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Modern Music Masters: Nellie McKay

Today we begin a new comprehensive academic music discussion series on BroadwayWorld in which I speak to the most cutting-edge artists in the recording industry, on Broadway and in Hollywood about their influences and experiences in the industry with an emphatic emphasis on the songwriting process itself and what drives and inspires it. While these discussions may be on occasion only tangentially theatre-related, the insights provided by the various participants is a demonstrative way in which to illuminate perhaps the most mysterious of all the arts: music. Peering into the psyche of the composer and lyricist, we may begin to understand what the craft of composition and lyric-writing is all about and why musical theatre tends to attract the most talented and innovative songwriters, both in the twentieth-century and today (as this column proves).

We begin our series today with a woman who has done it all - starred on Broadway in THE THREEPENNY OPERA, written movie soundtracks such as RUMOR HAS IT, as well as released five studio albums of her own including the new release HOME SWEET MOBILE HOME, and contributed material to the new HBO series BOARDWALK EMPIRE, and she's also composed a few musicals, too, along the way - the daffy and delightful Nellie McKay. In this exclusive conversation we talk career, composing, politics and the new album and what sharing the stage with Cyndi Lauper at Studio 54 every night was like. Plus, many more memorable musicology moments to amuse and affect us. If you love musicology and music theory, this is the column for you! We're already off to a magnificent start with the two inaugural Modern Music Masters entries this week! Enjoy!

The Billie Holiday of Songwriters

PC: You're the George Gershwin - and Jason Mraz is Cole Porter - of the twentieth century. I'm so happy to be starting this new musicology series with you two.

NM: Oh, wow! Thank you so much for that.

PC: The labels won't always let you guys release everything you want to, but such is the record industry, I guess.

NM: Oh, I know! Maybe Jason will fund my next record! (Laughs.)

PC: Are you a fan of his?

NM: Oh, yeah! And I like his politics, too! He has an avocado farm.

PC: Yes, he does! I love your politics, too.

NM: Thank you.

PC: Before we get to politics, I have to tell you that I was at a performance of THE THREEPENNY OPERA where the sound system blew and you did the entire show unamplified!

NM: No kidding! I wish we could do it every night like that!

PC: Cyndi Lauper unamplified in Studio 54? Wow. Tell me about working with her.

NM: It was fabulous. It was an education in and of itself watching everyone in that cast every night.


PC: What a cast it was!

NM: For me, personally, Brian Charles Rooney stole the show.

PC: That soprano of his! How can he hit those notes?

NM: (Laughs.) I know! I think he can maybe even go higher now. He just keeps goin'!

PC: How would you describe your Broadway debut/experience? Do you stay in touch with Brian or the other cast members?

NM: It's funny you mention that, that Brian and I stay in touch, because I owe him money! (Laughs.) I owe him twenty bucks!

PC: That's hilarious!

NM: But, why I did it...

PC: Was it because of Brecht? I know he's a big influence on you. So is Weill, musically, right?

NM: Right. Yeah. Definitely.

PC: Would you cite them as major influences? What about Sondheim? Or Gershwin? They seem to seep through in your work.

NM: For sure. One of the ones I think is the most under sung is Lorenz Hart. His work with Richard Rodgers never resulted in a musical like OKLAHOMA! that used to be done a lot, or something that he did with Hammerstein. But, I think his individual songs are like poetry. He seems to be, to me, like the Billie Holiday of songwriters.

PC: What are your favorite Hart lyrics or songs? "My Funny Valentine"?

NM: Gosh. (Pause.) I love "Where or When" and "Glad To Be Unhappy".

PC: You sang "Where or When" at that great Zipper Theater concert a few years ago.

NM: That's so sweet of you to say... you know, I had a good year there where I did some really awful shows.

PC: It was unforgettable. Perfect for that theatre, too!

NM: Yeah! It's a shame that theater closed down, I hope someone re-opens it.

PC: I know you're a big advocate of keeping the old buildings alive. I love the songs you've written about that.

