Nine Days and Counting…to Nellie McKay Day: Bless the Beasts and Doris Day Too
Just nine more days until Ms. McKay’s fourth visit to Mt. Stage and I am watching Doris Day’s first motion pictures and her early recordings — as well as re-listening to Nellie’s appearances on Piano Jazz & Fresh Air, among others.
And after watching “It’s a Great Feeling” from 1949 (and loaded with wonderful cameos, including memorable turns by Gary Cooper and Joan Crawford) it’s somewhat mesmerizing how much of a physical resemblance there is. “Feeling” was just Doris Day’s third feature and the one she did immediately before “Young Man With a Horn” where she not only sings some of her most memorable songs, it’s perhaps her most nuanced film performance.
And, of course, Nellie is touring in support of the new record on Verve “As Normal As Blueberry Pie,” including performing again at Jazz at Lincoln Center on October 29 and — drum roll please — on December 5 & 6 will appear at the insurgent country Bloodshot Records hang-out & mainstay of the alt country circuit, Schuba’s in Chicago, as the special guest of Americana stalwart Grant Lee Phillips.
Additional tour dates, photos, press, etc. is only a click away:
Meanwhile from the Sunday Times:
NELLIE MCKAY hadn’t made it a block from her Upper West Side apartment when she stopped abruptly, leash in hand, halfway across Central Park West. “Oh,” she said, eyes widening. “I forgot Hank’s ‘Adopt Me’ vest. Can we go back and get it?”
Hank is a rescued pit bull, one of two in Ms. McKay’s care. (The other one, Bessie, looks to be staying for a while.) Both dogs appear in costume pearls on the cover of her fourth album, “Normal as Blueberry Pie” (Verve). Their inclusion isn’t arbitrary: the album, out on Tuesday, pays homage to Doris Day, the perennially fresh-faced singer and actress, now 87, who followed her record-breaking postwar music and movie career with a leading role in animal welfare advocacy.
Ms. McKay, 27, has long been drawn both to the cause and artistic example of Ms. Day, who is famously reclusive (they have never met in person). Though a songwriter often given to whiz-bang topicality and fanciful digression, Ms. McKay also projects the coy decorum of a Hitchcock heroine. Known for her willful independence and daffy onstage charm, she has always chased her whims heedless of commercial consequences, which is one reason for her cult following.
Less a departure than the embrace of an affinity that has always lurked near the surface of her wry persona, “Normal as Blueberry Pie” is her most accessible and straightforward album yet. It’s a knowing tribute, bright-eyed and sharp, suffused with humor but mostly devoid of camp.
Given that standards continue to be a bankable approach (See Streisand, Barbra), it may prove to be a good move for her. “As soon as I heard that was her next record,” said Bill Bragin, the director of public programming for Lincoln Center, “I thought: ‘Of course. That totally makes sense.’ ”
On a recent afternoon, once the neon-orange vest had been retrieved from her shabby-chic ground-floor apartment, Ms. McKay, in a vintage red blazer, began to walk the dogs toward the Arthur Ross Pinetum in Central Park. She took Bessie, entrusting Hank to a reporter. Before reaching the park, there was an adoption inquiry from a passer-by, and phone numbers were exchanged.
“At first I wanted everything to sound just like Doris,” Ms. McKay said of the album.
“What I really want to do is go on tour with the Les Brown Band,” she quipped, name-checking the orchestra with which Ms. Day scored her first hit, “Sentimental Journey,” in 1945.
Born in London but raised alone by her mother in Harlem (through childhood) and the Poconos (during high school), Ms. McKay — pronounced Mc-EYE — got the Doris Day bug almost on a lark. “It was during a field trip. Or it might have been a protest down at the Baltimore Aquarium. Anyway, it was in Baltimore. I got a record of hers, ‘It’s Magic,’ ” a compilation of early singles, “and I listened to it on the way back, and that was it for me. I was just listening to her all the time after that.”
Without question, animal welfare is a bond between Ms. Day and Ms. McKay. In 2005 the Humane Society gave Ms. McKay the Doris Day Music Award for “The Dog Song,” an ode to canine companionship from her widely acclaimed 2004 debut, “Get Away From Me” (Sony/Columbia). “Nellie is carrying that torch,” said Michael Markarian, the chief operating officer of the Humane Society of the United States, which merged with the Doris Day Animal League in 2006. “Even with her schedule, she finds the time to really dig in and do boots-on-the-ground work, whether it’s phone banking or lobbying Congress.”
But the thing about Ms. Day that reached Ms. McKay most deeply was the singing. Two years ago, reviewing a biography for The New York Times Book Review, Ms. McKay appraised her role model this way: “What she possessed, beyond her beauty, physical grace and natural acting ability, was a resplendent voice that conveyed enormous warmth and feeling.” That aspect of Doris Day had been overshadowed, Ms. McKay said, by her perky image in films like “Pillow Talk,” with Rock Hudson. “The hardest part about this was narrowing down her catalog, because she just recorded so much.” The album — named after a phrase in “A Wonderful Guy,” from “South Pacific” — reflects that variety, incorporating a Gershwin toe-tapper (“Do, Do, Do”), a Jobim bossa nova (“Meditation”), wistful standards and themes from Ms. Day’s movie career.
