By Duncan Strauss
When Nellie McKay zoomed onto the music scene in 2004 with her scintillating debut album, Get Away From Me, she immediately commanded trunkfuls of attention and accolades.
For starters, Get Away was a double album (McKay was considered the first female artist to launch her career that way), the record was produced by Geoff Emerick (engineered the Beatles’ Revolver, Sgt. Peppers Lonely Heart Club Band, The Beatles and Abbey Road), and showered with acclaim (the New York Times: “A tour de force from a sly, articulate musician who sounds comfortable in any era”).
If all this weren’t enough to brand McKay as a full-tilt phenomenon, that she was 19 years old certainly did.
Except, it turns out, she wasn’t 19. She was 21 when Get Away was released. This truth about her age triggered more than a little outrage and handwringing, as if those two years robbed McKay of wunderkind status.
But those who didn’t know much about Nellie McKay failed to understand an important point about her and age—they got it all wrong. She’s always been far older than her years, and for one simple reason: Nellie McKay is a very old soul.
From her new album, My Weekly Reader, Nellie McKay’s version of Lennon-McCartney’s ‘If I Fell’ (starring Betty Boop)
For those paying close attention to McKay, this has been a predominant, maybe even defining, trait at every point in her career–heck, on her first record, she evoked Peggy Lee, her fourth record was a tribute to Doris Day—and in a recent Talking Animals interview it was very much on display. To wit:
On education: “ I think getting rid of the standardized tests would really help—or severely cutting back on them. It’s handicapped teachers to such a degree.”
On the Internet: “One thing that gets me about the Internet is: This has given people a world at their doorstep. So you would think that people know more now. But instead, it seems to have just enabled the corporations to take over our minds even more.”
On the ‘60s: “The ‘60s are so far ahead of our current time, I keep going back to that decade and try to figure out how that happened. And how we can make it happen again.”
On pro-war politicians: “We’ve regressed today, where you can’t be a serious candidate for President unless you agree that it is sometime all right to incinerate people alive.”
If you looked at these quotes without knowing any better, you could be excused for guessing the speaker was a fiftysomething—sixtysomething?—parent of maybe two or three grown children.
And you’d be wrong, of course. Very wrong.
The speaker was indeed Nellie McKay, now 33 (verified), an unmarried woman who has no children. Old soul, indeed. In this case, whip-smart old soul with catholic interests.
McKay recently released a new album, My Weekly Reader. So, sure, we discussed that, as well as animals and animal welfare—core topics of all our Talking Animals conversations over the years (this was her fifth appearance).
But, as the above sampling of quotes may suggest, she had a lot of other things on her mind, and a typically eloquent way of expressing those things.
Among the more pressing of those appeared to be espousing her view that the Internet represents a decidedly mixed bag educationally for school kids.
“It’s the same homogenized world view people are getting,” she said, about information children are provided online, “to an even greater extent than they used to, with TV or the newspaper.
“And beyond that, they’re actually being taught hate and a lack of empathy. I just sat in with a class at a local high school. Nobody knew who Ralph Nader was, nobody knew who Tom Waits was.
“I’m sure if we discussed jazz, they wouldn’t have known any of the great musicians and probably a lot of the great figures from history, past and present day.
“It’s been bothering me ever since. These are seniors in high school, and these are things that are so basic, and meanwhile, they have the whole world in their pockets all the time.
“I think teachers, and to some extent parents, live in such a climate of fear and, meanwhile, the Internet is teaching the absolute worst of humanity to your kids.“
“It’s astonishing that you can’t talk about things, but the image and the culture somehow gets let off the hook. Or you can’t say a word. But an image or an action is tolerated or even celebrated. It’s completely backwards.”
One of the wonderful things about interviewing Nellie McKay–and this is deeply connected to those catholic interests of hers—is that she tends to careen from topic to topic.
During an appearance at a Barnes & Noble, Nellie McKay inveighs against corporate bookstores and performs Richard Fariña’s ‘Bold Marauder,’ from her new album, My Weekly Reader
This may be a product of having interviewed her multiple times, but our conversation quickly settled into a comfortable familiarity, like two friends gabbing over coffee. Or, maybe in this case, espresso.
