Nellie McKay is not easy to categorize. Her music is 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.
Nellie's first album was produced by Geoff Emerick, the man who engineered The Beatles' albums from Revolver through Abbey Road. McKay signed on as co-producer and together they recorded 18 songs, forming the double album Get Away From Me, which 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 because she recognizes that such stylishness and wit are worth pursuing. But these 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."
Of her second album, Pretty Little Head, 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 Nellie released 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." The Chase Brock Experience premiered a ballet, "Whoa, Nellie!", based on the entire album.
McKay has appeared on numerous TV shows, and her music has been heard on Weeds, Grey's Anatomy, NCIS, Privileged, Nurse Jackie, and Mad Men, while she has won a Theatre World Award for her Polly in the Broadway production of The Threepenny Opera, also acting and singing in the film PS I Love You and writing and performing the song score for the Rob Reiner film Rumor Has It. Her writing has appeared in The Onion, Interview, and The New York Times Book Review, where she delivered an incisive in-depth review of a Doris Day biography.
In 2009 Nellie released Normal As Blueberry Pie: A Tribute to Doris Day, an album of songs associated with Ms. Day (including a McKay original) which was hailed as "among the killer overhauls of American standards" (The New York Times). The album covers the scope of Day's music from the big bands through the McCarthy era. Normal As Blueberry Pie was featured on a variety of Top 10 lists of 2009's best albums, including the New York Times and the Village Voice.
Recently, McKay appeared opposite violin prodigy Philippe Quint in the independent film Downtown Express, recorded music for the Grammy-winning Boardwalk Empire soundtrack album, and contributed 2 songs to the Emmy-winning documentary Gasland.
Nellie's most recent album, Home Sweet Mobile Home, is 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/chasing the ghosts of anarchy" and "there's no equality here/there's no equality anywhere/and 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.
Last year Nellie premiered I Want to Live!, the "brilliant, zany film-noir musical biography" (New York Times) of Barbara Graham, the 3rd woman to die in the gas chamber at San Quentin. "McKay's virtually unlimited gifts as a singer, songwriter, actress, pianist, ukulele player, mimic, satirist and comedian combine into a show that is much deeper than its surface might suggest... In the most lighthearted way they evoke a heartless environment of social injustice in which people who fall through the cracks are invisible to everyone else" (New York Times).
Most recently McKay's show about pioneer environmentalist Rachel Carson, It's Not Nice to Fool Mother Nature, celebrating the 50th anniversary of her ground-breaking book Silent Spring, debuted at Feinstein's - "like watching a Michael Moore movie at a Goldman Sachs meeting... deserves to be heard by a wider - and more ecologically minded - audience" (the Jazz Session). "deliciously subversive" (the New Republic).
A recipient of The Humane Society's Doris Day Music Award in recognition of her dedication to animal rights, Nellie is known as an outspoken and fierce advocate for feminism, civil rights and other deeply felt progressive ideals.