Nellie McKay's Ongoing 'Head'-Ache

"The future may be indie," says Nellie McKay, who was dumped by the Columbia label. (By Amy T. Zielinski)
By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 20, 2006

How's your head, Nellie McKay is asked.

"Oohhh, it's still on," McKay says from California in a breathless voice and startled manner reminiscent of Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly in "Breakfast at Tiffany's."

As for McKay's "Pretty Little Head," it's off.

At least for now.

That's because in late December, just two weeks before the scheduled release of McKay's sophomore album, Columbia Records told her, "Whoa, Nellie!" The label dropped "Pretty Little Head," and then it dropped McKay, whose 2004 debut, "Get Away From Me," had earned loads of critical acclaim for the willfully eccentric, hard to categorize singer-songwriter (we'll go with avant-cabaret).

It wasn't because of the song "Columbia Is Bleeding." That song is actually about animal testing at Columbia University, not about the Sony Music subsidiary for which McKay recorded and with whom she had a contentious relationship with from day one. (Her debut included a song with the line "should have signed with Verve instead of Sony.")

And it wasn't because of "The Big One," which laments the gentrification of the Harlem neighborhood in which McKay grew up and addresses the 1989 murder of family friend and tenants rights activist Bruce Bailey. Or because of "Cupcake," which sings the praises of gay marriage.

What brought things to loggerheads was that McKay wanted a 23-song, 65-minute version of "Pretty Little Head," while Columbia wanted a 16-song, 48-minute version. Columbia even sent its version to critics, and positive reviews have begun appearing in magazines with long lead times. In a four-star review, Blender described it as "indie musical comedy," suggesting that McKay, 23, was "pushing forward the craft of the song, connecting Tin Pan Alley to Ben Folds and De La Soul."

But at a show Nov. 29 at the Troubadour in Los Angeles, an emotional McKay (pronounced Mc-EYE) railed against Columbia, saying that an edited album was "not representative. . . . I think if they put that out they should say it's 'Pretty Little Head' by the Sony Corporation. If they put out the 65 minutes, it's by Nellie McKay." McKay also gave out the personal e-mail address of Columbia Chairman Will Botwin, encouraging fans to contact him urging the release of the longer version. Lashing out at animal cruelty and corporations "raping the world," McKay said, "If this is the music business, I want out!"

At a show the next night at L.A. club Largo, McKay said Sony has given her the full CD. But she continued to criticize Sony, saying that if she were computer savvy, she would be stealing music online.

By the time McKay got to New York a week later, Botwin had been forced out in a Sony executive shakeup, replaced by Steve Barnett, the former head of Columbia's sister label, Epic (which had its own widely publicized encounters last year with another strong-willed, idiosyncratic, piano-playing artist, Fiona Apple). At her Mercury Lounge performance, McKay dedicated a song to Botwin, telling the audience that the way he had been forced out was unfair.

Soon after, McKay was told that her album wouldn't be released by Columbia in any form, and she was given her walking papers. "It ain't no use to sit and wonder why -- they kept the coffeepot, I got the dog," McKay said in a statement. "All that matters to me is that I can continue to make irritating music which will baffle and enrage."

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