HUDSON — When I first heard “Get Away from Me,” the debut album by a then-unknown pop-rock singer-songwriter named Nellie McKay in 2004, I was totally blown away. I thought it was one of the most astonishing debut albums ever. I couldn’t believe McKay was only 19 years old. I thought her two-CD set was the strongest argument against the notion of a closed “Great American Songbook” since Elvis Costello put the lie to that phrase. Easily making the leap from classic, Cole Porter-style pop with her Julie Londonesque vocals to contemporary raps that combined Eminem’s facility with They Might Be Giants’ musical wit and versatility and early Dylan’s political outrage, McKay’s was an astonishingly mature talent belying her youth. The album boasted funk, rock, Latin, ‘60s girl group, blues, reggae and jazz. All that, and somehow she got Geoff Emerick — the man who engineered The Beatles’ “Revolver” and Costello’s “Imperial Bedroom” - to produce for her.
Nellie McKay went on to dazzle in even more ways. She wrote songs for movies. She starred in “The Threepenny Opera” on Broadway, alongside such veterans as Alan Cumming, Jim Dale, Cyndi Lauper, and Brian Charles Rooney - and walked away with awards for her performance. She released more albums of original songs, including a full-length tribute to Doris Day and a collaboration with David Byrne. She became a top cabaret artist in New York City. She’s an outspoken activist for a host of social and political causes, most notably for animal rights.
Most recently, Nellie McKay released a pair of albums, “Bagatelles” and “Sister Orchid,” in which she put her idiosyncratic touch to pre-rock pop standards. The recordings capture McKay “In a Sentimenal Mood.”
Now, Nellie McKay returns to Club Helsinki Hudson on Sunday, March 8, at 8 p.m.
One of my favorite songs from her first album is “David,” a prescient sendup of the media hype that accompanies instant stardom. You can stream it with video here on YouTube. I’ve always thought the David of the title was a nod to David Bowie, but when I once asked her if that was true, she denied it. (For the record, I don’t believe her.) Another early song, “Clonie,” which she performs here as part of a TED talk, is a great example of her dazzling wordplay and ability to write humorous yet incisive songs about things that really matter - in this case, the creepy downside of high-tech science.
The album “My Weekly Reader” was a 1960s covers album that had Nellie taking on songs by the Beatles, the Kinks, Crosby Stills & Nash, Small Faces, Frank Zappa, Herman’s Hermits, Steve Miller Band, Richard & Mimi Farina, Moby Grape, Country Joe McDonald, Gerry & the Pacemakers, the Cyrcle and Alan Price, and giving them the Nellie McKay treatment. She found nuances in them that you never realized were there. Keeping with the ‘60s theme, she re-teamed with Geoff Emerick to record the album.
There is something a little Ray Davies-ish about Nellie, who was born in London to an English father, before she came with her American mother to the U.S., where she variously lived in Olympia, Wash.; Mount Pocono, Pa.; and Harlem.
A few years back, after the release of her album paying tribute to Doris Day, she did one of those NPR Tiny Desk concerts, which you can watch here. Nellie also took part in NPR’s “Project Song” songwriting challenge.
Check out local music critic Seth Rogovoy’s review of McKay’s concert at Helsinki Hudson from a few years back. Rogovoy was apparently totally smitten with her.
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