Ms. McKay produced “Normal as Blueberry Pie” with her mother and manager, Robin Pappas. Writing most of the arrangements and playing a mess of instruments — not just piano but also ukulele, organ, bells and timpani — she makes each song a discrete episode. On “Sentimental Journey” she coos contentedly over a blend of saxophone, oboe, bass and steel pans. “Crazy Rhythm” assumes a Gypsy-swing bounce. A French horn turns up on “Send Me No Flowers,” a Burt Bacharach-Hal David song from the 1964 film.
And yet, somehow, the album conveys a breezy continuity. Opening with “The Very Thought of You,” arranged to suggest a music-box twirl, and closing with an “I Remember You” announced by foghorns, it takes a nonstandard approach to the standard songbook. And in that sense it’s a neat inversion of Ms. McKay’s own work.
Early this decade, as a Manhattan School of Music dropout, Ms. McKay made the downtown rounds with her clever songs. Mr. Bragin saw her at the Sidewalk Café in the East Village and began booking her at Joe’s Pub, his post at the time. “Her wordplay is brilliant, her lyric writing is extremely smart, she’s got a great way with a turn of phrase, she writes a great melody,” he said. “She literally was the first artist I called for Midsummer Night Swing,” he added, referring to the series he took over last year.
Ms. McKay has also appeared twice on Lincoln Center’s American Songbook series and will perform next month at a gala for the new David Rubinstein Atrium. “Right from her first demo,” said Charles Cermele, producer of contemporary programming, “I heard that she was working within established musical forms but finding new ways of placing them in our time period. Some of these songs sounded like they could have come from the late ’40s to the early ’60s, but they were about the life of a young woman in current, urban America: what it’s like to walk her dog, or all the other things that seem to be a part of who Nellie is.”
“Get Away From Me,” produced by the Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick and released, at her insistence, as a double CD, included songs not only about dog-walking but also about male chauvinism, genetic cloning and assorted hypocrisies. (A pit bull in pearls: not a random image for her.) Stylistically the album was all over the map, brushing up against cocktail jazz, light reggae and even her version of hip-hop. Two self-produced follow-ups, “Pretty Little Head” and “Obligatory Villagers,” were similarly eclectic. And along the way Ms. McKay made strides as an actress: she was one of the best things about a 2006 Broadway production of “The Threepenny Opera,” also starring Alan Cumming and Cyndi Lauper.
An antique poster from a different production of “Threepenny” hangs in the front parlor of Ms. McKay’s apartment, above an old, out-of-tune piano that she said must have belonged to Irving Berlin. (She admitted this was based on nothing more than a hunch.) Strewn about were her hand-scored arrangements for some of the album’s songs. Ms. McKay, whose performances can give the impression of harried creativity, apologized profusely for the clutter without exactly disowning it.
Perched in an overstuffed chair, Ms. McKay reflected on the movie legacy of Ms. Day, an issue more complicated than her vocal legacy. In movies ranging from “Tea for Two” to “Calamity Jane” to those swoony Rock Hudson comedies, Ms. Day presented a blithely wholesome demeanor that was ripe for satire even in its time. “It’s pushy, all that romantic gusto,” Ms. McKay said, with just a hint of grudging respect.
“Romance on the High Seas,” from 1948, is the first Doris Day movie she recalls seeing. “But I especially remember ‘Young Man With a Horn,’ because I love that soundtrack so much.”
“I think in those movies, I identified mostly with Hoagie Carmichael or Oscar Levant,” she chuckled. “But I think that some Doris seeped out of that, too.”
And yet the pose of the ingénue — epitomized both by Ms. Day and by Polly Peachum, the character Ms. McKay played to the hilt in “Threepenny” — has long been a useful strategy for her. Earlier in the day, she admitted as much while discussing “If I Ever Had a Dream,” the album’s lone original, composed in her teens. A lilting confection, it allows for a knowing wink but no pucker of irony:
If I ever had a wish
Butterflies and bumblebees at play
Purple moonbeams on the mist
Crowds of calla lilies show the way
“It’s wonderful: when you’re happy all the time, you drive other people crazy,” Ms. McKay said over a Caesar salad, French fries and a shake at Blossom, a vegan restaurant. (Printed along the bottom of the menu was a creed: “Blossom Is First and Foremost Animal Caring.”)
The title of the new album is, as you might suspect, meant as commentary. “I mean, what is normal?” Ms. McKay said. “Those movies, they were a giant cover-up.” From Ms. Day’s personal travails to Mr. Hudson’s closeted homosexuality, things were never as idyllic as they appeared on-screen.
But did she ever detect a note of critical self-awareness in Ms. Day’s movie presence? Ms. McKay waited 17 seconds before forming a reply. “No, not so much,” she finally said with a laugh. But then she also made a tiny confession. “I really would love to just live in La-La Land,” she sighed, “and have everything be the ideal.”