When singer Nellie McKay performs at Hancock Shaker Village on Saturday, it’s anyone’s guess what shape the show will take, including McKay’s. She’s counting on unseen forces having an influence on the outcome.
“Venues inform the music,” McKay said. “You can feel ghosts in a lot of venues and it seems like maybe in Hancock Village, you’ll feel the ghosts and that will change how you do the show.”
Plus, there’s so much material for her to choose from. McKay is known for her versatility. Her albums have included collaborations with Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick, a tribute to Doris Day, a collection of ’60s covers, like “Itchykoo Park” and the Frank Zappa song, “Hungry Freaks, Daddy,” and her most recent release, a collection of moody standards like “Angel Eyes.”
With such an array, it’s difficult to predict what a typical Nellie McKay show might be.
“It’s nice to mix it up and it’s nice if somebody requests something that I don’t usually do, I try to work that in, even if I can’t remember the whole thing,” she said.
And there’s a lot more she can mix it up with. McKay has also created musical biographies for the stage, all focusing on women who interest her. Her most recent, “The Big Molinsky,” is about Joan Rivers, but she’s also written and performed works devoted to executed murderer Barbara Graham, transgender jazz artist Billy Tipton and environmentalist Rachel Carson.
She’s also known for her animal rights activism, having been honored by PETA and the Humane Society. McKay said she tries to find a balance in her performances.
“You try to harmonize it all,” she said. “You never know how it’s going to go.”
McKay’s entire life has revolved around music, since according to her, that’s the only thing she could do very well. Her childhood was spent responding poorly to the idea of school, except for music class.
“I think I was sucking so badly at everything else,” she recalled. “I remember just fighting every morning. It was such a fight. There’s just the corralling of your energy and time into things that may not interest you. You shouldn’t have to spend so long on something that you have no affinity for. Because, if you do, oftentimes you’re very unlikely to retain any of it, anyway. I think music just kinda whittled down to that. That was the only thing I could go to school for.”
McKay’s mother was an actress, her father a British film director, and she lived in different places in the United States before she and her mother settled down in the Poconos in Pennsylvania. It was there that she encountered the Celebration of the Arts Festival in the Delaware Water Gap, which became a major influence on her musical experience as a teenager. It’s where she came into contact with musicians like Bob Dorough, Phil Woods, David Liebman, and others, all important mentors in her musical development.
She eventually went to the Manhattan School of Music, but didn’t finish, instead forging ahead within the cabaret world in New York City. That made sense, as McKay had always given herself to the allure of the old, and her songwriting in those days, and on her earlier recordings, reflect that.
“It’s a form of recycling and recycling is good, to appreciate what has come before,” she said. “Capitalism thrives on ageism because it teaches us, to dismiss what has come before, to dismiss the labors of those that have come before us and to diminish our future selves, to put down the path and say out with the old and in with the new. There’s such wonder to treasure from the past.”
That was the point of her most recent release, “Sister Orchid.” In her interpretation of standards, McKay said that she was attempting to stand aside from the songs themselves, give them the limelight for a change and present the beauty she had found in the old without any updating.
“We just tried to do that album very simply and almost with an absence of arrangement,” she said. “When I think of a certain song, say from Sinatra, you hear Nelson Riddle. Arrangement becomes so much a part of the song. So we tried to go quite minimalist.”
McKay’s ultimate goal was to not copy what had already been done with the songs she chose, which has been her ongoing purpose in music and life. She says mimicry is humanity’s natural approach to so many parts of living life, and it’s something she consciously tries to avoid.
“I almost don’t want to hear what anyone else has done with the song because I tend to latch onto it and mimic,” she said. “We all do. When I look around the world, I always marvel that it isn’t worse because there is so much that is vile or poisonous out there and we’re all children to some degree. We mimic our entire lives, even if it’s subconsciously. I’m quite conscious of it though. I hear myself doing it immediately.”
Rescued from the solitude of recording, a live show can jolt McKay out of the compulsion to mimic, thanks to exterior factors. The ghosts help, of course, but there’s another collaborative aspect to which McKay is grateful.
“In terms of a concert, your audience is it,” she said. “We’re all in it together … Maybe we’ll get a chance to say hello to the ghosts.”
Originally published at https://www.berkshireeagle.com on August 16, 2019.