Editors' pick

Nellie McKay


Editorial Review

Free-spoken, with a killer voice
By Jess Righthand
Friday, April 20, 2012

"I'm 30 going on 57."

Coming from singer-songwriter and actress Nellie McKay, that's not a totally far-fetched assessment.

Don't be fooled by McKay's wavy platinum blond bob, sweet-sounding vocals and innocent (at times almost prim) stage persona. This singer - who comes to town to perform what she's calling a "death row musical revue" - is no bubble-gum pop princess. Her wry, subversive wit and outspokenness on social and political issues make her seem mature beyond her years, giving her the subtle yet distinctive edginess of an artist who, well, sticks to her guns.

It wasn't always that way. When McKay started in show business more than a decade ago, she says she would go for any entertainment job she thought would "put her over."

"I tried all kinds of crazy things," she says, including playing piano bars, snagging a couple of supporting roles in movies, even trying out for a soap opera.

"And I think what you realize is, it's just as hard to get a job in a little club as it is to get a job in a big club or to get a job in a movie, so you might as well aim high."

So far, the singer has released five albums of covers and original material. Her songs comment on - and often satirize - everything from critics of feminism (a ukelele ditty with the refrain "Feminists don't have a sense of humor") to owners' devotion to their pets ("The Dog Song") to identity theft.

Lately, McKay has been performing cabaret-style shows that tell the stories of women who played important or unusual roles in U.S. history. Thursday's "I Want to Live!" captures the life of Barbara Graham, the third woman executed at San Quentin State Prison in the San Francisco Bay area.

It all started about a year ago, when McKay had a date booked at the New York cabaret club Feinstein's but didn't have a show prepared.

"What's wonderful about cabaret is they don't expect the same old songs - they really expect something new," she says. "So you try to live up to that."

McKay's mother had seen the 1958 film noir about Graham, "I Want to Live!," and thought the name had a nice ring to it. McKay thought so, too. Plus, she says, she kept reading descriptions of Graham as "a woman of ill repute often spotted in seedy bars," which she thought seemed like grounds for some quality entertainment.

McKay also found herself compelled in a more serious way by Graham's story. Graham had a rough upbringing and worked as a prostitute on and off for years until she along with two other people were convicted for slaying a widow. But controversy has swirled for years about her role, and McKay believes Graham wasn't as much a violent killer as someone who got caught up in a bad situation.

"Most people who wind up on death row, they've been living on the outskirts of society. . . . They tend not to have the home, family or respectability that we'd sympathize with," she says.

McKay was immediately taken with the project, and it took only a couple of weeks to put together a song list and arrange a selection of standards and contemporary covers, including tunes by Jimi Hendrix, Irving Berlin, Bobby McFerrin and Rodgers and Hart. She also threw in a few of her own songs to round out the program.

McKay has been touring for about a year with "I Want to Live!" and in that time she has initiated plans to make a video feature of the show. She has also put together another musical revue to pay homage to environmental activist and writer Rachel Carson. For that, McKay wrote more original material ("There aren't many songs about pesticides," she says), but it didn't come quite as easy. The Barbara Graham show was spontaneous, she says - the type of inspiration that doesn't come along every day.

"Rachel, I think she's just a harder subject," McKay says. "You know, Barbara was a bad girl in her life. It was a life of sin and partying. It just holds more fascination for people than someone who slogged away in an office on a typewriter her whole life."

Even though the Carson show hasn't been as organic a process in comparison, McKay says she's doing work that is worthwhile. Her goal is always to entertain, she says, but making something authentic is more important than what the critics have to say.

"I think that's the hardest thing . . . to make something that you can live with. It's showbiz, that's the great thing. You just never know."