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Nellie McKay Biography

Last updated: 07/05/2010 12:00:00 PM

A multi-talented "youngster" of 19, Nellie McKay is already a seasoned performer/singer/songwriter/raconteur who peppers her live shows with acerbic and witty banter in between self-penned songs--and a well-placed standard or two--from her ever-growing repertoire. She never performs a song the same way twice, partly because she has difficulty remembering lyrics, particularly her own, and partly because she pledges allegiance to no rule other than to keep her music and her performances as fresh and non-repetitive as possible. "If I write the same song twice, I'm dead," she has been known to say, although she admits to revisiting certain themes, among them death, poverty, anger, philosophy, politics, love in the abstract, animal rights, frustration, sarcasm, self-hate, feminism, labor, phoniness, and the desire to be "less pretentious, less arty, and basically call my own bluff."

Nellie is also preoccupied by the existence of heaven and refers to her lack of established faith as a "galvanizing force" in her pursuit of truth, fame and fortune. "If you're not convinced there is a God, that there is an answer or rationale to existence, I think there is no choice but to be motivated," she says, understating her ambition. "I believe my own lack of security in what happens when we die is the central spur to my belief in social justice. If there is even the slightest possibility of reincarnation, then improving the world's condition -- eliminating torture, at the very least -- is a mandate."

Nellie was born in London and raised by her mother in Harlem, along with nine cats adopted from the alley adjoining her apartment building and a dog found in the stairwell. Every day after school she watched TV: "Batman 1966," "Mister Ed," "COPS" and two hours of news. In those early days she always practiced her piano, then her saxophone, for an hour each day.

In 1994, following a mugging and the murder of Tenant's Association leader Bruce Bailey, Nellie and her mother traveled west in a Volkswagen Beetle bus towing a Volkswagen Beetle bug, a contraption so precarious the pair had barely made the on-ramp to the Washington Bridge when the engine puttered to a halt. "We were basically towed cross-country," Nellie recalls. "Between the numerous cups of hot coffee spilled in our laps, our dog Joe sleeping in the kitty litter tray, and the cats meowing silently, it was a catharsis of motion, a real violent trip, and a real testament to how badly we wanted a little peace and country quietude."

They did not find it in Olympia, Washington. It was Nellie's first encounter with suburbia, and though she liked her teachers, "I found [suburbia] a strange and foreboding place, much scarier than the city," she remembers. It wasn't long before a friend of her mother's back East, Nellie's future step dad, had found a home in Pennsylvania and so Nellie and her mom launched another cross-country trip, this time with a 24-foot tractor trailer towing their Beetle-bus.

Nellie attended junior high and high school in Pennsylvania. She had begun playing cello in Washington and now played the saxophone in concert band, the piano in jazz band, and cello in the local orchestra. She began formal jazz piano studies at East Stroudsburg University and took up mallet percussion--"xylophone, timpani, vibes, triangle - you name something to whack and I played it"--in the school marching band. Throughout the course of high school Nellie was a member of the COTA Cats, the high-school jazz band that played yearly at the Delaware Water Gap Jazz Festival, and HOBY, a selective leadership conference. She played in Pocono Youth Orchestra, District Band, Regional Band, the All-State Jazz Band, East Stroudsburg University Jazz Ensemble and Phil Woods' Orchestra. She was section leader in marching band, treasurer of the student government, and secretary of the chorus.

Music was not her favorite subject, at least not in a secondary school environment. "Music sucked," she remembers with irony. "I really wanted to be a WNBA superstar. Or a model. Or a bus driver. Or president. But my grades were terrible and I figured I should apply to music school." (Brief research attests that Nellie's grades, by her senior year, were dangerously poor; her school file is crammed with numerous summonses to the guidance counselor, several in-school suspensions, and warnings of late graduation.)

Nellie entered the Manhattan School of Music in the fall of 2000, and dropped out the spring of 2002. "I wandered the dorms only at night, to put up fliers for my shows," she says. "I had no desire to see anybody, to have to be funny or pretty or 'cool'--being 'cool' is the bane of all existence--I was either locked in my room, not answering when people knocked, or in Greenwich Village, playing 'She Loves You' and meeting drunks and loners of all description."

Eventually Nellie found herself playing up to eight gigs a week at such piano bars as Don't Tell Mama's, Stonewall Bistro, the now defunct Psychic Cafe, Regents, Rose's Turn, and Mozart Café, where she was canned because, "I liked to play Christmas songs in August because people would smile and it was the best time to play them 'cause people weren't sick of them. I got fired for that."

After her gigs, she would often stop by Smalls jazz club, "the late, great, beautiful little Smalls," mainly to talk to the owner, Mitch Borden, and to give beer to the musicians and treats to Smalls' mascot, Snow (an albino dog) and the cats wandering about backstage. Occasionally she would sing, but "jazz musicians don't like singers, generally, and I hated to do that to them; I also felt like a bimbo without the piano."

In September of 2002 Nellie performed at the Mountain Valley Arts festival in Lake Guntersville, Alabama, where she won both 1st Place in her category (Variety) and Best in Show, for "Won't U Please B Nice?," one of her first attempts at songwriting. Nellie returned to New York and moved to Staten Island, where she rented a room "in the witch's castle." She began frequenting the East Village and debuting her music in a steady flow: one song every week for a time, sometimes two, a three week hiatus now and then.

In February of 2003 Nellie opened for the Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players at Tonic, a performance space on New York's Lower East Side. At the urging of the Trachtenburgs, Jay Ruttenberg, from Time Out New York was there. Ruttenberg's prominent article in Time Out, published the following month, brought Nellie McKay her first piece of press. Two record labels called the next day and a bidding war among several of them ensued. "I was very impressed with how friendly and knowledgeable the record people were," Nellie says. "They seemed to genuinely like and believe in music. She eventually signed with Columbia Records, and recorded her album in late summer 2003 with Geoff Emerick--legendary engineer of the Beatles' Revolver, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Beatles (aka "The White Album"), and Abbey Road--signed on as producer. "Geoff is like chocolate pudding, with a touch of Jennifer Jones when he's worried about something," says Nellie of her producer. "His integrity, after all these years in such a cutthroat business, is unbelievable. He put all he could into this album and then some. And he's such fun to be around. We, Mama and I, used to sneak off during mixing and write 'I am the Walrus' in the dirt on his car. We also made him wear a tape roll on his head and say, 'I am the fairy princess.' I think this album took five years off his life. I wrote a Japanese song recently, for the foreign markets, that has a line that says 'I owe this entirely to Mr. Emerick.' That's accurate--he's a dream come true."

After mixing her album at Capitol Studios in Los Angeles, Nellie gratefully returned to New York ("home sweet home!") and resumed performing and working with the label on "the myriad of nebulous designs that comprise a record release." She has created her own artwork for the album and is involved in all phases of her burgeoning career, including press promotion. "This record is my life," she says. "I can't imagine not being involved in every aspect of it. The people who open the album--not industry folk, just people people--they're going to associate everything inside--every picture, every graphic, every piece of clothing, every attitude or pose--with my name, 'cause it's on the cover. I want to be involved with every plan and every decision. I'm not a puppet, and I'm not 'just a singer,' and I don't want to be left in my bubble so I can party the night away unencumbered by thoughts of recupable expenses or radio edits. My career is my party, and it's fun, and everybody's invited."