Of course, the conversational careening is also a product of her wanting to escort the chat toward particular passions.
For instance, I started the interview asking her about Bessie, the pit bull she adopted some years ago, and one of two such dogs that grace the cover of that Doris Day tribute, Normal As Blueberry Pie.
She provided a quick update, then when I asked if having Bessie in her life provides an opportunity to speak with people as a way to help correct pit bulls’ bad rap, she answers, very briefly—but zooms onward to a longstanding pet peeve, as it were: the practice of breeding dogs, given the dire importance of adopting shelter dogs.
“Yeah, well, even more than that,” she said, replying to the pit bull question, “trying to convince people not to breed [dogs] is very difficult.
“I think you probably do better when you’re away from people and in front of a microphone or writing a book, rather than one-on-one, at least in my experience.
Nellie McKay, ‘The Dog Song’
“They get their mind set on their dog or cat having offspring and it seems very hard to dissuade them, no matter how many statistics you show them or pictures from shelters.
“You can say ‘Every dog bred is a shelter dog dead,’ or point out that Bessie, the dog that they’re petting, is a shelter dog. And she would be dead if one had made a choice to buy a dog as opposed to rescue one, or breed a dog, as opposed to rescue one.
This sort of dialog digression hardly eased—it may even have revved up–when we roamed onto the topic of her new album, My Weekly Reader, on which she covers 13 protest songs and other nuggets from the ‘60s by the likes of The Kinks (“Sunny Afternoon”), The Beatles (“If I Fell”), and The Small Faces (“Itchykoo Park”).
When I inquire how she landed on this idea for the record, it’s an opening most artists would pounce on, shifting into a promotional spiel about their new album.
Not Nellie. She launches into a treatise on the ‘60s, starting with the observation cited above (“The ‘60s are so far ahead of our current time”), then:
“People forget that the civil rights movement was largely anti-war. And there was so much addressing of the roots of violence, the ethos of superior violence, and going after war in its entirety—not just When is it justified? How does one fight it? How long does one go on for? But truly getting to the roots of the problem.
“And if you look back at the ‘60s, the hippie movement was vegetarian, there was a holistic approach to animals and the environment. Realizing that we are all animals and we do all share the same environment—that has also gotten lost.
From her new album, My Weekly Reader, Nellie McKay performs ‘Murder In My Heart for The Judge,’ a Moby Grape song best known in its version by Three Dog Night, here featuring Bela Fleck on banjo.
“Looking back at the ‘60s, a lot of the great ideals of the ‘60a are kids being naive, but what is really naïve is thinking we can continue on our current path and not end in annihilation and complete destruction of everything we hold dear.”
Were those philosophies and history what informed the decision to pursue this musical direction on My Weekly Reader?
“Yeah! For sure! And it so happened that the music was great.” she said “And, of course, that drove the revolution and mindset. There’s a line from Steve Martin, talking about the 60s, saying ‘it was easy to convert a square because our music was better.’ “
Now that we’ve meandered onto discussing music—her new album—I confess to her that when I first heard about My Weekly Reader and the songs on it, I was disappointed that there was no animal song.
Here at Talking Animals Headquarters, we worship at the altar of the animal song, a staple of the show’s format, and most of her albums have featured at least one such tune.
Many of us were introduced to Nellie McKay by way of an animal tune: “The Dog Song,” a bouncy, playful ode to the joys of walking her dog, that practically leapt off Get Away From Me.
In fact, she performed it on Letterman a week before that album was released, yet another trait that made her 2004 arrival notable. (Mentioning we were then in the run up to Letterman’s final shows before his retirement, I asked what she remembered about Dave that night: “He seemed like a friendly, sexy alien.”)
Turns out my initial assessment wasn’t entirely accurate. There is an animal song on My Weekly Reader, at least a peripheral one unfolds on McKay’s buoyant reading of “Murder In My Heart For The Judge.”
