Show Tune Liberation

Every day Nellie McKay wonders why she’s in the music business—but she definitely is

At Mercury Lounge December 6, Nellie McKay rolled out a dozen songs from her excellent and then forthcoming new album Pretty Little Head.

A hundred or so devotees ate up her Dylan impression, her perky banter, and her ad lib about how she should have signed to Verve instead of Columbia. With her strawberry blond hair pulled back in an ornate bundle, the London-born, Harlem-raised Doris Day fanatic introduced her band four times, declared duet partner K.D. Lang "just wonderful," and passed out an article about zoo animals at LSU left to fend for themselves during Katrina.

The new songs sounded great, although relatively smooth and polite compared to her equally excellent 2004 debut, Get Away From Me—a sui generis mix of show tunes, jazz throwbacks, bossa nova, Latin ragtime, and one ferocious rap. It didn't help relations with Columbia that McKay insisted the label release the album on two nine-cut CDs, which included five tracks she shelled out $30,000 of her own money to record. Still, McKay's droll, detail-drenched songs about New Ageism, male chauvinists, and the Harlem street where she was mugged as a child earned the then 19-year-old mad love from music glossies, Web critics, and NPR.

A month and two days after the Mercury gig, Nellie joined an equally devoted crowd of 30 at a Columbus Circle protest against the use of carriage animals, organized by the League of Humane Voters. She held a candle—the event doubled as a vigil for a horse who broke free from its hansom cab and was killed after colliding with a car on Ninth Avenue—and sheepishly assented to a request that she lead the crowd in "Give Peace a Chance." By that time Pretty Little Head was supposed to be out, but its absence from stores didn't much concern her. "Not a day goes by that I don't wonder why I'm in the music business," she said. "I'd rather be doing this full-time."

Just before Christmas, McKay's lawyer got a call from Columbia informing him of its decision not to release Pretty Little Head. Sony Music, Columbia's parent corporation, had replaced its chairman, Will Botwin, with Steve Barnett, former chairman of Columbia's sister label Epic. Though she's still not sure exactly why, that sounded the death knell for Pretty Little Head as a Columbia release. Representatives at Columbia were unavailable for comment.

McKay delivered Pretty Little Head—all 23 tracks—last summer, when Columbia was shooting for an October release. An impasse arose when Columbia proposed a 16-track version. "We had great meetings with Will Botwin," McKay says. "I thought it just got a little heavy. It seemed like it was mostly an artistic decision. It seemed strange because it wasn't based on financial reasons."

The seven disputed tracks provide several of Pretty Little Head's most audacious and lyrically memorable moments: "Pounce" is a 59-second variety show goof full of kitty cat noises, the loving "Mama and Me" a speedily rapped remembrance of her heroic single mom and boho upbringing that moves from "I want a pony" to "Never had Nintendo/Saw a lot of Brecht though." McKay's response to the songs' proposed axing was to give out Botwin's e-mail address at a November gig at the Troubadour in L.A. Before Botwin was replaced, he agreed to release the complete version.

McKay, who's negotiating to buy the album from Sony and shopping labels, insists it will come out before or during her Broadway run as Polly Peachum in The Threepenny Opera, which is slated to open in April and continue through June 11. She estimates that her commitment to the production (which dates back to December 2004) accounted for "about 33 percent" of Columbia's decision, after it became clear McKay wouldn't have much time to promote a January release. She refuses to speculate further. "I'm happy we're going our separate ways," she says. "I think 'liberating' is exactly the word."

So if getting dropped by her label doesn't make her mad, what does? "Everything," she says. "So much about Katrina. There's some footage from China that's outrageous. These people have no proper stunning equipment, so they're literally skinning the animals alive . . . " And when she gets mad? "I'm like Joan Crawford," she says. "I punch things. I hurt myself sometimes."

Crucially, McKay often apologizes to whatever she punches. In her songs, her barbs are couched in sweetness and brilliant camp, and her knack for sweet-and-sour was forged at least as far back as high school. McKay was a misfit who took easy classes, played in school bands, dressed in long skirts and blouses her auntie gave her, and listened to Dinah Shore's "Laughing on the Outside (Crying on the Inside)" on her way to school. "I came to Doris Day and Dinah Shore because they were antidotes to all the cynicism of my generation," she says.

McKay is matter-of-fact about her remarkable upbringing—about her father, a British director whom her mother, Robin Pappas, divorced when McKay was two; about her grandfather, who did time in San Quentin for murder; about an itinerant childhood spent in Harlem, Olympia, and rural Pennsylvania; about the poverty she endured with Pappas, an actor who serves as McKay's manager and executive-produced Pretty Little Head. "Even the nights when the landlord turned off the heat were quite fun," she says. "I was always very proud to not have much money. You can get so many cheap things that brighten your life. We'd find stuff on the street, like a sled."

McKay may be mellowing, but it's more likely she's just gotten better at channeling her anger. Pretty Little Head is less caustic and more fluid than Get Away From Me, but it's still a rare beast: a pop record that matches supreme command of trad acoustic styles with blessed quirks and emotional complexities. On super-bright stuff like the Cyndi Lauper duet "Bee Charmer," and on "Cupcake," in which a disco queen's marriage proposal to his boyfriend is tied to a mega-campy falsetto hook, McKay's spotlight-seeking spunk could light up a dozen gay bars. Sincere slow ones like "Long and Lazy River" and

"Gladd" are just as effective—memorable and quietly beau-tiful, their sturdiness ought to counteract McKay's schizoid rep. Still, only three songs go for overt activism or social critique: the wickedly catchy minor-key dancepop of "The Big One," about heroic tenants' rights activist Bruce Bailey; "Columbia Is Bleeding," a speedy rant about animal testing in the university's labs; and the scary-funny poverty portrait "Food."

And yet, McKay attends up to three animal rights protests a week. Recently she's shelled out money for prosthetic surgery for Asian children with cleft lips, for an animal sanctuary in Pennsylvania, and to adopt a donkey in California and a cow upstate. She's working, too, composing 70 minutes of music for a film called The Amazing True Story of a Teenage Single Mom, and she begins Threepenny rehearsals in February. As we're leaving a Times Square restaurant—she wanted to find someplace "dirty and cheap," or at least a joint with vegetarian gravy, but it was cold—she taps my arm. "Please don't say I'm young in a good way," she says. "I've been really conscious about ageism. You don't have an anti-Irish cream, but you have anti-aging cream. It's not right. Being old is beautiful. Thank you."

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