NM: Yeah. (Pause.) Well, I mean, it's like this whole thing with the Mosque, you know, it's actually just a center. My only problem is that you're tearing down an old building. That's my only problem with a lot of this new construction. In New York City, when they develop something they never use the old buildings. It's so wasteful. Why not use what's there? I hope we can preserve as much as the old New York - and the Old World, in general - in terms of the beautiful architecture, as possible. I think there's a strong tendency to throw the baby out with the bathwater. You know, some change is good and some change is bad. Why do we have to make the bad changes along with all the good stuff?

PC: So true! Are there songs on the new record or past records that address a cause particularly close to your heart that you‘d like to discuss? I'm thinking of "GLAAD".

NM: Right. That was for a friend of mine who died right before I wrote that. She used to be this great beatnik who put the flowers in the guns at Vietnam-era protests.

PC: Great story. What about on HOME SWEET MOBILE HOME?

NM: Yeah, I guess on this one there's "Bodega", which champions the bodegas because, you know, two or three of them close throughout the greater New York area every day. They really are the heart and soul of the city. I can't imagine New York without the bodegas, but they're disappearing. And it's because of overdevelopment. I mean, now you have a bank on every corner.

PC: Right. What a terrible statistic!

NM: For animal rights, it would be "Unknown Reggae" on the new record. It is about the meat, in particular. But, animal products - including dairy and eggs, although I know it is difficult to get off of them - that's the quickest way to end global warming. It really has a terrible impact on the earth, eating higher up on the food chain like that. If we went back to the basics of vegetables, legumes, grains - the things closer to the earth - it's a lot better for the earth and for other people. We can feed more people, we can feed the starving people.

PC: PRETTY LITTLE HEAD turned a lot of vegetarians out of us, I think. At least me.

NM: Awww! I hope so!

PC: People are getting sick from the meat. The world is overheating because of the meat. It's all in the meat. Especially people our age, coming up, being more aware of it.

NM: Yeah, that's the thing. I'm addicted to junk food, it's just vegan junk food!

PC: It's so much better!

NM: Yeah, and you can still overeat and do harm to yourself! Just not to the animals! (Laughs.)

PC: What are your feelings on the legalization of marijuana?

NM: Well, you know, I do understand why people wouldn't want that - because I know a lot of pot-smokers and they don't want them to tax their pot!

PC: Right.

NM: But, at the same time, my mother got busted for pot at Burbank Airport recently...

PC: Oh, I'm sorry to hear that.

NM: Oh, no. (Laughs.) I think overall she enjoyed the experience. I mean, now she's up there with Paul McCartney and Whitney Houston.

PC: Well, that's one way of looking at it! (Laughs.)

NM: I mean, it's just so silly that you can get in so much trouble for one little bud. It's ridiculous.

PC: And you were just in Jamaica to record part of your new album. I loved "Caribbean Time", I gave it a rave in my column when it first came out.

NM: Thank you so much. (Pause.) You know, the smell of ganja is heavy in the air and the best musicians on the planet are there. There's a lot of The Hustle, but I think that's part of the fun.

PC: How much time did you get to spend there?

NM: We just spent a couple of days. Actually, I thought we were just going down to record. But, it was a little hazy. We were there as friends of friends. So, for a lot of the "hang", I couldn't figure out why we weren't in the studio working!

PC: You're always working!

NM: I think it built up nicely, though.

PC: It really did!

NM: Then, after we actually recorded, I could have the Red Stripe and watch the waves roll in.

PC: Could you tell me about RUMOR HAS IT? That's one of my favorite soundtracks ever. "Face of a Faith" is my favorite song of yours.

NM: Oh, well, you can thank Rob Reiner and Marc Shaiman!

PC: OK, I will! Why?

NM: You see, I had written a couple of other songs for this one scene. It's the scene where Jennifer Aniston had come to terms, after a crisis, and was going back to Mark Ruffalo hoping to sort of try to start a life with him. So, I turned in one song and they said it didn't quite work. Then, I wrote another and they said it didn't quite work. Then, I felt like, you know, "Jesus, what do they need?"

PC: Right?!

NM: (Laughs.) So, then we did "Face of a Faith" and Marc, you know, does those big arrangements. I'm glad you liked it.


PC: Marc is a contributor to BroadwayWorld, too! It's a small world!

