Nellie McKay isn’t afraid to admit that she was a “band geek” in high school.
The 20-year-old singer/songwriter has been teased because she prefers slacks, flats and shoulder-padded blazers to tight, trendy jeans.
She doesn’t own a TV. She’s a vegetarian, but she doesn’t like vegetables. She usually stays up until 7 a.m. reading or playing piano. She has an old-fashioned partiality for old movies, music and fashion — and a time when things were more “innocent.”
McKay (pronounced “Mc-High”) doesn’t go out of her way to be the fish that swims upstream. She simply is, and she’ll be the first to tell you that she prefers to have things done one way: hers.
“I don’t like compromise,” the strawberry blonde says over a glass of grapefruit juice at her favorite cafe in her Harlem, N.Y., neighborhood. “I read about Norah Jones and her band and that’s great, but I don’t really want a band that’s a communal thing. I’ve always wanted to be the star.”
The title of her first release, “Get Away From Me,” is a “sarcastic allusion” to such albums as Jones’ “Come Away With Me” and Jane Monheit’s “Come Dream With Me.”
“That’s not something you can say in real life if you’re going to be considered a nice person,” McKay said. “But I often think it.”
Spend five minutes with McKay and it becomes clear how the petite musician was able to strong-arm a major label like Columbia into releasing her debut CD as a double album. The record, which has sold 45,000 copies since its February release, is a mishmash of fun, jazz-influenced pop songs that skip between styles as much as McKay skips between subjects during conversation.
In “Sari,” McKay weaves stream of consciousness banter and oddball rhymes in a rap-like delivery: “Sometimes I feel like I shouldn’t apologize so much / that it’s jive it’s a crutch / I just used when I’m judged I’m sorry for the mess / the stupid way I’m dressed / I guess I failed my test I don’t mean to offend, much.”
Then she fervently declares, “I’m a savage inside!”
The London-born McKay was raised in Harlem and gave music and voice lessons and played in New York’s gay bars and cabaret clubs when she was just 17 years old. She landed a record deal soon after dropping out of the Manhattan School of Music.
“I think a lot of college is about conformity and knowing how to write a good essay,” she said. “I know that I never fit and it kind of fills you with regret. But you’re glad you’re out of there. My life is better.”
McKay and her mother, former actress Robin Pappas, treat her career like a small family business. The pair answer fan e-mails, manage McKay’s hectic schedule, book shows and make creative decisions concerning photographs, artwork and promotional materials.
She’s opening for Sting on his European tour, and will appear later in the summer with Alanis Morissette and Barenaked Ladies.
After co-producing her debut with longtime Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick, McKay wants to produce her sophomore album (due in October) herself. She plays cello, saxophone, piano, xylophone — “all the mallet instruments” — and is considering learning to play the violin for the album to cut costs.
“I’ve always been a troublemaker,” McKay said. “Especially when I believe in something.”
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