world needs more music," says Nellie McKay on a recent phone call, ostensibly arranged to discuss her June 1 gig at Feinstein's at the Nikko, and her new album songbook standards, Sister Orchid. "I think there's already plenty out there."
So it goes with this one-time next big thing, a singer-songwriter whose 2004 debut recording was a splendid double album. The nineteen-year-old McKay had a seemingly effortless ability to glide from swinging jazz ballads to spiky rap pastiche.
"A tour de force," hailed The New York Times. The range of McKay's repertoire, her incredibly pure tone with its wispy feathered edges, and her ingenious sweet/tart songwriting all seemed harbingers of major stardom.
Then again, she titled her album Get Away From Me.
A tidal push and pull has marked McKay's career ever since. Fundamentally resistant to the fame machine, she's slipped in and out of the public eye, sporadically releasing a half dozen more albums, appearing on Broadway with Alan Cumming and Cyndi Lauper in The Threepenny Opera, working on a since-abandoned musical adaptation of Tom Perrota's novel Election, and occasionally collaborating with David Byrne.
She's also developed a reputation for being erratic and distractible. In part, that's due to her intense commitment to non-showbiz pursuits, including animal rights, the anti-nuclear movement and a general contempt toward American politics. But the buzz among recording industry and talent booking vets is that McKay is often wildly emotional and prone to offstage meltdowns.
Remarkably though, according to one promoter who has struggled with McKay behind the scenes, "Once she hits the spotlight, she pulls it altogether, and the audience loves her."
Self-promotional interviews, however, are among the dark arts of celebrity that McKay isn't particularly comfortable dabbling in. Her needle tends to skip grooves.
"I'm not encouraging anyone to buy my records," she told the Bay Area Reporter. "It's better to just buy old things. I've been listening to an album of old player piano rolls. It's wonderful. It's the perfect accompaniment for making homemade dog food with things like ginger and pineapple, carrots and lentils."
Nice. Yum. Would you like to tell our readers just a little bit about your new music?
"Right, of course," McKay says before erupting into a stream of consciousness. "I'm just not sure more music is what we need now. There's plenty that we do need: Mass movements of civil disobedience. Single payer healthcare. Opposition to factory farms. We have existential crises like climate change-animal agriculture is the number one reason for that, because it creates carbon and eliminates biomass. And it's too easy to point to Trump. He's a symptom, of capitalism, of the two-party system."
Perhaps the best approach is to go with the flow. Take cues from the performer. Drop the planned questions and ask more about the state of the world. So...Nellie, you were a guest on Prairie Home Companion quite a few times; have the #MeToo movement and the allegations about Garrison Keillor led you think any differently about that experience?
"Well, there's a woman in Saint Paul who says she's been treated shabbily. But there are things we know are true that are not only tolerated but celebrated. The drone program! The guy in there now is using them, but Obama launched ten times as many as any president before him. These are thermobaric weapons! They suck the air out of the lungs of their victims. That's a much worse case of unwanted touching than anything that's being talked about by most people."
Audio & activism
From her earliest recordings, McKay has always displayed both an activist bent and a gift for satire, able to upturn suburban tropes in an effort to refocus listeners' views of the world.
In "I Wanna Get Married," on her first album, she sings:
"I wanna get married/I need to cook meals/I want to pack cute little lunches/For my Brady Bunches/Then read Danielle Steele...I wanna get married/That's why I was born."
Her songwriting is pointed and sharp, able to address big ideas with humor and specificity. So why is she feeling so much less energized by her musical projects these days?
"I used to think a song could change the world, but it can't," says McKay. "At its best it's an opioid, or maybe a Quaalude. It can lift you out of the present and buoy you. Johnny Mathis removes people from reality. But there's already plenty of music we can escape to.
"And why not. We need to escape. Whattaya gonna do? We don't have a universal basic income that would provide basic rent, food, and clothing. Everywhere you look around the city, you see what I call the Young Fungi. You know what that means? Fucked Up Narcissistic Green Idiots."
Oh, Nellie. Is there anything that brings you joy in this world?
"The beach? My dog? A soak in the tub, maybe?" she responds ambivalently. Then Nellie McKay pauses, and replies with what sounds like certainty: "What's a real joy is when I'm in line at the Dollar Store and someone tells a good joke."
Nellie McKay, Friday, June 1 at 8 p.m. $22.50-$50 ($20 food/drink min). Feinstein's at the Nikko, 222 Mason St. www.feinsteinssf.com www.nelliemckay.com