NM: It is!

PC: Tell me about writing this new album and what your favorite songs are and why.

NM: Ohh, favorite songs! I am quite partial to the ones we recorded in Jamaica, and the last track that we recorded live out in the Poconos. I love that festival out there in the Delaware Water Gap and I think it has a special kind of magic.

PC: What prompted you to do a live cut on a studio album? What was the concert like? Did you just love the whole vibe up there?

NM: Yes! You know, it's always so nerve-wracking being up there on stage. It's even harder playing in your hometown - and I have a couple of home towns - but, you're playing for all the people you knew in high school so it causes no small degree of panic in my mind.

PC: It shouldn't, though! No fear!

NM: It's just so warm, and it's very local. It's all about the love of the music. You know, a lot of rock festivals are the source of the angry young men types. I'm sure they have their place, but they sort of scare me!

PC: Speaking of angry young men, but a pretty genius one, what do you think of Kanye West? What about his music?

NM: I think I just know his first album. I think he has some really clever stuff in there. But, he's so popular. I feel like I shouldn't listen to people that are that popular.

PC: What rap do you like?

NM: I love Common. Plus, Common has done a lot of stuff for PETA. I'm so glad about the merging of both worlds like that.

PC: What do you think of Lady Gaga?

NM: Well... I wasn't too keen on the meat dress!

PC: Nor would I expect you to be! But, what about the music?

NM: But, you know, she certainly seizes everyone's attention. And those melodies sure do get in your head!

PC: It seems you're more in the Laura Nyro mode and she's in the Carole King meets Grace Jones mode.

NM: It's wonderful to have chutzpah in performing. I often feel I lack that. So, it's great to see. I'd love to give my music to someone who really likes to wow the crowd. I feel like half the time I just want to hide in the dressing room!

PC: Speaking of commercialization of music, is it surreal to hear your music on WEEDS? It seems you'd like that show, it's very quirky.

NM: Yeah. Some really good actors on that show. I don't have a TV, so I've never seen the series, but I saw the scene where Kevin Nealon lights the joint while he's singing along to "David" and... aww, that really is just the dream!

PC: You love it!

NM: That's really why we're in the business.

PC: Right. Moments like that.

NM: Actually, when I was little, I did a circus protest outside Ringling Brothers and he came. He was this big Saturday Night Live star. I remember that and thinking that was just crazy!

PC: Big time, especially for a protest!

NM: I think that I still have a picture of me somewhere, as a little girl, with Kevin Nealon. So, to come full circle like that, you know... I'm happy to die now!

PC: What a great story! It's like a life story musical. What about writing musicals? Isn't OBLIGATORY VILLAGERS a concept album?

NM: Yeah, I guess it was. I think my favorite quote about it was, "It sounds like a musical decrying American Fascism."


NM: One of my friends is in that, I keep hearing about it. I have to go see it.

PC: Back to the new album, tell me about "The Portal". It sounds like a Victorian lullaby. So atmospheric, especially the production.

NM: Oh, wow! It's funny because we recorded that three times and it never was exactly what I thought it was going to be. I kept kind of looking for a Jimmy Buffett sound! (Laughs.)

PC: No way! Really?

NM: Yeah! Perhaps the musicians resisted!

PC: Maybe with good reason!

NM: Yeah, I always thought it could be less solemn. Maybe we'll still do a mix like that, where it's just more kind of steel drum-y. You know, it still has those lonesome lyrics, but it trots along more like "Footprints In The Sand."

PC: Great comparison between those two! So reminiscent!

NM. Oh, yeah!

PC: What about "Absolute Elswhere"? That reminded me a tiny bit of "The Down Low", but it's its own thing. What was the inspiration?

NM: I wrote the main melody back in, I think, 2003 when I was visiting my Auntie Grace. Now, my inspiration was all the lay-offs. Particularly, at Verve my record label.

PC: What a shame. You guys have such a legacy at Verve.

NM: Yeah, with that song, it was particularly about my good friend who got laid off. He was my A&R and the one who signed me there. He came up with the whole idea for the Doris [Day] album. He got laid off on a Thursday morning. I hate to sit here and say a lay-off was good for anything, but it was great for focusing the lyrics.