It’s a Moby Grape song, though some may be more familiar with the Three Dog Night version. In her rendition, McKay has added a spoken interlude that includes a string of protest chants and pithy phrases (Don’t tase me bro…Power to the people… Hands up… We’re all animals… All that glitters is not Goldman Sachs…Up against the wall, motherfucker…All we are saying is give peace a chance), concluding with a timely coda: I can’t breathe.
From My Weekly Reader, Nellie McKay’s version of The Kinks’ ‘Sunny Afternoon,’ written by Ray Davies
But the phrase she chants the most in that interlude: Stop Ag-Gag!
“Well,” she said, “maybe some people listening don’t know: Ag-gag laws are basically gag orders placed by the agricultural companies, and put through the government, that say that you can’t whistle blow at a factory farm.
“That you can’t take undercover footage. That you can’t take footage within a certain distance of the farm. So it’s terrible, inherently un-democratic—obviously, it hurts whistleblowers and activists, and inhibits any change for the animals.”
My Weekly Reader is loaded with such ‘60s gems, though most aren’t as reinvented as “Murder In My Heart For The Judge,” which beyond the spoken interlude is more swinging than the earlier versions, embroidered with Bela Fleck’s nimble banjo plucking.
She’s re-teamed with producer Geoff Emerick, and McKay says the first song mixed was “If I Fell,” on which Emerick served as engineer when a little band named The Beatles first recorded it.
She’s touring behind the album, and given her artistically restless spirit–which has taken her onto Broadway (fittingly, as an old soul, she made her Broadway debut as Polly Peachum in a run of The Threepenny Opera), Off-Broadway, into film, contributing music to TV shows and film, writing for The New York Times Book Review, and more—some other creative endeavor is surely just around the corner. She’s a true Renaissance Woman.
Still, whatever else she’s working on as an artist, Nellie McKay remains an ardent activist, speaking and working on behalf of panoply of issues and causes, with animal welfare chief among them.
Occasionally, those twains meet, like “Columbia Is Bleeding,” the protest song she wrote and recorded several years ago about Columbia University’s animal research, or performances on behalf of The Humane Society of The U.S., PETA (she’s received their Humanitarian Award), and the Farm Sanctuary.
From My Weekly Reader, Nellie McKay’s version of ‘Mrs. Brown, You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter,’ the 1965 chart topper by Herman’s Hermits
Currently, a major focus of her activist work is the Ban Horse Drawn Carriages Coalition For New York City, which seeks to remove those carriages from the streets of New York City, a longtime effort that’s ramped up considerably since Mayor Bill de Blasio–who made the ban a central promise of his campaign–was elected.
Of course, the ban constitutes an emotionally charged issue that has made de Blasio a lightning rod for criticism.
“I think we really have a fighting chance, at least.,” she said, of pushing the ban through. “The yellow press—the Daily News, and The Post, some of the free papers, and even The Times—are using this as a way to get at him. He’s been so progressive and so popular among the people.
“So they make this a way to portray him—to somehow make this a class issue, which it isn’t. But to turn people against him, they’ve used this as a convenient wedge. And it’s ridiculous, and horses do not belong in traffic.
It’s All Too Beautiful: From My Weekly Reader, Nellie McKay’s ‘Itchycoo Park,’ written by Steve Marriott and Ronnie Lane. The Small Faces single went to #1 in England and peaked at #16 in the States in 1968.
“This has been going on for years—how many accidents have to happen? In the middle of New York City, in the extremes of heat and cold, these horses do not belong on the streets.
“And they’re animals that are so easily spooked, and in one of the loudest, most raucous, unpredictable cities in the world And in midtown of that city, too. This isn’t some outer borough by a river bank. It’s right in the thick of it, where these horses are working.”
She’s pretty worked up now, for the sake of the carriage horses. But when I ask if she’s optimistic about the ban, or concerned that the path is riddled with too many obstacles to execute that change, she barely pauses before answering, reflecting the wisdom of, yes, a very old soul.
“No, I really think this is something that we can win. As you go on, you begin to become pragmatic in the worst way, just because you realize how slow change can be.”