It’s hard to know what to make of Nellie McKay. Is she the retro-demure balladeer of Normal As Blueberry Pie, her recent Doris Day tribute album, strumming a ukulele and crooning about flowers and kisses? Or is she the snarky street kid of Get Away From Me, her critically acclaimed debut album of six years ago? The latter featured an eccentric mélange of rap, jazz, disco, and funk, with original songs from the tough—“Manhattan Avenue,” about “a pit bull’s yelp” and “the scuzzy hue of the sunlight”—to the spoofy: “I Wanna Get Married” includes the lyric “I wanna pack cute little lunches / for my Brady bunches.”
McKay, who’s 27, blonde, bright-eyed, with a sunshine smile over the hint of a smirk, insists that both personas are genuine. “When I wrote ‘I Wanna Get Married,’ I really did want to do that,” she reveals over lunch at a vegan café on the Upper West Side. “I had this yearning, and I was saying that it’s dangerous but it’s also kind of sweet.” The same goes for the Doris Day songs. “I do love them so much, I’m not making fun of them,” she says, adding, “Maybe I’m making fun of the fact that I love them so much.”
There is whimsy in the songs’ arrangements (most of which are by McKay), but no satire in her delivery. And if you listen again to her first album, it’s now clear that something of Doris was looming in McKay’s music all along—the show-tune wholesomeness, the simmering romance, and, above all, the sheer loveliness of her voice (on display February 18, when she sings mainly Doris Day tunes as part of Lincoln Center’s “American Songbook” series).
McKay first discovered Doris Day in high school while attending a protest at the National Aquarium in Baltimore (she remains an ardent animal-rights activist). Waiting for the bus back to her home in the Poconos, McKay went into a record store and bought Day’s classic album It’s Magic. “I’d never heard of her before,” she remembers, “but I liked the picture on the cover, her smiling face.” Listening to it back home, she liked the music even better, sought out more of Day’s albums, and rented her movies.
McKay was already playing piano and singing jazz standards, leaning toward a hard-boiled style. “I secretly listened to Anita O’Day tapes in gym class,” she says. Doris Day twirled a wisp of coquettishness into the mix of influences, which only sharpened her precocious quirkiness. “I started out authentically weird,” she says, “then it became self-conscious. You get used to being alone, then you pursue being different.”
In one sense, she regrets the gritty image she cultivated at the start of her career. (The explicit Get Away From Me had a Parental Advisory sticker on the cover.) “The problem with gritty is you just get all the punks to come to your shows,” she says. “Grandmothers against the war—that’s my ideal audience. Wisecracking grandmothers. Grandmothers as a bad influence. I want to be Betty White.”