PC: The greatest tragedies inspire the greatest art, right?

NM: Yeah. In a way, for instance, I think - at least Mitchell - got out at the right time. I think being fired can be... it can inspire you to move onward.

PC: Where were you fired from in the past?

NM: Gristedes! (Laughs.)

PC: Tell me about your new gig on the soundtrack for Martin Scorsese's BOARDWALK EMPIRE.

NM: We just played the premiere in Atlantic City and that was quite starry!

PC: I bet! Tell me everything about the night!

NM: It was lovely. It was very much a party. It was interesting in observing how people would come in like flocks of birds coming in. It was very glamorous. You could see the ocean through the windows. The music of Vince Giordano and His Nighthawks. I sat in with them on a couple of tunes. They just made the night, they're so good.


PC: Great! I just interviewed Amber Edwards who's doing a song on BOARDWALK EMPIRE, too. What songs are you performing? I heard you're doing a few!

NM: Oh, I hope so! I only know that somewhere in episode 11, I think, they're using a song that they brought in this great arrangement to me of. It's a blues song.

PC: Is it obscure?

NM: Yeah. I think Ruth Green is who sang it originally.

PC: Is Laura Nyro a big influence on you?

NM: I mostly know her stuff through Chase Rock. He did OBLIGATORY VILLAGERS. He set quite a few dances to Laura Nyro tracks. When I've heard her in that setting with huge loudspeakers, it's just transporting.

PC: Some of those pop songs are so edgy. "Stoney End" - I mean, c'mon!

NM: Yeah!

PC: "Ding Dong" on your first album reminded me of Nyro.

NM: Oh, thank you! Yeah!

PC: Do you find you have to censor yourself a lot, if only so the material can be used in movies and on TV and stuff?

NM: Luckily not this album! But, yeah, I do. (Pause.) I think it is becoming more democratic though, because of the online thing. In a way - in a certain way - there's less censorship.

PC: I love "Please" on your new album. It's like Nino Rota meets Tom Waits.

NM: That's funny you mention Nino Rota. I love THE GODFATHER theme. Not the main one, but the minor one was stuck in my head for a year. (Sings.) "DA! Da, da, DA!"

PC: Are you a Tom Waits fan?

NM: Oh, yes. (Pause.) I think it's BLOOD MONEY I like the best, that's my favorite album of his.

PC: Oh, a concept album for a musical! How theatrical!

NM: Oh yeah!

PC: OK: So, you're trapped in an elevator for three hours and you can either listen to silence or three albums. If you don't pick silence, what would they be?

NM: Oh, man! (Long Pause.) OK, let's put BLOOD MONEY on there. (Pause.) Amadou & Miriam's DIMANCHE A BAMAKO and Rajery's SOFERA. And if you need a fourth I would pick Aimee Mann's $%#ING SMILERS.

PC: What a great list! How eclectic!

NM: Thank you. Too hard to choose!

PC: How do you look back on your Broadway experience? The critics were unbearably harsh to that production.

NM: (Laughs.) Yeah, I think they have a problem with Brecht. He just rubs certain critics, I don't know, the wrong way. I mean, I'm very critical of things, but I thought it was very good and very interesting.

PC: What about the musicals that you have written? I know you workshopped a stage version of ELECTION.

NM: Yeah, some songs from that are on the new album.

PC: What do you think about the idea of collaboration in general in theatre, both on THREEPENNY and the workshops?

NM: Of course, I think because you are involving so many other people, there's just so much more to consider that it's too hard to keep your own creative vision. It's just a necessity at this point, to do it like that [as a group] And all sorts of other people swoop in and offer advice...

PC: Everyone's a critic.

NM: I think, especially being a woman, there tends to be the "expert" thing that comes in very quickly. Until you've proven yourself - and even afterwards - you're still always fighting. You see, I have very little stomach for fighting. I'm kind of a weakling that way. I just tend to use avoidance as opposed to battling things out. So, collaboration has to be under the right circumstances.

PC: Like "Mama & Me".

NM: Yeah, that was actually written for a musical, too!

PC: No way!

