When I first heard “Get Away from Me,” the debut album by a then-unknown pop-rock singer-songwriter named Nellie McKay in 2004, I was totally blown away. I thought it was one of the most astonishing debut albums ever. I couldn’t believe McKay was only 19 years old. I thought her two-CD set was the strongest argument against the notion of a closed “Great American Songbook” since Elvis Costello put the lie to that phrase. Easily making the leap from classic, Cole Porter-style pop with her Julie Londonesque vocals to contemporary raps that combined Eminem’s facility with They Might Be Giants’ musical wit and versatility and early Dylan’s political outrage, McKay’s was an astonishingly mature talent belying her youth. The album boasted funk, rock, Latin, ’60s girl group, blues, reggae and jazz. All that, and somehow she got Geoff Emerick — the man who engineered The Beatles’ “Revolver” and Costello’s “Imperial Bedroom” – to produce for her.
Nellie McKay went on to dazzle in even more ways. She wrote songs for movies. She starred in “The Threepenny Opera” on Broadway, alongside such veterans as Alan Cumming, Jim Dale, Cyndi Lauper, and Brian Charles Rooney – and walked away with awards for her performance. She released more albums of original songs, including a full-length tribute to Doris Day, an album of covers of mostly obscure 1960s tunes, and a collaboration with David Byrne. She became a top cabaret artist in New York City. She’s an outspoken activist for a host of social and political causes, most notably for animal rights.
Nellie McKay returns to Club Helsinki Hudson on Sunday, January 22, at 8pm. This time out, McKay will be featuring songs from her musical biography, “A Girl Named Bill: The Life and Times of Billy Tipton“, a mid-20th century jazz musician and bandleader who lived his adult life as a man, although he was assigned female at birth. “A Girl Named Bill” was named one of the Best Concerts of 2014 by the New York Times.
One of my favorite songs from her first album is “David,” a prescient sendup of the media hype that accompanies instant stardom. You can stream it with video here on YouTube. I’ve always thought the David of the title was a nod to David Bowie, but when I once asked her if that was true, she denied it. (I don’t believe her). Another early song, “Clonie,” which she performs here as part of a TED talk, is a great example of her dazzling wordplay and ability to write humorous yet incisive songs about things that really matter – in this case, the creepy downside of high-tech science.
One of her most beloved songs is “Inner Peace.” She turns in a jazzy rendition of the tune here. Visit this YouTube page to hear and see McKay’s rendition of the Beatles’ “If I Fell,” paired with a Betty Boop cartoon – a good metaphor for Nellie herself – the Beatles crossed with Betty Boop. And while you’re at it, check out her version of”Not So Sweet, Martha Lorraine”, originally recorded by California psych/folk rock artist Country Joe McDonald, with very appropriate visual accompaniment by The Joshua Light Show.
A few years back, after the release of her album paying tribute to Doris Day, she did one of those NPR Tiny Desk concerts, which you can watch here.
An early, revealing, feature-length interview with McKay was published in JazzTimes.
Check out local music critic Seth Rogovoy’s review of McKay’s concert at Helsinki Hudson in December 2013 here. Rogovoy was apparently totally smitten with her.
Remember – for reservations in The Restaurant or in the club call 518.828.4800. To purchase tickets online go here. For the most up-to-date concert information, always visit Club Helsinki Hudson.