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Her Life Is a Cabaret

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At 16, she moved back to New York and enrolled at the Manhattan School of Music, to study jazz voice. But studying bored her, as did anything that didn’t lead straight to fame, including her first job, working nights at Gristedes. “It lasted three weeks. I realized how deadening and stupid that is, because you’re not making any money—you’re just going to hell.”

She quit school after two years, worked as a stand-up comic, and played show tunes in gay bars. She wrote her first song, and then—like something out of a Rosalind Russell film—within a year, the world knocked at her door. Even as she played to 75 people in a Williamsburg club, record labels vied for her hand. “I was crazy about her,” says Ron Goldstein, president and CEO of Verve, who tried to sign her. “Nellie lives in her own world. There’s a sense of innocence in her music that I hope will last.”

The bidding was won by Columbia, a division of Sony and the home of Dylan and Springsteen, and she began recording with Geoff Emerick, who engineered the Beatles’ Revolver, Sgt. Pepper, and Abbey Road, and also produced Elvis Costello. “I get sent lots of demos, and Nellie’s was a breath of fresh air because of how stagnant the business is now,” says Emerick, a fidgety, ginger-haired, potbellied man of 58 in cargo pants. “Because of the sophistication in the songs, I didn’t believe that she was a teenager.”

In the midst of recording her CD, McKay decided she wanted to make it a double CD—eighteen songs. Sony (whom she sometimes calls “the enemy”) fought her, even trying “to confiscate the tapes,” she maintains. She paid $30,000 of her own money to record five more songs. The more people warned her not to release a two-disc debut, the more she dug in. “People don’t understand teenagers. The only way you’re going to get your kids to not do drugs, if that’s your goal—which I don’t understand, because a lot of drugs are good for you—is to do drugs around your kid, which my mother did. She smokes pot, and I’ve never wanted to. I can be difficult—I take out my neuroses by punching things. That doesn’t sound very female, does it? There’s more than a little Sean Penn in me. There’s a lot of fury in me.”

There wasn’t a lot of fury in Doris Day, which is why McKay’s retro costumes and golly-gee lingo create a misleading first impression. Here are a few targets from this PETA activist and self-described “angry teenage Albert Schweitzer”: conformists, including anyone who wears Old Navy; Madonna, for exploiting sex (“Why is that the only way you can push buttons?”); Columbia University, for the animal testing in its labs; and jazz musicians who dismiss her signing as luck.

“I can be difficult—I take out my neuroses by punching things. That doesn’t sound very female, does it? There’s more than a little Sean Penn in me. There’s a lot of fury in me.”

She also struggles with stylists who want typical “sexy” photos. “I definitely want to expose less flesh. I’ve read Linda Lovelace’s autobiography—I know where that road leads. I don’t mind being a sex symbol, but I’ll go the Garbo route, thank you very much. Why don’t men take their clothes off in photos? Because it makes them vulnerable, and men don’t like to be vulnerable.”

McKay’s sharpest song, the lounge ballad “I Wanna Get Married,” mocks domesticity as a trap (“I wanna pack cute little lunches for my Brady Bunches / Then read Danielle Steel”), and beneath its swingy pace, “It’s a Pose” is an indictment of men for warmongering, rape, and porn. The college dropout often sounds like a campus feminist: “If blacks loved white people like women love men, we’d still have slavery. Women are in love with the oppressor.” Especially white American men. “I’m so tired of white people. Black people were enslaved for so many years, yet they live among us and don’t kill us all. That blows my mind! We have the equivalent of a pinprick in the World Trade Center tragedy, and we’re going nuts. We can’t take it. So I do have a problem with white people, because I feel that not only are they currently the world oppressors, but they’re big babies on top of it.” A few minutes later, she adds, “You won’t make me sound too self-righteous and angry, will you?”

McKay, who admits she likes to “stir shit up,” and shows a teen distaste for authority, whether it’s Sony or her mom, is trying to end her relationship with Lach, the one-named manager who first saw her at an East Village open-mike night, when she had only one song. “He was swindling me,” she charges. “I knew he was a shyster, but I thought it was for me. He was taking too much credit, too much control.”

Replies Lach: “I have no idea whatsoever how she thinks getting her a deal with Columbia and setting her on the path to stardom is swindling her. I’m dumbfounded.” Though a source says he and McKay are suing one another, Lach declined to comment on that: “I’m still legally and contractually her manager,” he says.

As she has for much of her life, McKay spends much of her time with her mom. “I don’t believe in dating. I’m saving it all for one person,” she says, blushing. She’s referring to her neighbor, David, who taught her at Manhattan School of Music. He’s the subject of “David,” the bereft first song on her CD. “From the first day I laid eyes on him, I knew he was the one for me,” she says, glowing. There are a few little impediments to their union: He has a girlfriend, and anytime Nellie is around him, she turns mute.

“You can’t make someone like you,” she philosophizes. “You can only get rich and famous and hope they can’t help themselves. Eventually, it should happen. Otherwise, I’m quite happy to be the Virgin Queen, because it gives you a great place of power. Frankly, I think I’m here for a higher calling.”

At the end of the meal, trained by years of struggle, McKay fills a plastic bag with leftover fruit salad, grapes, and bread. Nearing her building, we bump into her beloved David. Quickly, she enlists me in a ruse—at her instruction, I walk her to the door, pretend to laugh at something she’s said, and loudly announce my departure—so David will know I’m not spending the night.


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