Multitalented Nellie McKay brings her band and offbeat musical to Laxson Auditorium
In Nellie McKay’s career as an actress, musician and writer, she has had the opportunity to work alongside—and learn from—such illustrious artists as Cyndi Lauper, David Byrne and Hilary Swank. But the lessons she remembers best come from more surprising sources.
“Ossie Davis, who was a great hero of mine, came and talked to our high school,” she recalled about the late actor during a recent phone interview, conducted as she folded laundry at home in New York. “I played terribly at the assembly, but he was such a sweetheart, and he told me, ‘Keep making the music.'”
And another piece of veteran advice: “Bobcat Goldthwait told me, ‘To thine own self be true,'” she said.
It’s apparent that McKay—who will be performing her original musical I Wanna Live! at Laxson Auditorium Wednesday, March 7—took both lessons to heart. In less than a decade, she has released five critically acclaimed albums, starred alongside Lauper in a Broadway musical, acted in a handful of films and been published in the New York Times. McKay’s musical career, particularly, is notable for remaining true to her own offbeat, artistic vision. Much of her music, performed primarily on piano and ukulele, is a blend of lounge, swing and jazz coupled with cunning lyricism.
McKay said she was introduced to music playing the recorder in elementary school, and then moved on to piano and saxophone. “When I was doing The Threepenny Opera on Broadway my castmate Jim Dale gave me a ukulele so I would quit bothering him,” she said. “It didn’t work, but I loved the uke.”
A feminist and all-around activist ("Music and humor are two of the greatest ways to make a political point,” she said of her philosophy), McKay has also dedicated her talent to pay tribute to two very different famous women: performer Doris Day on the 2009 album Normal as Blueberry Pie, and murderess Barbara Graham in I Want to Live!, the musical she’s bringing to Chico. Nicknamed “Bloody Babs” by press obsessed with her salacious story, Graham was convicted of murder and executed in the gas chamber in 1953.
“Barbara lived and died in California, so it means a lot for us to come there,” McKay said, noting she was initially drawn to Graham because “there’s a lot of contradictions within her and her life, and she’s was a very complicated person. The story is still relevant today, as far as the death penalty being alive and well.”
The degree of artistic freedom McKay enjoys is hard-won, she confirmed: “It’s always a struggle, the struggle is just something you get used to,” she said. “But it’s important to be invested in what you do. I’d rather struggle than have no opinion at all.”
McKay’s been fighting the good fight from the get-go. She successfully lobbied Columbia Records to make her 2004 debut Get Away From Me a double album, an unprecedented feat for a female artist. Now, if she has her druthers, she said she’d like to see I Want to Live! made into a movie. “If anyone is interested and has a lot of money to make it, we’re happy to do a proposal,” she half-joked.
Meanwhile, McKay remains busy. On top of touring the Graham show and in support of her latest album, 2010’s Home Sweet Mobile Home, she also starred in the 2010 indie film Downtown Express and continues to contribute music to soundtracks and other projects. Her secret to remaining so prolific is succinct and surprisingly profound, like the advice she got from Davis and Goldthwait.
“Geez,” she said, “I guess my dog wakes me up every morning, then I just go from there.”