“It’s as if you’re saying to the song the whole time, ‘Pretend I’m not here’”
Most of the songs on Sister Orchid, Nellie McKay’s most recent album, are considered classics straight out of the American Songbook.
“Willow Weep for Me,” “My Romance” and “The Nearness of You,” to name just a few, had been performed umpteen times before she went into the studio alone to sing them, accompanying herself on piano and, on one song, her beloved ukulele. To make sure she left her own stamp on songs that she calls “beautiful and irresistible,” McKay utilized a unique approach.
“You don’t want to get in the way of the music,” she explained. “So it’s as if you’re saying to the song the whole time, ‘Pretend I’m not here.’”
That fanciful perspective, a little serious but also a bit zany, has been part of McKay’s persona since she debuted in 2004 with Get Away from Me. She has gone on to release six more albums, four of which were all her own material, two of them double-disc sets. Prior to Sister Orchid, she tipped her hat to Doris Day with Normal As Blueberry Pie and tackled ’60s music on My Weekly Reader.
And while her passions aren’t necessarily obvious in her music, McKay has never been one to shy away from issues in which she believes. Like Day, she is an animal rights activist. She also campaigned for Vermont senator Bernie Sanders and even wrote a song about the theme of his candidacy.
The cover of Normal As Blueberry Pie features quotes about animal rights attributed to everyone from Day herself to Abraham Lincoln. My Weekly Reader included charged covers like “Hungry Freaks Daddy” a slab of heavy social commentary that launched Frank Zappa’s recording career. “Murder In My Heart for the Judge,” by unsung rockers Moby Grape, also had far-flung appeal. While campaigning for Sanders in 2016, she met a woman who was fond of the latter.
“She’s extremely respectable and proper and that was her favorite song on the album,” McKay said by phone. “So I was quite chuffed at that. A lot of people have an anti-authoritarian streak even as they go about their day looking like docile members of society. Anarchy is lurking underneath.”
But McKay doesn’t use the stage as her personal pulpit.
“Oh I don’t talk much,” she laughed, understating her onstage banter. “We have trouble getting through all the songs we want to do. There is a little talk but we try to keep it entertaining. As years go by, you just have more music. You really need a four-hour set just to give a sampling.”
Her output has included several musical biographies of famous women including Rachel Carson. On her last visit to Pittsburgh, she performed A Girl Named Bill, her show about Billy Tipton, a woman who passed as a male bandleader in the 1940s. McKay is currently working on The Big Molinsky, a song series inspired by comedian Joan Rivers.
“That is something we’re doing on the West Coast and that’s taking a lot of energy because she was a maniac,” she laughed. “In a good way.”
When she performs solo in the Warhol theater, McKay welcomes requests, just don’t send them via the internet because she’s not on it.
“It’s like living in front of a mirror all the time,” she said. ”How are you supposed to know your own mind if you’re constantly getting feedback? I suppose some people can handle it, but I can’t. If people have requests, please write a note or call something out. Or send a note backstage. That’s probably the best.”