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Her Life Is a Cabaret

Nellie McKay, the 19-year-old with one of the winter’s hottest records, writes lyrics like a gonzo Cole Porter, sings like an attitudinal Peggy Lee—and lives with her mother in Harlem. She wouldn’t mind being a sex symbol, but nothing like Britney. “I’ll go the Garbo route,” she says.


Whoa, Nellie: McKay in full regalia, performing at Housing Works Used Book Cafe in January.  

When I walk into Nellie McKay’s underheated Harlem studio, she’s listening to an old Peggy Lee album, bought for 99 cents. It seems like a setup, except that the walls are covered in photos of prewar legends, and her mind is full of their images, too.

“As a kid, everything about me was weird,” she explains over fruit salad (McKay’s been vegetarian since age 8) at a nearby café. “I was always imitating Ann Sheridan, wearing a little military cap, or Rosalind Russell in Take a Letter, Darling. I read biographies of Dietrich, Hepburn, Garbo—all of them. Of course, nobody at school understood. Nobody even knows who Rita Hayworth is anymore. Are they nuts?”

She changes topical lanes every few seconds, swerving from Eminem (anti) to Bob Dylan (pro) to Rupert Murdoch (anti) to Susan Sarandon (pro) in a dizzying game of mental tag that often ends in the bewildered question “What was I saying?”

Possibly the only New York musician signed to a record deal last year whose press kit doesn’t include the term “post-punk,” she’s 19, mouthy and droll, shockingly talented, and vividly recherché in a way that evokes Turner Classic Movies. McKay (it rhymes with “not shy”) writes exhaustingly inventive jazz-pop tunes about marriage and seduction, with references to George Bush, Ethel Merman, and Dr. Phil. Her choruses are laced with outrageous rhymes, tart feminism, and leftist politics, and she crashes assonances together like a teen Cole Porter with a case of Tourette’s: “I don’t know, son, was there something I missed / I don’t think Fritz Lang was a fantasist / Metropolis exists / Is this / If you listen close, you can hear the piss.”

Since the release last month of her first CD, Get Away From Me (typically, the title is a bad-seed answer to the welcoming name of Norah Jones’s smash Come Away With Me), the reviews have been unanimous. In the New York Times, Jon Pareles called her “a sly, articulate musician who sounds comfortable in any era.” “Brave, brash, brilliant, and maybe a little batty,” raved the Philadelphia Daily News; the Washington Post declared that “this supremely gifted, charming, and darkly funny New York oddball has all the makings of the first great singer-songwriter of the young century.”

Born Eleanora Marie McKay, she was raised by her mother, Robin Pappas, a very theatrical actress (that adjective may seem redundant unless you’ve met her). After a spiteful divorce from Nellie’s father, a British director and writer, Pappas raised her only child in Harlem, until Nellie was mugged at age 10; they packed a VW van with their dog and nine cats and moved to Olympia, Washington, and later to rural Pennsylvania. In a high school with its own gun club, the girl with curlers in her hair and shoulder pads was a lonely freak. Mother and daughter were poor, and McKay recalls huddling in the kitchen to watch TV when a landlord had turned off the heat.

“I’ve got a lot of crazies in my family,” she says. Her maternal grandfather, she says, was a “psycho” who beat his wife and hit another daughter with a dog leash. “He’d take dogs into the woods and shoot them for target practice.” Hearing about all this from her mother steered her toward feminism. “I even have less sympathy for homeless men, just because they never have periods. What do homeless women do? Those poor women.” She shakes her head. “There’s a side of me that identifies with Aileen Wuornos.

“My father broke my mother’s nose twice before she left England,” she adds. “He’d really like to ‘get to know me better,’ but I haven’t responded to him for the last six months. I just can’t stand him.”

McKay pauses over a strawberry, laughs self-consciously. “Why do I keep saying like?” she says with a sigh, and requests that the word be dropped from her quotes. “I don’t want to sound anything like people my age,” she roars.

After a childhood that included visits from Abbie Hoffman (her mother made friends with him in Haight Ashbury), her mode of rebellion was to head for the squarest of eras. She listened to Dinah Shore’s “Laughing on the Outside (Crying on the Inside)” on the way “to and from school, every day,” she says. Shore, Doris Day, and Jo Stafford became her honorary aunts. At night, instead of doing homework, she watched Access Hollywood, studying fame.

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