You should know that Nellie McKay is hard to categorize. She’s done Brecht on Broadway, opened for Lou Reed at Carnegie Hall, sung Woody Allen movie songs at the Hollywood Bowl, performed on A Prairie Home Companion, duetted with Eartha Kitt and Triumph The Insult Comic Dog, played Hilary Swank’s sister on the big screen, paid tribute to Doris Day, and released three wildly acclaimed albums of original music.
Her music is as tuneful and clever as the best of the Great American Songbook—part cabaret, part sparkly pop. But beneath the charming melodic surface is a wit that cuts, and a sharply tuned social conscience.
Home Sweet Mobile Home is McKay's latest and first album of all-original material since 2007's Obligatory Villagers, and features the musical wanderlust, lyrical playfulness and unique point of view that has characterized her music since her breakthrough debut Get Away From Me. Songs from the new project were recently debuted at her NYC engagement at Feinstein's, and The New York Post noted that "songs like ‘Bodega’ and ‘Caribbean Time’… feature a blend of whimsical humor and social commentary that blended in beautifully alongside the Doris Day standards from the Blueberry Pie album.”
The new album, produced by McKay and Robin Pappas, was recorded in Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, New York, Jamaica, the Pocono Mountains, and even more than her previous albums, combines diverse musical moods and cultures. Reviewing a recent McKay show, Stephen Holden from The New York Times described her as a “vocal chameleon,” and that varied musical palette is used to great effect on the 13 songs of Home Sweet Mobile Home.
Nellie began playing her own songs (and lovingly chosen covers) in clubs in downtown New York City in 2003, soon catching the attention of music writers and a number of record labels – this gal was a gifted entertainer, an impressive musician, with songs unlike anything people were hearing around town.
Her first album was produced by Geoff Emerick, the man who had engineered The Beatles’ albums from Revolver through Abbey Road. McKay signed on as co-producer.
She and Emerick recorded eighteen songs (including such live McKay favorites as “David,” “The Dog Song” and “I Wanna Get Married,” and that double-CD Get Away From Me was let loose upon the world. The project was greeted with critical raves and placement on many Top 10 lists.
The Washington Post wrote, “McKay's music evokes the lost elegance of pre-Elvis pop music because she recognizes that such stylishness and wit are worth pursuing. But those goals inevitably collide with the realities of money, sex and politics, and she documents those collisions in her tongue-in-cheek lyrics, emphatic beats and bubbly melodies.”
Following the splash of Get Away From Me, Nellie recorded Pretty Little Head, of which the Los Angeles Times said, "McKay comes on as a Harlem Holly Golightly, a social activist with a disarming mastery of pop vernacular." Spin noted, "that she succeeds on a record as sophisticated as the self-produced Pretty Little Head is not only a testament to McKay's talent, it's also a tribute to her artistic sense."
In 2007, she recorded Obligatory Villagers, described by Spin as "a brisk nine-song set that plays like the breathless first act of a stage musical decrying American fascism." Recently, the Chase Brock Experience premiered a ballet,
Whoa, Nellie!, based on the entire album.
Meanwhile, Broadway and Hollywood beckoned. McKay appeared on Broadway (winning a Theatre World Award for her Polly in a revival of The Threepenny Opera) and on film (acting and singing in P.S. I Love You). She also wrote and performed the song score for the Rob Reiner film Rumor Has It. In addition, her writing has appeared in The Onion, Interview magazine, and The New York Times Book Review, where she delivered an incisive and knowledgeable review of a Doris Day biography.
“What she possessed,” McKay wrote, “beyond her beauty, physical grace, and natural acting ability, was a resplendent voice that conveyed enormous warmth and feeling.”
It seemed inevitable that Nellie should record an album of songs associated with Ms. Day, and she was given the opportunity to do so when approached by Verve Records. The result features 12 songs handpicked from over 600 recordings by Ms. Day, with an original by McKay. Hailed as "among the killer overhauls of American standards" (The New York Times), Normal As Blueberry Pie covers the scope of Day’s music from the big bands through the McCarthy era. The album wound up on a variety of Top 10 lists of 2009’s best albums, including The New York Times and The Village Voice.
Recently, McKay completed filming her first starring role, opposite violin prodigy Philippe Quint, in the independent film Downtown Express; recorded (along with Vince Giordano & The Nighthawks) for the soundtrack of the upcoming Martin Scorsese HBO series Boardwalk Empire; and contributed two songs to the award-winning documentary Gasland. She is currently participating in Dear New Orleans, a benefit album to aid the ravaged city, along with such artists as Jill Sobule, My Morning Jacket, and OK GO.
Home Sweet Mobile Home arrives three years after her last self-composed album, and as ever her songs are a study in contrasts: some of the moods are dark (“we're marching through the madness / with not a soul about to see / we're moving through the fortress / chasin’ the ghost of anarchy” and “there's no equality here / there's no equality anywhere / & every fear you can face / is quickly replaced by one you can't lose”), but there is also joy and gentleness. Sometimes all at once. Her gift is in mingling the pure pleasure of all kinds and all eras of pop music, twisting the dials, writing upbeat melodies with subversive undercurrents.
As critic Robert Christgau wrote, Nellie McKay is “ebullient, funny and political. Her future looks brave and free to me.”