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Saturday, March 13, 2004

"I wanted to be Batman"
And this week's Nellie McKay profile.

In the key of 'Gee': Singer-songwriter Nellie McKay talks like Doris Day, but she can also sing like Randy Newman, and by one account is better than Gershwin
Thursday, March 11, 2004
Aaron Wherry - National Post

Where to start? Maybe with the fact that she counts Dylan Thomas as a cousin. Or that she dabbled in stand-up comedy before settling on music. Or that her grandfather was a convicted murderer who served time in San Quentin, or that her great-grandfather was a bullfighter in Spain.

Then there's the story about how Nellie McKay (pronounced mi-KAI if you believe her official bio, Muh-KYE if you read The New York Times) wanted to name her debut album Black America. Then Penis Envy. Both were rejected, so she settled on Get Away From Me.

Or the story about the time she was held hostage by a mugger and later forced to move to Olympia, Wash., (with nine cats and a dog in tow) because her mother's lawyer was murdered and dismembered, possibly at the behest of her building's landlord. Or that her mother, Robin Pappas, is an actress who appeared in Chariots of Fire and was recently featured as Donald Trump's pottery teacher in a TV commercial.

And let's not forget that she has penned songs in German and Japanese with the help of foreign-language dictionaries and pronunciation guides.

Then there's what happens when she sings in English. When she croons about love, loss, marriage, death, President Bush, the late U.S. senator Paul Wellstone and the Oxygen Network, she sounds like Doris Day, Randy Newman and Eminem all at once.

She giggles things like "golly," "gee" and "swell," echoing the classic movies she seems to have been transported from, but can turn on a dime and debate the development of modern feminism, the Atkins diet or the overbearing nature of Montel Williams.

Oh, by the way, Jason Trachtenburg of the equally outrageous Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players insists she's "better than Gershwin." And, let's not forget, she's all of 19.

But, for now, let's start where little Nellie started. With Batman.

"My mother was an actress, so I always wanted to avoid show business as much as possible," she begins. "And I had little friends who wanted to be actresses and I'd think I was so much better than them because I wanted to be Batman."

Batman's pretty cool.

"Batman's wonderful," she says. "But I mean, you know, I shouldn't have been laughing at them for wanting to be actresses when I wanted to be Batman. But I really did, I wanted to be Batman. But that didn't happen. Oddly enough."

No, instead she discovered Jerry Lee Lewis. And the rest is about to become history.

"I'd taken piano lessons from the age of eight. But I'd never appreciated music. I'd always wanted to do something else. But we moved to Olympia, Wash., and we saw the movie Great Balls of Fire. And I got up right at the end of the movie and I ran right over to the piano and I was starting to do that crazy boogie-woogie-woogie thing where you stand up and kick and play the piano. And from then on, I was so into that. And I was really practising.

"And I did a version of Whole Lotta Shakin' called Whole Lotta Learnin' Going On at my school. I was so, so into that. And so it was really from then that I've been pursuing the fame gambit."

Not that it was really that straightforward. Not that anything about McKay ever really is.

"From there, it's gone from wanting to be a piano player to wanting to just be a stand-up singer like Doris Day to wanting to be an actor to wanting to be a comedian to trying to dream up stunts that could just get me on the front page of the New York Post and then I'd be offered my own TV show or something," she says of her ever-evolving master plan. "But eventually it came down to doing standards in clubs and then I started writing my own music. But it was all pretty inadvertent."

She was a bit of an outcast in high school (why are we not entirely shocked by that revelation?) and didn't last too long in the Manhattan School of Music. She had, she says, a lot of angst. And a constant "need to impress." Both of which are all over Get Away From Me -- piano pop with disco and rap asides and the political pulse of a classic folk record.

On I Wanna Get Married she croons, "I wanna get married, that's why I was born. I wanna partake in bake sales for the classroom ... as I exhume the gloom of my shallow life."

On Sari she takes aim at liberal guilt and still manages to rhyme "shot" with "Faust" and poke at the disciples "cryin' for Senator Wellstone."

Her politics are a gift from her mom, who used to pin Dukakis buttons to little Nellie's parka when she was a toddler.

Won't U Please Be Nice (the jaw-dropping ditty that earned her an F from the Manhattan School of Music) warns a lover that "if we part I'll eat your heart" before gently pleading, "so won't you please be nice."

It was that song that reportedly won her Best in Show at a music festival in Alabama, and soon thereafter she was playing standards at piano bars and clubs in and around New York City (she was born in London, England, and besides New York and Olympia, she spent a short time in Pennsylvania).

Then came the Time Out New York piece in March, 2003, that introduced the world to "an eccentric teen songsmith about to give Randy Newman a run for his money." In her first major interview, McKay joked of playing with the brightly coloured crack vials that littered the park in her Harlem neighbourhood.

Nobody had asked McKay to her high school prom. But now everyone wanted to dance. A bidding war ensued, reportedly including as many as five labels. Sony went home with the girl.

"I just had to stop and ask, 'Wait a minute, is she really 19 years old? Is this really coming out of her?'" Mitchell Cohen, the man at Sony who signed her, has said. "The nature of the performance, the material, the piano playing and the vocabulary, the musical vocabulary -- ranging from vaguely cabaret-ish stuff to very contemporary, sharp and clever lyrics -- and sweet demeanour combined with a dark, subversive side. There was something about her that was very intriguing."

Her debut record -- a double album at McKay's demand -- was released last month. And the wide-eyed acclaim of critics who have never heard anything quite like it has been quick to follow. Redemption -- against the kids, the teachers, all those who thought her merely another artsy-fartsy New York oddball -- would seem to be hers.

"Redemption will come when I'm huge," she says with little doubt of her own bright future. "But by that time I'll be trying to get over my affair with Ellen DeGeneres or something. It'll just have to be another problem, whatever that will be."

She speaks in certainties, with little doubt that her every hope and dream is sure to come true. It's cocky and precocious, but not at all unreasonable. Not that doubt doesn't creep in every so often.

"I'm beginning to get kinda worried because I only knew the Top 40 of the Billboard charts so I thought, 'You must debut there. That must be how it works.' So since it hasn't I've begun to think, 'Uh oh, maybe I'm not going to be big.' But i think it will -- I hope it will sell. Do you think I'm going to sell a million albums?"

I don't see why that's not a reasonable goal.

"Oh, good. Well, I think I'll sell more than a million. I just wonder when I'm going to reach a million."

It'll be a start.

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