McKay, Nellie

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Nellie McKay

Singer, songwriter

As a singer, songwriter, and political activist, Nellie McKay has garnered a reputation as a talented and contentious performer. From the artistic merit of Get Away From Me to her battles with Columbia Records, to her role in Bertolt Brecht's The Threepenny Opera, she has pursued her muse. While McKay's political asides have occasionally irritated concertgoers and her demands as an artist have occasionally left reviewers incredulous, no one has doubted the power of her music. Combing styles as far-flung as jazz, rap, and pop, she has presented an eclectic set list that defies easy categorization. "Nellie McKay is the epitome of the misfit child at school who was too brainy for the teachers, too kooky for her peers, [but ended] up with a far more exciting life than all of them," wrote Lynsey Hanley in the London Daily Telegraph.

Nellie McKay was born Eleanor McKay on April 13, 1982, in London, England. Her father was British filmmaker Malcolm McKay; her mother was the American actor Robin Pappas. McKay's parents divorced when she was two, and she moved to New York City with her mother, where they remained until 1994. After a brief move to Olympia, Washington, mother and daughter settled in a suburban neighborhood in Swiftwater, Pennsylvania. In high school music classes, McKay learned to play the saxophone, though she often found herself in conflict with her teachers. She later attended the Manhattan School of Music, but found the atmosphere oppressive and left after two years. Remembering the Manhattan School in 2004, McKay told Julia Bloch in Curve, "I'm very happy that all those people that laughed … at me are getting a little diploma in two weeks, and I'm opening for Sting."

In New York, McKay first appeared in Manhattan clubs as a standup comic, but soon shifted to performing music at night spots in Greenwich Village. In 2002-03 she became part of the anti-folk movement in New York City and worked with Jason Trachtenburg and others at the Sidewalk Café. At the beginning of 2003 McKay's profile rose after Jay Ruttenberg from Time Out saw her perform at the Tonic on the Lower East Side and wrote a feature piece. Soon a number of record labels offered her contracts. In the summer of 2003 McKay signed with Columbia.

McKay's tenure at Columbia would be a rocky one. "I've only been in the business … six months," she told Cyndi Lauper in Interview, "but already I'm considered ‘difficult.’ It's hard living a life where you have to fight for what you want and what you believe." Before her first album was released, she lobbied for a double CD release, even though the new album was only 60 minutes long. Finally the label relented, after McKay agreed to contribute $25,000 to the project. The title of McKay's new album, Get Away From Me, was likewise contentious, an intentional slap at Norah Jones's immensely popular Come Away With Me and the smoother version of jazz it represented.

McKay's creative streak ran a gauntlet of styles, from rap ("Sari") to jazz ("Manhattan Avenue") to pop ("David"). She also revealed a knack for undercutting rich melodies with satirical lyrics, on "I Wanna Get Married" and "Clonie." Critics responded warmly to the album. "A striking mix of radical and traditional, raw emotion and literate expression, hip-hop and vocal pop, Nellie McKay's Get Away from Me is the kind of feverishly inventive, sprawling album that only comes from young artists," wrote Heather Phares in All Music Guide. Ben Wener, writing for the Orange County Register, concurred: "Get Away From Me, an audacious pastiche of pop, cabaret, Broadway and hip-hop, is [McKay's] Citizen Kane, innovatively pointing the way out of formulaic doldrums."

Near the end of 2005, McKay experienced another battle with Columbia, this time over her new album Pretty Little Head. As with Get Away From Me, she asked the label to issue a double album with 23 tracks and a 65-minute running time. Columbia, however, wanted to release a shorter version of the album on one disc. McKay openly discussed her dilemma with concert audiences, going so far as to provide a Columbia executive's email so that fans could petition the label to release the album in her preferred format. "If they put out the album that way," McKay was quoted in the Buffalo News, "then I'm going to quit music and I'll never sing again."

Pretty Little Head was released on McKay's own Hungry Mouse Records on October 31, 2006. As with Get Away From Me, the 23 songs were divided between two CDs. Unlike its predecessor, McKay produced the album herself, opting for a looser, less polished approach to recording. The lyrics were more directly political, too, from "Columbia's Bleeding," a protest against Columbia University's animal research labs, to "Cupcake," a song about gay marriage. "Pretty Little Head sounds like a record from a woman coming out of girlhood-more confident, more wise about love, and more focused about her concerns, if no less passionate," wrote John Bush in All Music Guide.

McKay's artistry has continued to evolve and seek new outlets. In the spring of 2006 McKay joined the cast of The Threepenny Opera as Polly Peachum. "The music is wonderful," she told Alan Light in Mother Jones. "It's [Threepenny Opera] still so pithy, about all the politicians, the greed and lies and corruption." McKay also continues to support a number of political causes, including PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals).

Both Get Away From Me and Pretty Little Head introduced a singer-songwriter with a complex melodic vision. McKay's brass and politically-oriented lyrics have gleefully courted controversy, while her confident delivery and command of craft have convinced many critics that in spite of her young age she was the real deal. Her eclecticism, inversion of old styles, and powerful presentation have had a significant impact on her peers, while her willingness to battle a powerful record label has offered encouragement to young artists disinclined to compromise. Although the road to McKay's future as a musical artist is unlikely to be a smooth one, fans can be assured that it will be a fascinating one of her own choosing.

Selected discography

Get Away From Me, Columbia, 2004.

Pretty Little Head, Hungry Mouse, 2006.

For the Record …

Born Eleanor McKay on April 13, 1982, in London, England; daughter of Malcolm McKay and Robin Pappas.

Signed with Columbia Records, 2003; released Get Away From Me, 2004; released Pretty Little Head, Hungry Mouse, 2006.

Addresses: Record company—Columbia Records, 550 Madison Ave., 24th Fl., New York, New York, 10022, phone: 212-833-5607, website:



Buffalo News, December 18, 2005.

Curve, August 2004.

Daily Telegraph (London, England), December 9, 2004.

Interview, August 2004.

Mother Jones, January-February 2006.

Observer (London, England), August 15, 2004.

Orange County Register, January 9, 2006.


"Nellie McKay," All Music Guide, (February 9, 2007).