NM: Yeah, actually, it was written for the film musical version of the book THE AMAZING TRUE STORY OF THE TEENAGE SINGLE MOM. "Mama & Me" was actually about the teen mom and her mother. That may or may not come to fruition.

PC: I hope it does! What songs on the new album are from ELECTION?

NM: "Please" was written for the character of Tracy Flick in the potential musical ELECTION. But, I don't think that's going to happen at this point. Actually, "Caribbean Time" was written for the character of Tammy in that, too.

PC: It's such great source material. It would be such a good show.

NM: Yeah, it would be a good show. But, it just felt like we worked on it for a couple of years and it was a lot to keep in hand. I think it had an excellent book and an excellent movie, so maybe we'll leave ELECTION at that. It may make a good musical somewhere down the road.

PC: It's so hard to get something produced these days.

NM: Yes! It's extraordinary how much theatre costs. I don't quite understand it. Some of it seems so frivolous, that you have to spend this much on sets or this much on a theater. There has to be a better way.

PC: Right, because unless the show is on Broadway it doesn't count as far as touring or regional productions go.

NM: I'm hoping it will get better. It seems like columns like yours and people like you are getting completely different people interested in Broadway who aren't the typical theatergoers so maybe that will help change things.

PC: Entertainment is all meta now. GLEE is the perfect example of that. Music, movies, theatre: it all lives online.

NM: I hope that GLEE will be good for music programs, too, the success of that show.

PC: What do you think of GLEE?

NM: I think it's extraordinary. I can remember when musicals were so passé. I remember my mother telling me about the one Francis Ford Coppola made set in Vegas. I forgot what it's called.

PC: It's called ONE FROM THE HEART. It's one of my favorites. Tom Waits wrote the songs.

NM: No way! I can't believe I forgot about that! I have to go back and watch that again.

PC: I love the cast. Raul Julia and Terri Garr are divine.

NM: I actually just got Terri Garr's autobiography.

PC: Are you a big fan of hers? You have a similar comedic sensibility, I think.

NM: I want to see all her movies now. She's very witty. She has such a great sense of humor and she went though the whole mill and she's still making art. It's beautiful.

PC: Do you think we're entering into a renaissance of art? The world seems like it needs an escape from everything. I mean, there's a reason BOARDWALK EMPIRE - set right before the Great Depression - is a big hit. Right?

NM: I think the problem with free thinkers is that they will never be as easy to organize as, say, Tea Partiers, because they are free thinkers! (Laughs.)

PC: Right.

NM: I know plenty of progressives who have a problem with Michael Moore or Ralph Nader or Obama. You can always criticize. But, it's better than that "Yeah! Let's get ‘em!" mentality of the Tea Partiers. That's so much easier.

PC: Totally.

NM: It's an ongoing problem. (Pause.) It's going to get better.


PC: Is "We're Gonna Get Some Food In the House Tonight" about welfare, or being poor in general?

NM: Look, I'm glad if that's what it means to you. It's more deep than maybe I intended. It's one of those things where the song just fell into place. (Laughs.)

PC: I love that this interview fell into place.

NM: Me, too! It's been truly exquisite!

Following our interview, Nellie sent me an e-mail which I will now reprint in full below (for very good reason, see why):
"dear Pat, hope you're well - just wanted to add one more thing for the article, that Jim Dale gave me my first ukulele during the Threepenny Opera run & has regretted it ever since (i think i'm joking) - i owe him a great debt for that gift - thanks & best, Nellie"

HOME SWEET MOBILE HOME is available for purchase in stores, on iTunes and at Also, make sure you check out the forthcoming SOUND OFF review of the album and a special FLASH FRIDAY column featuring many clips from Nellie McKay concerts and events over the years coming later this week.

Also, be sure to stay tuned to BroadwayWorld for tomorrow's Modern Music Master, one of the most successful pop stars in the world (and composer of the longest-running Billboard single of all time thanks to "I'm Yours"), the globally mindful and musically and lyrically masterful Jason Mraz!


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Pat Cerasaro contributes exclusive scholarly columns including InDepth InterViews, Sound Off, Theatrical Throwback Thursdays, Flash Friday and Flash Special as well as additional special features, (read more...)